And that’s the most important piece of advice I have for writers coming along after me. Learn to see revision as the best part of writing. Learn even to love revising.
The key is never to think of revising as fixing something that went wrong the first time around. Think of it as going back to something you love to play with it, to make it even better.
It is nearly impossible for a manuscript, long or short, to discover all that it can be the first time the words hit the page. Usually I lay down one layer and then go back to lay down another and another and another . . . like a painter working in oils. When people ask me how many drafts a manuscript goes through, in these days of revising on my computer, I can’t begin to say. When I send a manuscript off into the world, every word has been considered and reconsidered dozens of times, hundreds. I will have a whole file called “extra,” which consists of paragraphs, scenes, chapters that I have removed but kept on hand “just in case.” (I’ve never gone back to those files, but keeping them allows me to be ruthless and kind to my beloved words at the same time.) I will have found a reader or two—usually fellow writers—to give me critiques, and I’ll have responded to what they tell me. And all that is before I approach an editor and, inevitably, begin further revisions.
Some writers throw everything at the page in the first round, a hundred words where they are going to want ten. Then they go back to find the bones beneath all that flesh. My process is usually the opposite. Every draft is carefully controlled, spare. I do some carving away, of course, but I do even more coming back and finding places that need more, finding greater complexity in my characters, introducing a new scene that will better prepare us for an important moment later on, giving more thorough description of a setting.
I once had a student who spent months, even years between books. In that fallow time, though, she was always working on the next book, writing and revising every word . . . in her head. She did it all mentally and held it in her mind until she was ready, then sat down and, in the space of a few days, let it spill onto the page. And she never changed a word before sending a new manuscript to an editor. Most of us don’t work that way, though. Most of us have to see our work in front of us before we know what the next step might be, before we can even begin to ask the right questions.
The secret, though, whatever your process, is to love returning to your words, challenging and reframing, polishing and clarifying, making this thing you love shine. Revision is never defeat. “Why couldn’t I get it right?” It’s the best kind of victory. “This is the way I wanted it to be in the beginning!”
And being able to enjoy that long, demanding process, more than anything else, is the secret of being a published writer.