Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

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

Should I revise as I write?

There are as many approaches to the writing process as there are writers. No one set formula stipulates the best, most direct route to a completed work. Just because Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up doesn’t mean the words will flow while you’re on your feet. Still, it can be useful to learn about other writers’ techniques so you can try them out and see if they’ll work for you. In this particular practice—revision—there are two camps: revise as you go or get it all out and revise later.

Robert Olen Bulter, author of numerous books, including A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, swears by the importance of revising as you go. His reasoning is that each and every detail must work with everything else in the story, and it’s not possible to move forward until you have those details set. “And if I make an approximation in this sentence,” he said, “it’s impossible to write an accurate next sentence. And if that one’s also approximate, the third sentence gets farther and farther away.” Some writers may take this approach with bigger chunks of text, rather than revising sentence by sentence. Revisiting a chapter or a scene can help you clarify your intentions in those passages before moving forward.

Some writers, however, find that revising as they go hinders their progress. How can an author set the words with conviction when she doesn’t know exactly where the story will end up? For these writers, the early drafts are ones of discovery, where the writer is learning about the characters and the plot. Will Allison, author of What You Have Left, advises writers to “throw up, then clean up.” That first draft might be messy, but getting through it can help clarify and define the terrain of the story. This approach can also be useful for the writer who finds herself stopped by the internal critic, who is let loose during revision. A writer who doubts her work or ideas may not have a chance to let them live and develop on the page if she tosses them out at the internal critic’s first furrowed brow.

Revision, like most other aspects of the creative process, resists compartmentalization. So, you may end up being the sort of writer who hovers in between these two categories, writing forward for the most part, but occasionally going back to flesh out a character or add in a scene. And that’s fine. Give yourself the opportunity to try each approach and, more importantly, listen to your own writerly demands. Keep in mind, that some impulses are useful to resist, such as researching every facet of a police procedure, when you really just need to know how a gun would be handled as evidence. You’ll have to figure those out by trial and error. Stay aware of what slows you down or distracts you from the real work of pushing forward to your strongest writing.