“The first draft of anything is shit.” – Ernest Hemingway
It’s easy to think of revision in terms of careful pruning, slight rearranging, and the ongoing battle with the passive voice. And, certainly, there’s a place for that. But what I’m interested in looking at today, to stretch the metaphor a bit, is pushing out a new turd, rather than polishing the old one.
Yes, I’m suggesting that you throw your first attempt out and rewrite your story/poem from scratch. Bear with me.
If a detail is vivid enough for you to remember from the first time you wrote your story or poem, then that’s a detail worth keeping. But if you struggle to recall what that brilliant little image is, it’s entirely possible that it was not as brilliant as you had thought. And if, on the other hand, you remember a line because of how bad it is, you can take the story or poem in a different direction in order to avoid it. Rewriting an entire piece is a lot of work, but so is being a writer in general, so you should be used to that. I’ll also reassure you: if you now know, basically, what you’re trying to do and the general way to go about doing it, this draft shouldn’t take nearly as long. This also should give you a general timeframe of how long you want to wait until trying this rewrite. Long enough to forget the less interesting details, but short enough that the whole thing hasn’t slipped from mind. A week is probably too short, six months is likely too long. Let your friend the trash take some time to digest the first draft.
By starting from scratch and being able to meander off the path you took before, this method of revision is actually a freeing experience. Once we have something down, the instinct that I have—and that a lot of writers, I believe, share—is to try to patch it up, make it sound good, and generally try desperately to make the part that isn’t working work. Sometimes it can be done. A lot of the time, we end up wasting a lot of time accomplishing nothing. Turd polishing. But it’s incredibly difficult to think of an alternative solution after focusing on your current solution and trying to get it to work. Taking a break and making a clean start helps to get out of that myopic trap.
The other advantage of this approach is that when that polishing stage does happen you have two potentially quite different drafts to draw from. Unless you actually threw out the first draft when I told you to earlier, in which case you need to stop taking advice from strangers on the Internet quite so seriously. While your second try is probably better, for the sections of it that don’t quite work, you’ll have a different version of it just waiting to be put to use. And if you aren’t quite happy with a section in either version, well, you know what to do.
Gideon Simons is a first year fiction candidate at Virginia Tech. He reads fiction for the minnesota review.