When asked how long it takes to prep a speech, Woodrow Wilson said,
That depends on the length of the speech…If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.
This version is often attributed to Mark Twain:
I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.
Either way, both statements about the same point. Writing and storytelling are all about revision.
With some writers, especially beginners, there’s an idea of first idea/best idea. This doesn’t hold true for me, for the most part, both as a writer and a reader. If you read enough fiction, you start to be able to identify easily a first draft that was not revised nearly enough or at all. There are hallmarks, believe me, and they stick out like a Hallmark store in a strip mall, sandwiched between a tattoo parlor and a vape store.
The thing I want to tell you today is that even if you subscribe to the first/best ideology, that doesn’t mean revision is out. Often, revision isn’t about changing the core idea or arc of a story or piece of writing. It’s usually about expressing that idea or arc in a better, more efficient or more evocative way. It’s about picking the right words and saying not only what you want to, but saying it the way you want to.
When I say this is an error beginners make, I don’t mean to shit on beginning writers. I just mean to say that you’ll find almost all experienced authors are ruthless, devoted revisers.
A couple months ago I toured an archive that included the papers of sci-fi legend Connie Willis. Connie lives in town, and you can spot her writing at a Starbucks near my house almost any day of the week. She’s always there with a huge stack of papers, lots of cross-outs and re-writes.
In the archives, I looked over some papers, and I was told Connie wrote the first chapter of one of her books 27 times. Yes. 27.
If Connie Willis can do it 27 times to get it right, you can do it twice. You and I will never be Connie Willis, but we’d be very stupid to ignore the techniques of a master.
Is there a point at which revision can go too far? Absolutely. It’s all a matter of opinion, but Tim O’Brien released a revised version of The Things They Carried something like 20 years after the original release of the book. The revisions were very small and probably only noticeable by him.
It’s not like Tim O’Brien wrecked his masterpiece or something. It’s just that revisions have a point of diminishing return, like most things. At some point you’ll discover that you’re making changes so minor that they may seem better to you, but they’re almost unnoticeable to others. And as you get into a 5th draft, the changes are fewer and have smaller impacts.
Which brings us to today’s exercise.
You’re going to write a short story. A VERY short story. And draft it 10 times.
Here’s how it goes:
Draft 1: Write a short story. This story should have a beginning, middle, and end, and it should have characters and setting. Implied or explicit. If it’s helpful, write a true story from your life, a favorite party story. Just don’t worry about being overly truthful if the truth makes the story more difficult (example, if there are extraneous “characters” you can cut them). In this first draft, write by hand, and get it all in there. Make it short, but be complete. Don’t worry too much about the length, but if you fill up an entire page of handwritten text, you’re approaching the too long area aka Danger Zone.
Draft 2: Again, by hand. Go through draft one, find the most important and best bits, underline them, and make sure they make it over to draft two. Other than that, your main goal is to bring the word count down to 300 or less.
Draft 3 & 4: Read draft 2 aloud before you start. Then, write draft 3. Read it aloud, and make changes as you go.
Draft 5: At this point, you should be damn close to 300 words or less. If you’re not, get it there with this draft. You may also copy it into a word processor at this point for ease of word counting, but please print and edit each draft by hand.
Draft 6: This should be feeling a bit stale. At this point, I want you to cut something you like but are also unsure about. Do it, cut it.
Drafts 7-10: For each of these, read aloud, make line edits as you go. The overall sound should be very close to your natural speaking voice by the time you finish.
Okay, now that you’ve got 10 printed drafts, I want you to lay them out and pick out the best.
If it’s somewhere in the 7-10 range, you’ve succeeded.
If it’s somewhere in the 1-5 range, I would say your revisions need work.
Also, if it’s in the higher range but not draft 10, that’s okay. Part of the point of doing this exercise is to hit a high number of drafts and see where that return on time investment starts to drop off, where the time it takes to draft again doesn’t result in a lot of improvement. Some people hit that earlier than others, and some stories come out a little more finished than others in early stages.
The biggest purpose this week is to divest ourselves of the first/best idea. You’re not doing yourself any favors with that one, and to be brutal about it, it seems convenient that the method that requires the least work is one that some prefer. Very suspicious.