Beat the Blank Page Blues: Writing the First Draft (Part 2: Revise, Revise, Revise)
Revise, revise, revise
Good writing, great writing, is all about revision. Nietzsche said, “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.” In Part 1, we talked about just putting words on the page—no matter the pattern, the order, or the tangents—just getting them down, ignoring your inner editor. Now that you’ve written your very rough (and probably chaotic) first draft and stepped away to give your ideas time to percolate, you’re ready to haul yourself back to the keyboard and whip your piece into a form you can work with. When you start revising, untangling that mayhem, you’ll find surprising connections and new insights that give you and your readers a new way of seeing the world.
While thrilling, this part of the process can fry your brain. To help you out, here are four organizational tips I use to keep me at the keyboard instead of huddled in the corner chewing my hair.
1. Start with the big picture
Most of us want to start revising by tinkering with the sentences, but at this point, editing at the sentence level can be a waste of your time. Why go to all that trouble when you’ll probably end up cutting out huge chunks of that material later? It’s much more efficient to do your big picture editing first. Tackle major cuts, additions, and rewrites before you start digging down into the individual sentences and word choices.
2. Organize the parts
When you’re writing a book, it’s easy to get lost in the details. Shuffling so many pieces and tracking them all can be mind-numbing. A tracking system can be a big help. Spreadsheets work best for me, so I use Microsoft Excel, but you can also go with sticky notes and a white board, or whatever works for you. As you complete each chapter, record the main points. This makes it easier to build one point on the next and create a smooth flow. And most important, recording these points helps you avoid making organizational mistakes, such as referring to a concept you haven’t yet introduced. Your information organization will vary depending on the type of work you’re doing and what you want to track. Here’s an example of columns you might include.
- Chapter #/Title
- What happens? (Just include an overall bullet list or summary. Usually a sentence or two.)
- How does the action propel the story forward?
- Characters involved
- Comments (Does this information belong here? What’s missing? What can I add?)
- Chapter #/Title
- Main focus
- Concepts covered
- Stories/Case studies included
- Theories introduced
- How does this section build on the previous one?
- Comments (Does this piece belong here? What’s missing? What can I add?)
For the popular memoir/how-to genre, you can just mesh the two.
In my spreadsheet, I list key points in the chapter. But within the chapter itself, I insert headings in the document to help me organize the sentences into paragraphs and the paragraphs into a cohesive pattern or form. These headings can be actual headings I’ll retain in the finished product or placeholder headings to remove later. At the end of a piece, I always create a placeholder heading called “Include somewhere else” to store information I sense might be important, but I’m not yet certain why or can’t figure out where it should go. As I continue to revise, I often find one or more of the points under this heading strengthens another point or adds a unique perspective.
3. Dig in and sort out
Now that you’ve organized your work, get in there and throw out, flesh out, and rearrange. Here’s what to look for:
- Paragraphs or even sections that need to be cut out—maybe they go into too much detail for the piece you’re working on or veer too far from the main point.
- Missing information that you need to add—perhaps a whole new section or chapter.
- Sections that need to be moved or radically revised to fit in the piece, fill in what’s missing, and/or tie all parts together.
4. Back away from the keyboard
Once again, just as you did at the end of Step 2, back away. Take a day or two, and when you return, you’ll see your work with fresh eyes. You’ll be amazed how you can spot sentences/paragraphs/sections that don’t fit, holes in your argument, inconsistencies, and other issues you’ll be able to fix. You’ll probably want to repeat step 3 a few times. When you get to a point where you feel you might be causing more harm than good, stop. Maybe let a friend look at what you’ve written. And when you’re ready, you can move to the best part—polishing.
Need some inspiration? Take a look at what these famous authors say about revision.
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