Are you stalling by revising too soon?

writing linesWhen we’ve squeezed out a few sentences, a paragraph, or page of the first draft of our current writing project, in our elation we may be tempted to go back and revise. The pull to polish is irresistible. So, we revisit those hard-won sentences and baby them into perfection. Then we sit back and bask with satisfaction.

But what do we have? Admittedly, a start, but really just a few sentences. We know we should have kept going with the fearsome task of confronting the blankness, but we yield. And often, our excitement in starting the piece dissipates, like steam out the open window. We sit there, staring or sighing, get up, and walk away to do something that eats into our writing time.

Not Yet

I’m not against revision—far from it. All the articles and tips on revising have their place. They wisely advise us to attend to the housekeeping: checks of spelling, grammar, formats. They sensitively counsel us to focus on the craft—repetition, wordiness, passive voice, adverbial addiction, preposition propensity, overwriting, underwriting. All of these matter.

But not yet. In our first draft, we don’t want to squander the energy that will get the damn thing down. We don’t want to exchange that energy for the premature false accomplishment of revision. That enticement dampens our first enthusiasm, impedes our flow, and siphons off our consistency in continuing.

We all face the terror of the blank page at one time or another. It demands we choose among the endless and overwhelming possibilities of what to set down. Will it be right? Clear? Keen, astute, subtle, sage? In the end, good enough? To bite the bullet and plunge ahead despite such terrible questions leads to what we really want—the fulfillment of completing the full piece. But too often we yield to the seductive lure of revising those first few sentences and, knowing we’re deluding ourselves, call it a writing session.

Instead, I suggest a method that helps us persist with the dreaded draft and resist the untimely allure of revision. You may think it’s obvious, but it works.

Rather than backtracking to revise, I write myself notes, smack in the manuscript. In all caps, my notes trumpet what may be self-castigation but really isn’t. I think of them as assuaging my inner writing tyrant. I’m telling her, I know, I know, this is awful, and I promise I’ll go back to it later.

So, in all caps, right after what I know are lame words or sentences, I type admonitions like BAD, GET BETTER, WRONGGGG WORD. The notes help me to keep going with that agonizing first draft, no matter how many times it’s peppered with “BAD” and “YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING!” In an alternative that spares some in-your-face reprimand, a colleague uses the track-change feature in Word and types his admonishments in the automatic margin. I’ve noticed too an unpredictable bonus: sometimes, after I’ve typed the scolding, within a minute or two the right word or phrase pops up. The mind takes direction!

The Right Time

When I keep plowing on with the teeth-gritted draft, it does get done. I take a deep breath, wipe my brow, and sigh. Then, knowing I fulfilled the first step, I get up, go out, and do something else. I make sure it consumes me so I can stop thinking about the draft, how awful it is, how it confirms my lack of talent as a writer, and how I’ll never get anywhere.

Days later, I sneak up on the piece. Scanning the draft and wincing at the all-cap notes, to my shock, I think, “Hey, not so bad!” Sure, rough spots, as the notes remind me. But I know I can work with the draft.

Now it’s time to revise. So, line by line, cookie by cookie, beer by beer, I start to edit. I don’t feel like I’ve avoided the original work. I don’t feel I should be doing new writing, although some will inevitably take place. And I’ve managed to retain and infuse the piece with at least some of my original ardor.

New Outlook

Avoiding too-early revision is almost as foolhardy for good finished products as avoiding the original writing. It’s time to think of revision another way: You’ve produced a rough diamond, not marketable in its raw state. It needs honing, sharpening, and close attention to bring out its many dazzling facets. They’re in there, and they need the patient verbal burnishing that only you, the author, can give.

If revision too soon thwarts your zeal, revision later becomes an appropriate loving sculpting of your work to its finest. Keep this perspective in mind. As I’ve discovered, it will help you write what you must, get it all down, retain the juice, and no longer use revision to stall your writing.

© 2021 Noelle Sterne


Guide to Making Time to Write
Noelle is a contributor to TAA’s new book, Guide to Making Time to Write: 100+ Time & Productivity Management Tips for Textbook and Academic Authors. Now available as a print and eBook.

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Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 600 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com