I’ve got something to tell you about my writing process.
And I imagine that after I share it, you’re going to think I’m a little weird.
Nevertheless, I’m willing to take that chance. When it comes to writing a first draft versus revising…I’d rather revise. I’ve asked a lot of writers this question, and while it’s been far from an organized poll with a large sample, I definitely seem to be in the minority here. It’s not that I don’t think getting ideas down for the first time and the experimentation that comes with that process is fun. Of course it is. But for me, the joy in creating comes from taking something raw and making it better, manipulating the pieces until they work.
But for most writers, the fun is over after they bang out the first draft.
There are a lot of reasons for this. For some people, the revision process is rather nebulous and they don’t totally know what it is supposed to consist of.
Others don’t believe their ability to think critically about their own work is as strong as their ability to write without boundaries. Mainly, a lot of people really don’t like cannibalizing the thing they just so much effort to create. Just so you know, I get it. Revision can really be a pain. It can hurt. It’s hard to look at something you poured blood, sweat, guts, and tears into and then start dismantling it.
But remember the lesson we’ve been exploring for the last few weeks: you are not writing for yourself.
You are creating an experience for your readers.
If you truly want people to read and benefit from what you have to say, revision is the most important step you’ll take in any project. But here’s the hard truth you have to face about your early drafts.
It’s not for the faint of heart and if you want to take a few minutes to shed some tears before you keep reading this post or even just close your browser altogether and meditate or smell some essential oils, I totally understand. Are you ready? Here it comes. Your first draft almost certainly sucks. Unless you are superhuman or a robot (and even that last point is debatable), you don’t smash out perfect stories every single time. If you do, please send me an email because I want to know your secrets. Many writers report having a single experience where a piece came to them fully formed and only required a few minor corrections, but these moments are few and far between.
However, the good news is that if revision is hard for you, you’re in good company.
Ernest Hemingway famously said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Flannery O’Connor said, “Writing a novel is a terrible experience during which the hair falls out and the teeth decay.” Raymond Chandler offered the following graphic advice: “Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.” (Note: please don’t take this literally).
I realize that this whole thing might sound a little bit pretentious, so just to prove that I actually do know how much revision can completely blow, let me tell you a story.
Before my book The Goodbye-Love Generation was an actual book, it was my master’s thesis for my grad program at West Virginia University in Morgantown. It’s a novel in stories that centers on The Purple Orange, a rock band based in Kent, Ohio, following them from their formation in 1969 through 2019.
It was inspired by my experience growing up in Kent and listening to stories from my dad, who was the drummer in a popular band during the northeastern Ohio music scene that produced the likes of Chrissie Hynde and Joe Walsh.
And of course, considering the location and time period, the Kent State shootings on May 4, 1970 play a significant role in the narrative.
One of the stories I wrote during my thesis production was called “Dustoff.” In it, a young man named Steven returns to his hometown of Randolph, Ohio after being injured in Vietnam. While on an R&R trip to Hawaii, Steven’s fiancée, Karen, dumped him for Alex, the Purple Orange’s lead guitarist, and Steven is still not over her. He’s also wrestling with the traumatic memory of being forced to rape and kill a Vietnamese woman.
I did 12 drafts of this story, about three of which I showed to my thesis director. From the very beginning, she wasn’t a fan. In her eyes, there was a lot of disunity in the story, not to mention tons of Vietnam-related clichés. Undaunted, I kept hammering my way through the thing, writing multiple different versions that addressed her various concerns.
Finally, she gave me an ultimatum. “Dustoff” was holding up my progress and keeping me from generating more material that would likely be more fruitful and in better service to my thesis. She wanted me to discontinue the story. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear. But it was the truth. But wait—there’s more.
She also told me I was running behind where she would like me to be and wanted a new story by Monday.
It was Thursday. And I’m not a fast writer.
I knew she was right, but I still felt demoralized as I walked out of her office. How was I going to come up with an entirely new story when I already felt like “Dustoff” had sucked my soul? Dejected, I went home, made some instant mac and cheese, turned on Glee, and flopped on the couch to sulk. Then, something happened that would change the entire course of my project. Monongahela County declared a snowstorm emergency.
And a snowstorm emergency in West Virginia is nothing to mess with.
The next morning, I taught my 8:00 AM class on campus, and by noon, the snow was coming down hard. I stopped by the grocery store and fought my way through the lines to get some necessities. Then, I arrived back at my apartment and prepared to be snowed in.
Or, as we could technically call it today, inclement weather quarantining.
My apartment complex was on a steep hill, and I knew it would take forever to plow the street, let alone the parking lot. I was fairly certain that even if the storm only lasted a day or so, I was going to be stuck there for awhile. In the end, I was trapped in my apartment for four days, with nothing to do except work on my story. I started by revisiting my most recent “Dustoff” draft. Maybe the idea itself was a dumpster fire of Vietnam combat clichés, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t still something in there. I also thought about the larger narrative of the stories. The emotional lynchpin of The Goodbye-Love Generation is the May 4 shootings, which mentally unhinges two of the band members and leaves the others disoriented and disconnected. The artistic, hippie landscape in the collection was well covered, but I liked the idea of representing the military point of view as well.
I wanted to demonstrate that May 4 wasn’t entirely an ideological battle. At its core, it was a tragedy that wrecked a community and took hundreds of twenty-somethings and teenagers to a place of grief and horror that they could never entirely return from.
Then, in one of my read-throughs of “Dustoff,” I zeroed in on a single line:
“Aren’t these people supposed to be pacifists?”
It was Steven speaking of the violence toward returning troops from Vietnam at the hands of angry protestors. Which made me think of the National Guard. Nobody talks about the aftermath of Kent State for the Guard. In truth, they were as shell shocked as the students. One of them lived near my parents and spent years destroying his mind with alcohol and drugs to escape what he saw. Several others have shared their experiences with crippling PTSD.
Most of them were Kent State students who signed up for the Guard to escape the draft, only to find themselves in a combat situation on their own campus. It was a perspective I hadn’t yet explored that was absolutely vital to creating a well-rounded look at my community’s experience with the shootings. With this in mind, I began to write a story called “This Account Is True,” which appears in The Goodbye-Love Generation under the title “The Conscience Round.”
In it, 19-year-old Larry Larken lives the dual role of a National Guardsman and Kent State student. In 2007, when confronted with a newly released tape that allegedly proves that the Guard was given a clear order to fire on protestors, he is forced to deconstruct and reexamine his role in the event, trying to make sense of how Kent State fragmented his personality. The emotional core of the story is a scene where Larry and his best friend and fellow Guardsman, John, look upon the mob of protesters. “Aren’t these people supposed to be pacifists?” he asks.
“Larken, look at us,” John answers. “We’re doing this so we don’t have to do the exact thing those guys over there don’t want to do. Fight in that war. We’re all pacifists.” 12 drafts of “Dustoff” later, only that one line survived. And it made my new story 1000 percent better. Even if 95 percent of your story never sees the light of day, that one scrap of a sentence that you save is worth it. It’s a personal victory. It’s a stone of remembrance for the work you put into truly reaching your creative potential.
Because if writing wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t be worth it. Radical revision does not make you a failure or less of a writer.
It’s the mark of a professional.
If your response to that statement is, “But Kori, I don’t know how to revise. I don’t know what I’m doing,” then I’ve got a solution.
Check out my Story Revision Scorecard. It breaks down the top five issues that early drafts tend to have so you can rank your current project and prioritize what you need to work on next. It’s the easiest way to simplify your revision process so you can grow as an artist and create a story that inspire and enrich readers. Click here to download it now.
Maybe it won't make you love revision...but it just might make it less painful.