Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

I can never seem to get past the first draft. I know revising is important, but I just don't know how to start and I'm really dreading it. Can you help?

The first draft can be an exhilarating experience. You’re learning about your characters, their circumstances and the conflict. You’re inventing scenes and settings. You’re immersed in that first flush of creation. Revision is a very different experience where you drive toward your intentions with more focus. Revision doesn’t have to be a hard slog. If the first draft is like frolicking in a meadow on a sun filled day, the revision process is like flying a kite in that same sun filled meadow. In the latter, your task is more defined, but there are still plenty of delights.

Revision is an opportunity to delve deeper into your intentions and to consider how well your choices serve your intentions. As a first step, then, read through your draft and collect some initial impressions. What does it seem like you’re trying to do? Does the character come across on the page the same way you thought of her in your imagination? If you had a clear idea of the characters and action of the story before writing it, then this might be a process of holding up your writing to those ideas to see where this pans out and where it doesn’t. Often, though, the process of writing is an act of discovery. You’re bound to learn more about elements in the story simply by having written the first draft. This may be of particular relief to those writers who go into their work with just a wisp of an idea. You’ll likely come out of the first draft with a firmer understanding of your intentions.

Once you’ve thought about your intentions, start revisions by working on the larger concerns first. Here are some questions you might consider: Is your main character multi-dimensional? Have you created scenes? (I like to call these “feet on the ground” moments, where the character is firmly anchored in a specific place at a specific time. The reader can picture the character in this context and action unfolds.) Does the character face some sort of conflict? Is the conflict significant? Are the stakes high?

Have I lost you yet? If so, you might be feeling overwhelmed by all the elements you need to consider. That’s legitimate. Revision is a big task and to think of everything that must go into it at once can stop a writer before she even gets started. Start with just one element, such as characterization, and do a revision where you attend to only that. Then turn to another major element, like conflict, and do a revision for that. You’re bound to find that the elements overlap and, in revising for one element, you’re also addressing another. That’s okay. Breaking it down, though, might make the process feel more manageable and help you focus more fully as you revise.