In writing, the first draft gets all the attention. Writing a first draft is seen as synonymous with writing, while anything that comes after is just a chore that has to get done after the real writing is finished. Worse, there are writers out there who tell other writers not to revise at all, because all it does is kill the magic of a story’s initial inspiration. But in my experience, the first draft is only half the creative process. Revision isn’t an uncreative chore; it’s the other half of that process, and just as important as the first half.
Before a story is written, it’s nothing but a perfect idea. Maybe that idea comes with a couple of specific details, but everything boils down to that one grand concept, whether it’s a premise or an opening scene or something else. Where it goes from there depends on the writer. I expand on that initial concept in layers, getting more and more detailed, until I have the story nailed down well enough to put words to it. Some writers take that concept and start writing immediately, finding the story and the words at the same time.
But however that first perfect idea turns into an actual story, the more real the idea becomes—the more it turns into actual plot points and actual characters and actual words—the less perfect it becomes. It can never look quite as good as it did in the writer’s head. Not just because the skill of the writer is a limiting factor, but because the more specific details something gets, the messier it gets. A single concept isn’t messy; a single concept can look like perfection. But when it turns into a bunch of characters all making things happen for various reasons, that’s the definition of messiness.
That’s not to say that that kind of mess is a bad thing. It’s a part of the process, that’s all. Some people look at revision as a way of correcting that initial chaos, and fixing what they should have done right the first time. But I don’t think that’s quite right either. The mess isn’t a mistake or a shortcoming; it’s part of turning something simple into something complex. Everyone gets there differently—I work out a lot of the chaos before I even put words to paper, and I once read about an author who revises each page before he moves on to the next—but I would be willing to bet that every writer contends with chaos in some way, and that’s not because they haven’t mastered their craft yet. It’s one step of the process, and revision is just the next step.
In a way, revision is the most interesting part of the writing process. It’s all about trying to tame that mess, and make it approach what the writer envisioned when that single perfect idea caught their attention. But it’s not as simple as that. Because no matter how much you clean it up, there’s no turning a whole book into the simplicity and clarity of a single idea. And because a story changes as it’s written, and that’s part of the point. Breaking that first concept into different pieces, and watching those pieces interact, is going to change what the story is, until that initial idea no longer looks like quite enough.
Revision is almost like a first draft in reverse. You take all the bits and pieces of the first draft, and you twist and shape and change them until the story becomes something more cohesive, more like a single system. More like the original idea… but also something else, something more. Because it’s impossible to take all those bits and stuff them back inside a single concept. From the first brainstorming session, or the first page written, a story becomes more than that. It’s not a single perfect idea anymore, even after the most thorough revision. Nor should it be. Instead, it’s more that it becomes a sort of ecosystem, with all the different parts working in harmony.
It’s not about being a perfectionist, like some people will claim if you admit you spend a lot of time on revision, because the goal isn’t perfection. It’s also not about killing inspiration; it’s about shaping and directing it. And it’s not a tedious chore that comes after the process of real writing; it is real writing, and I’ve come to find it as valuable as—or more than—the first-draft process that most people think of when they think of writing.