An Alternative To Shitty First Drafts?


NotebookandcoffeeTo be straight: I revise.

I revise and revise and revise and revise and revise and revise… You get the drift. And if you’re mathematically inclined, just add an exponent and use the alef.

When do I stop revising? When I look at the thing and feel like vomiting.  Seriously.

But I have had the luck of teaching a half a dozen arts majors last semester and it made me think of something that a former colleague of mine, Angela Crow, said she learned from taking pottery classes: in pottery, you don’t redo.  You just make one piece and then another and another and another until you finally make one that doesn’t suck.  My husband, Joel Caplan, did the same thing when he did his MFA in photography. He often says the art is into accepting that you must discard about 90% of your work.

In other words, sometimes, the best way to revise, is to throw away the piece entirely.

I asked an art major in my class what her art workshops were like.  She said, “It’s the same thing. You show your piece to the class, and then the instructor and your peers talk about what works and what doesn’t work. Only, in a writing class you have the chance to change it.”  I asked her what she did with a painting after it was criticized. She shrugged.  “You throw it away?” I asked.  She shrugged again, looked away, “Yeah, you put it away. You think about what you learned. You move on.”

So.  It reminds me of the very first “mature” short story I have ever written. It was titled The Kind of Things Saints Do and it became the title story of my first collection.  It’s about a high school girl who represses her feelings for her (female) best friend by cutting herself and being overall promiscuous with boys who are of interest to her friend.  I remember that years before I was able to write that story I had written a story with the same characters: they were loosely based on a group of girls who were my friends in high school.

The first story was about these four promiscuous girls trying to figure themselves out by hanging out with all sort of seedy characters and working themselves into situations hard to get out of.  The first draft rambled on and went nowhere.  I revised, revised, revised, revised, revised, and finally thought, ok, I can’t write this story.

I picked up the same characters and themes in at least two other stories later at different points in time.  It wasn’t the same story, but there was something at the heart of all those rambling words, something I knew I had to say that wasn’t coming out in those stories.  Again, I put the multiple drafts of that second abortion away and forgot about it.

Then, in the second year of my first MFA, I picked up those characters again, caught the voice of my friends from high school more accurately, and the story practically wrote itself.

It wasn’t the same story as the first two attempts, but there was a feeling there in those two other stories that had been pulsing in there, wanting to come out, waiting for the right time.

So now I’m asking myself, both as a teacher and as a writer, if rather than revising the same piece to death it would be better to just write another one.  And another one, and then another one.  Different pieces, but each borrowing and developing on something that we got right the first time, dropping what we didn’t. Like art students.

What do you think?

Teaching Writing and About

8 Comments Leave a comment

  1. As usual with these kinds of articles there’s no right answer. I’m not much of a reviser. I work slowly and aim to get it right the first time. I did scrap the first 10,000 words of my fifth novel and began again. The biggest change was a move from a third to a second person narrative. I’ve half a dozen short stories kicking around that I’m not happy with. Most are over ten years old so it might be an idea to have a look at them now I can’t remember a damn thing about any of them and see if there’s anything worth salvaging. It’s hard to stop something that you’ve invested months or even years in and start afresh. But you do need to know when you’re flogging a dead horse. I hit a brick wall about a third way through my third novel and so I stuck it in a drawer for two years, worked on a completely unrelated project and then returned to it with a clear head, a new direction and finished it with comparatively little effort. I think the problem many authors have is time. Perhaps it’s my age. Although in one respect time is running out for me I’m not as desperate to get my stuff out there as I once was. I wrote a novella a few weeks back and a friend was asking when he might see it in print. I told him: 2019. I wasn’t joking either. I leave my prose a long time before editing/revising/rewriting/proofing etc. I personally find the distance helpful but then I’m not writing for a living and I don’t have an agent ringing me up every weekend wondering when I’m going to be finished my next book.

    • Very wise words, Jim. I’m startng to hit that point in my life also where I’m asking myself what’s the rush? Not that I’m a speed writer or anything.

  2. The tension here (for me anyway) is always between process and product. The writing will never be as good as the writer because each word on the page makes the writer better — the best work is always the next word, but that word takes the writer to the next level of her ability. And so on. All pieces are stepping stones. So I say yes, you can ditch the product — every writer worth her salt has a drawer of WIPs that are still IP — and move to another and still call the time and effort valuable. We should do more of that (writers don’t like to hear that, especially writers working on their first something). But we should.

    I don’t make pottery, but I wonder — what do people DO with all those not-quite-right pieces?

    • I’m pretty sure they throw them away, at least that’s what I recall Angela saying.

      On Tue, Jul 30, 2013 at 3:10 PM, Write, Rather

  3. I certainly see the merit for short stories (novels too), but I think this is really brilliant for composition class! Their idea of revision is simply to stick in a few commas anyway… I have had them completely rewrite narrative essays using a different narrator as an exercise in voice and perspective, but they still tend to want to copy and paste and not completely rewrite. Hmmmmm, food for thought as I sit here revamping 1102 syllabus for fall!

    • Oh My God, I can’t imagine how much your students would hate you for that, but here is the thing: what if you have them do that in class? It might really throw them off the loop, especially if, say, you have them submit the essay, and then you have them take out a pad and just tell them to write another draft. An exercise for lab? And what about merely just using class time for them to write a number of short essays on a subject, and then having them share them and use the best ones in some ways, put them together into a coherent but long narrative? That might be good? Just brainstorming.

  4. as a dabbler in visual as well as written arts, I can say there is absolutely merit to what you propose. sometimes one just has to put a piece away.

    then too, some writers’ published works demonstrate a coming back to the same clay nugget of perception and shaping–perfecting?– it in different, consecutive, works–but without throwing the earlier works away.

    for stories, the “throw away” approach might work well. but as you well know, novels take a long time to write. *some* revision of a long work is certainly appropriate, for a variety of reasons you don’t need to be told. so… in the case of a novel, I’m not sure throwing it away is the answer to improving one’s work, though it might be a consideration.

    I guess my response would be to go with your gut. not exactly a groundbreaking solution, but a reasonable one.

    • Fair enough. But when writers do these NaNoRiMo stuff it makes me wonder if maybe you CAN dedicate a few months to writing a novel, examine it for what it is, throw it away, start a new one: same concept, maybe, or same character, just, instead of revising, rewrite it. How long does it take to make a painting?

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