The difference between editing and revising and whether or not these things are even necessary

Published Tuesday, February 9, 2010 2:45 PM
Last night I was talking with my sister and brother-in-law about how some people need to revise and some write a first draft that is basically the final draft. We weren't just discussing fiction which few people write, but writing papers for school. My sister is a high school english teacher and my brother-in-law used to be a college professor and they were commenting on how some students could write a single draft the day before it was due and still turn out a quality paper. In college creative writing classes, professors endeavor to "demystify" the first draft and advocate a method where you just write down all of your ideas and get the story on paper without worrying about how good or bad it is, then you can go back and fix it by placing no importance on what you've already written. Essentially, the first draft is suppose to be quick and disposable. Some writers even advocate something called a "zero-draft," as opposed to a first draft, where one would basically free write, intermingling ideas, notes and rough drafts of actual scenes and exposition to be featured in revised form in later drafts before one even attempts a full first draft.

The problem I've always had with this methodology with writing fiction is that all my life in school I was the kind of student that wrote the first and only draft the night before a paper was due and then I almost always got an 'A' (and if I didn't it had nothing to do with the writing). Quick side note, correcting grammar, syntax and typos is not revising a draft, that is editing. Anything I write (even this blog) has to be proofread. That is editing. Revising involves making significant changes in how a paper or story looks such as deleting scenes, moving paragraphs around, rewriting dialogue, changing characters and tailoring the length.

My brother-in-law made the interesting point that some people need to write a first draft before they can even think about how they want the final draft to appear while the people who successfully write a first and only draft often do more preparatory work and are thinking about the paper before they write it. I can back that up. In school, I always did all my research and outlining well in advance and had everything mapped out by the time I actually sat down to write. My question now is, why should my fiction writing be any different just because the PHDs told me so?

Don't get me wrong, I learned so much from the english professors at FSU and they will get a great deal of credit if I ever make something of myself but I can't help but wonder if here they may have been wrong for me. Different strokes for different folks right? My all time favorite author, Heinlein, said in his essay, "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction," that one of his rules for writing was that, "You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order." This flies against everything I was taught in fiction class! It also made me think, "damn, is everything I've ever read of Heinlein's first draft!" Probably not but I think he was one of those writers who thought and planned things out before starting. I'm sure he edited and was edited and had to change some stuff to make if fit for certain markets ("editorial order") but perhaps the whole revision thing isn't as big a deal as I thought it was.

I can now confess that I have sent some stories to magazines, including "Why I hate the Colonists," the short short I had published on 365Tomorrows, after only editing and minor revision, no rewriting involved. Others I have subjected to a great deal of rewriting and I think for the most part they needed it. It will be interesting to see which stories eventually get published and what methods I used on those. For now, all I can do is continue to measure the need for revision on a case to case basis and tell anyone else, aspiring fiction writer or student, you'll just have to determine what kind of a writer you are.

All this came up because my brother-in-law finished reading the first complete draft of a lengthy story of mine and we were discussing potential revisions. I'd like to thank him for doing that for me as well as an old friend from high school, Meagan, who did the same. It's hard to get honest assessments of my work and I'm starved to have anyone read it and tell me what they think so, to both of you, thank you very much. It is certainly one of the stories that needs some work.

Until next, I'm Eric and I'm an unpublished writer.

111 days until deadline, five chapters complete.
by DMI
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