Tuesday, August 17, 2010


A teacher I once had compared writing to building or working with clay: you can only begin assembling when you have all the pieces. You can’t sculpt until all your material is on the table. “First drafts are for learning what your story or novel is about,” writes Stephen Koch in his book The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop. “Revision is working with that knowledge to enlarge or enhance an idea, to re-form it.” 

So how exactly does one revise? Koch suggests taking some time off from the first draft. Then, he says, do the following:
1. Be your first reader. Simply note in the margins: ‘wrong,’ ‘cut or improve,’ ‘needs work,’ ‘sentimental’ or ‘boring’ or  ‘good.’
2. Summarize your first draft; paraphrase the story.
3. Revise: rewrite a second draft. This draft is about restructuring the sequence from sentence to paragraph to story/chapter. How does the action drive the story forward?
4. Cut it by 10%!

In a second draft you might add material. Focus on developing characters, extending scenes, and answering questions. During workshop critiques, one helpful question our instructor asked the group each week was, “What would you like to see more of in this piece?” Often, an idea, first expressed in only a sentence or two, becomes the impetus for expansion to a paragraph or a few pages. (Or sometimes, even, a whole book.)

A third draft, however, is meant for cutting away. The sculptor has shaped her clay and now she removes what’s extraneous. Probably the most challenging aspect of this task is deciding what serves the story, and what is not essential to its telling. For instance, I introduced my story with four pages of what everyone agreed was beautifully rendered, descriptive detail, but it misled the reader in what the piece was about.

Even, or especially, if it’s just pretty prose: cut, cut and cut! (But save the material in a file to use elsewhere in the future. It may just belong to a different story.)


Murr Brewster said...

As I write my first novel, I've been gratified that I'm still pumping out the clay instead of eking it out, word by overly-precious word. Blurt, type, and be merry! For tomorrow we carve.

Nicole Zimmerman said...

Thanks for your comment, Murr. You inspire me to blurt it out on the page and leave the precious perfectionism behind!

Lynn said...

The line "First drafts are for learning what your story or novel is about" describes my current process to a T (or is that t or tee?).

I love having confirmation that I am on the right track. Thanks so much for sharing this, Nicole.

Author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers

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