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Writing Revisions: When to Tackle Them

I'm often asked about writing revisions—whether one should revise as one writes, or wait until the finished a draft. The answer depends on the nature of the writer.

Some people work best if they write straight through without stopping to revise. I once heard George Lucas, writer of the Star Wars movies, state in an interview with Charlie Rose that he uses a technique taught to him by Francis Ford Coppola, in which he writes an entire script without stopping. Once the draft is finished, he starts over and rewrites it from start to finish. After the third complete draft, he has a completed script.

I know novelists who write continually forward until they finish a draft, and only then loop back to rewrite, so that each rewriting both expands the story and refines it. Momentum is everything to this type of writer, and stopping to edit merely curbs the creative flow. They will fine-tune the writing before the end of a draft only if they're stuck, and they're seldom stuck. Nevertheless, when writer's block hits, writing revisions can get the imagination firing again.

Other writers—Annie Dillard and Guy Vanderhaeghe come to mind—write that they prefer to perfect each sentence before moving on to the next. It is not uncommon for a professional writer of this sort to work all day on a single paragraph.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard discusses perfecting work "inch by inch." She writes that the "reason to perfect a piece of prose as it progresses—to secure each sentence before building on it—is that original writing fashions a form ... It grows cell to cell, bole to bough to twig to leaf; any careful word may suggest a route, may begin a strand of metaphor or event out of which much, or all, will develop."

Most writers fall somewhere between these two extremes of all or very little, and when they choose to revise depends entirely on the writer's personal process and temperament. There is no right or wrong way to approach writing revisions.

Nevertheless, one fact remains true—both for myself and for every professional writer I know. We all spend at least as much time on rewriting as on creating, and often the revisions take far longer than the initial writing.

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