Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

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

Is it really that important to revise? I write when I'm struck by inspiration and I don't want to lose that vitality.

There’s nothing like that rush of first inspiration, when you’re so fully in the world you’ve created that you’re unaware of the phone ringing, your to-do list for the day, and the fact that the lunch hour has passed. It’s invigorating, and that energy and enthusiasm can often come through in the writing. When we’re passionate about what we’re doing and enthralled with it, often the reader feels that too.

Still, a first draft is a time of creation and invention. Sometimes this can produce elements that are spot-on; sometimes the drafting process is one of discovery. No matter how close you are from the mark of what you intended, the revision process is vital to shaping your work. Early drafts are a form of figuring things out: developing characters, finding the shape of the narrative, establishing the language. To assume it is as good as it can get on the first try is taking valuable opportunities away from yourself and your work.

While many writers revel in the revision process, there are plenty who don’t. Dostoyevsky once said, “Yes, that was and ever is my greatest torment—I can never control my material.” But even the reluctant reviser reconsiders the work. Revision is the writer’s “second chance.” And most writers take this second chance over and over on the same work.

In fact, revising can often help you add to the vitality that came with a first draft. The first words or images you choose may not be as resonate to readers—or even yourself—as you thought while in the throes of inspiration. Revision is an opportunity to slow down and consider each of your choices more thoughtfully. You may find that many of the choices you made are creating the effect you intended and are mirroring what you experienced as you wrote. But you’re bound to find others that don’t. Weeding out what doesn’t—and making better choices—will bring even more energy to your work.

Sophy Burnham, in her book For Writers Only, writes of the revision process: “I have heard that an eagle misses seventy percent of its strikes. Why should I expect to do better?” Indeed, life is full of trial and error on the way to success. The writing process is no different.