Committing a draft of a story to paper or laptop is an estimable accomplishment. Some writers describe the feeling of pulling off a first draft as visceral, a rush, or as a mysterious process during which one is carried along as on a blast of inspiration. Some might even feel as if something was given to them, that they had to get it all down before the streaming service from their muse was cut off. Some feel as if, in that early draft, they have captured something, a firefly in a jar. After this first draft, then, some writers might be nervous or reluctant to open the jar up again, in case that firefly gets out. (Or maybe this is just how I feel, almost every single time I write something!)
The thing is, none of us can say exactly what we want to say, in exactly the way we imagine being able to say it, in one draft. So, if we accept that what we have written is not perfect, perhaps not even in the neighbourhood of perfect, how to revise without losing anything—anything essential about the writing, or the bright light at the heart of the manuscript, the thing that perhaps defines it? How to not upset some balance we feel we have achieved, even if we achieved it in a way we can’t quite describe? (How to not worry about how painful it might be to open the draft up, to prod and poke around in it?) Many of us—before we have done it and realize what it really is—think of revision as a dull, plodding, pedantic process that merely irons out wrinkles, or that plucks out words here and there, adding better ones, “correcting” mistakes. We think of it as a mechanical process. But revision is actually the best part of writing, and the most creative.
Starting on the story again, discovering or cultivating a new way to see and connect with your imaginative work is where the digging deep happens, the honest look at what’s in the manuscript and whether it’s doing something interesting, something you intended it to do. It’s where most of the true building happens, the making of something original— that springs from the very particular way you see the world. When you’re open to the possibilities, revision often yields more inspiration than the writing of the first draft did.
There are many ways to move back into a piece of writing so that revision is a playful exploration, gratifying and revelatory. If you are truly going back inside, rather than just over the surface of the piece, revision will be an experience that holds surprises and reveals angles you hadn’t before considered.
As you revise you go backward and forward. The manuscript might get quite a bit messier before it finds its shape. Your relationship to the words you have produced and put in a certain order may change. And all of that is a good thing. Taking detours, trying things out, coming back to the things you’re curious or downright obsessive about, is how you figure out what you’re really writing, what you really want to say.
And this is when you improve as a writer—when your work starts to show itself to you, becoming more and more the thing it has the potential to be. This is when you learn what kind of reviser you are, and what your best process is. You might even learn to look forward to it.