You Just Wrote Something Terrible

You Just Wrote Something Terrible

I think the most jealously guarded secret in the world of writing may be that just everyone's first drafts are really, really bad. Did you just write something that disappoints you, that just isn't as good as you hoped it would be? Welcome to the club! Everyone struggles with their first drafts, and yet we all want to pretend like it was easy and effortless, as though a winged muse descended from the heavens and dropped a brilliantly packaged idea right in our laps. The more you write, though, and the more you get to know other writers, the more you realize that it just doesn't happen that way. Not for anybody.

Even if you continue to work on writing at the college and graduate level, though, few people are going to admit this, and fewer people are going to teach you what to do about it. The only writers who succeed are the ones who are willing and able to revise their work, to commit to not letting it be done until it really is as good as it can be. Here are a few tips to get you started on the long, exciting, frustrating path of revision.

First: put it aside, and look at it with fresh eyes.

The moment you finish something, you might feel pretty great about it. It could be your best work yet. The temptation is to throw it into an email and send it off to your friends, to Teen Ink, to The New Yorker magazine, without any further thought. But you're just too close to it right now to tell whether it's really ready. You're emotionally invested in it; you've just been fighting battles alongside with your characters. You've shed their tears. There's no possible way you can be objective about the language, the plotting, the actual quality of the thing.

So put it in a drawer for a little while - or in today's digital age, put it in a "needs revision" folder on your computer. Let it sit in there WITHOUT LOOKING AT IT for a MINIMUM of a week, but more if you can possibly stand it. Only then may you look back. You might be shocked to see how many errors in judgment, how many clich├ęs or plot holes still remain in that first draft. And now that you can see them, you can fix them.

Second: ask two key questions of every scene.
Now that you are reading through your story with a careful and critical eye, be sure to ask yourself two questions for every scene:

Does this scene further the plot?
Does this scene further the development of the character?

There may be whole scenes in your story that you discover you don't need. They're window dressing or they're scene-setting; they're pretty or they're romantic; whatever they are, if they aren't furthering the story or the character, then they don't belong. Cut 'em out!

Third: be willing to cut out even your best writing.

The expression that writers use sometimes is that you have to be willing to "kill your darlings." You may have written a beautiful turn of phrase, but if it doesn't further the story or add something to our understanding of the characters, then it usually has to go. We cling to these pretty but useless phrases because we're afraid we'll never write anything as good again, but we must cut and have faith that we will be able to write again. If it makes you feel better, cut and paste the line into a "Cannibalize" document that you save; you might be able to cannibalize your own work and use it somewhere else. But more often than not, that document is just a reassuring thing, and you don't end up looking back.

Now you know how to get started with your revision - so go out there and make some mediocre work great!