Award-winning novelist George Saunders on how to revise a draft
One of the best books on writing I've read is A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders. The book is based on a fiction workshop he teaches at Syracuse University, and it packs an enormous amount of wisdom in a small package. I highly recommend it.
One of the book's recurring ideas is the idea that fiction is, at its core, the attempt to reward the reader's attention line-by-line. As long as you write a line that can keep the reader going for the next line over and over and over, then you can be a great writer.
Here are some of his lessons on revision that I've applied to my own work recently:
#1: Revising requires paying close attention
The act of writing is the process of making decisions line-by-line until you have a finished draft. "How do I make sure I'm making good decisions?" the writer asks. Saunders' answer is "By paying attention to what you're saying with every line."
Good stories, he writes, are alert to themselves. They respond to the decision the writer makes with every sentence.
#2: Revising requires trusting your gut
What makes a good story decision? Saunders largely leaves that up to the taste of the author.
As you go through your lines, follow your gut. Let your intuition guide what you're doing. Few writers understand whythey make certain decisions on the fly; we might rationalize after the fact, but our creative decisions in the moment are often gut-checks, relying on a deeper wisdom than we might consciously have access to. That's a feature, not a bug.
So what happens if your intuition gives you something completely out of left field? Be curious about it—try to understand it. It's okay if you know it "works" without knowing why.
"In story, unlike life, you can always go back and fix it. You can set up what may seem absurd and make it rational."
— Robert McKee, Story
#3: The point of revision is deeper honesty
When I heard the word "revise," I used to envision "proofreading": fixing commas, rephrasing ideas, or even cutting redundant material. But revising fiction is a much deeper and more creative process than that because fiction is an iterative craft.
Saunders sees revision as a process of tweaking a story line-by-line into "higher levels of organization": making it more specific, honest, and true with every draft. Every alteration adjusts the story just so until it rings true to your ear.
"The only kind of writing is rewriting."
— Ernest Hemingway
He writes that revision is like living in a room for a year. Over time, as you inhabit a space, the space begins to resemble your taste more and more specifically. That's what revision does for a story—it takes what any writer might have written and turns it into something only you could have said.
I've been applying this to my own writing, and it's made revision so much more rewarding.
I used to revise because it's "what you did" after a first draft, but now I revise with purpose. I'm allowing myself to pay attention to what I'm saying and following where my intuition is going, which not only allows me to exercise my voice, but it makes the whole act of writing more "chewy" and exploratory.
This perspective could help you too—at least, I hope it does. If you've been doubting yourself through every draft, give yourself permission to trust your intuition. See where it leads.
You might surprise yourself.