First Draft vs. Revision: One Plotter’s Preference
Posted on February 12, 2021
by Aeryn Rudel
Writing a novel is a process of many individual steps, but all those steps generally fall under two very broad stages: drafting and revising. Just about every author I know prefers one or the other, and I thought I’d share a little about my preference and the challenges I face with the other side.
Well, I prefer drafting by a fucking mile. Like, it’s not even close. I’d rather write the first draft of ten novels than revise one. But why is that? Let me see if I can explain. It’s important to note that everything I’m about to say is how drafting and revising are for ME. It’s different for other writers, but some of you might relate to my challenges and maybe get some ideas from my solutions. Okay, let’s dive in.
Drafting is awesome because . . .
- Clear goals. When I’m writing a first draft, I start with a detailed outline, and I know where the story is going. I know how it begins, I know what happens in the middle, and I know how it ends. Sure, things might change a little in the writing, but generally the overall plan doesn’t change that much. Having that well-defined goal leads to my next point.
- Momentum. I write at least 2,000 words per day when I’m drafting, and I track it all in a spreadsheet. I can see the novel taking shape as the words pile up, and it motivates me. I target 90,000 words for a novel, so I KNOW when I hit 30,000, I’m a third of the way there. When I hit 45,000, I’m halfway done. Those little benchmarks are the wind in my sails, and they really drive me on.
- Fix it in post. For some reason, when I’m writing a first draft, I can shove all the self-doubt and fear to the back of my mind with one simple phrase. Fix it in post. Yep, I essentially tell myself, don’t look back, keep going, finish the draft, and anything that’s wrong you can fix in revision. Yeah, you see the problem too, huh? 🙂 Anyway, that mantra or philosophy allows me to crank out a 90,000-word novel in a two or three months.
Revision sucks because . . .
- Where am I going? When I start revising, I always have this aimless feeling of not knowing where to begin. Now, of course, I have notes from my critique readers ,and I’m generally pretty certain on what needs to be fixed. For some reason, it’s harder for me to just start at the beginning and work through the revision. I always feel like I need to jump around, which only enhances that lost feeling.
- I’m gonna fuck it up. The other thing that plagues me during revision is this unshakable dread that I’m gonna make the draft much, much worse. Even if I fix glaring issues, I feel like the novel is still gonna end up being worse off for the changes. This is nonsense, of course; the novel is almost always better in revision (most novels are). Still, the feeling remains, and I think one of the main culprits is the exact thing that helps me write first drafts.
- Fix it in post. Let’s look closer at this phrase and what it is I’m actually doing. Essentially, I’m taking all that self-doubt and fear and pushing it ahead to the future. It’s like I’m buying the first draft on credit, and at some point, the bill is gonna come due. So what I’ve done is turn the revision into a place where problems and doubt live, which makes the whole process more difficult. Maybe it’s a necessary trade-off, but is there a way to make revision easier for me? I think there is.
How can I turn the revision process into a more positive experience? How can I take it from something that is a painful (though necessary) chore to something I might actually derive satisfaction from? I have some ideas.
- Outline it. One of the primary reasons I do so well with first drafts is that I am a dedicated plotter, and I feel like revision is this grand act of pantsing. But does it have to be? If I plot out the revisions on a spreadsheet the way I do my outlines and word count goals, I could see that clear ending and beginning and how to get there. That might alleviate some of that aimless feeling.
- Fix it in post (mostly). Though I do believe this philosophy helps me get first drafts done, and I don’t want to mess with that, sometimes I’ll write a scene that needs work. I’ll know that when I finish it, and I might even leave myself a note on how to fix it when I start revisions. I think I could probably take some of the pressure off myself if I occasionally just went ahead and fixed the scene or chapter right away. One less problem to solve in revision is gonna make the process easier.
I have actually started to institute the first solution, and on my next novel, I’m going to try the second. I don’t think I’m ever going to love revision, but these two fixes might make the process more tolerable and therefore faster.
To close this out, I’ll ask a question I’ve been thinking about for awhile. As I mentioned, I’m a plotter. I outline everything, and it helps keep me on track. Revision feels like pantsing, which is a wholly unnatural state for me, and it creates quite a bit of anxiety. So, in general, do plotters have more trouble with revisions while pantsers struggle with first drafts? I honestly don’t know, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject in the comments.
I think revising is universally hated by plotters and pantsers alike. For the two novels I’ve worked on, I’ve used a minimalist outline (a couple sentences per scene but scenes are mapped out). Regardless, when writing something new, it’s always nice and shinny. The luster wears off as you revise.
Very well could be. That said, I’ve seen a number of writers talk about how much they like the revision process. No idea if they were plotters or pantsers, though.
When do you start revising? Or, when do you start sending stuff out to your critique partners? And, please, do tell us of some of your blunders that got fixed.
I start an initial revision a couple of weeks after I finish the first draft. In that first revision, I read through the manuscript and fix all the very obvious problems, clean up the prose a little, and basically get it ready for my critique partners.
Then I send it off to my critique partners, and once I get their notes back, I start the first big revision. When that’s done, I might have one or more of my critique partners read the manuscript or parts of it again, and then make further adjustments.
As for blunders, I mean it’s the usual plot holes, inconsistencies with character voice, and that sort of thing, but here’s an example of something more specific. I tend to overuse a character waking up–from sleep, from unconsciousness, etc.–as a way to break up scenes or chapters in my first drafts. So, in the book I’m currently revising, my critique partners called that out. I spent a good part of yesterday fixing a couple of those. One or two is fine, but there were two instances in very close proximity. I cut one completely and rewrote the other.
This is very interesting. I clearly don’t talk to other writers enough.
I don’t feel this way at all. I’m almost the opposite. I’m a slow writer because I can’t put off revision and I improve as I go. If I leave the first draft drafty, I lose heart because my drafts are either terrible or uneven. My self-doubt is all in the drafting. Revising, for me, is more focused and confident and controlled.
This is entirely anecdotal, but from speaking with other authors, it does seem the preference to revise or draft is really about which stage causes the least amount of self doubt. For me that’s drafting; for you, it sounds like revising.
Would you say you’re more of a plotter or a pantser?
I used to think I was a plotter, but then I read a blog about plantsing and realised that more closely resembled my work pattern.