The Waves of Revision

Hi friends,

A quick pep talk: Shit’s tough right now. And crazy. I want to tell you to keep the faith, whatever that might mean for you, whatever you might have faith in: your family, your art, your love, the earth beneath your feet, some sort of higher power. Whatever it is, take a moment right now and, ever so slightly, recalibrate your relationship with it. Recognize it. Remember what you love. Hold onto it every single day.

This will help guide you through your work. Even if it’s just a little bit. But that might be enough for now.

I’ve gotten a few messages here and there to talk about editing and revisions. As with all breakdowns of process, there is no math to it, this is just what works for me. And it has evolved over the years. And every book needs a different kind of attention. (And, and, and…) But perhaps hearing what I do can help.

Before we begin I will point you to this excerpt from this 1992 interview with Grace Paley in The Paris Review (which I have probably read fifty times):


How many drafts do you go through in writing a story?


I don’t like to count. I never understand what people mean when they say they’ve done twenty drafts or something. Does that mean they’ve typed it twenty times, or what? I’m always changing things as I go. It’s always substantially different by the time I’ve finished. I do it till it’s done.

So we are all doing it till it’s done, OK? OK.

What she said.

Right now I’m on the precipice of a new phase of editing, as I’m handing the book off to my editor next week. It is always wildly thrilling and also a little nerve-wracking to be edited by a professional. There are usually surprises. I have worked with the same editor on four books before this, so I can usually predict some of her sweet spots, and some of her concerns. But mostly, I don’t know what’s coming next.

What I can talk about is all of the editing and revising I’ve done to get the book to this place, this place specifically being a first draft, one that I believe is good enough to be delivered to an editor for their thorough critique. It is a complete book, full of heart and life and direction and purpose.

Now, my first drafts are technically more like fourth or fifth drafts (if we must number things, even though Grace P. would object!) because there are several waves of revisions for me to get here. And there are no absolutes in this, some waves bleed into others. But I have noticed some patterns of mine.

There’s a wave in the early stages of development. After I finish a chapter for the very first time, I always go back to see whatever loose ends might be lingering, problems to be solved in the future if not then. And I want clean sentences, clear dialogue, even if they’re not necessarily as poetic or deep as they could be yet. I also always want a great first paragraph that acts as kind of a tease, and feels truthful and honest, and I want to land an emotional moment at the end: I look in particular for those two things. I’m looking to make a point. I’m looking for a reason for being. And if I haven’t accomplished that yet, and I don’t have the answer to how to fix it, I note it, and then I move on. Because you’re not going to have all the answers right away and if you get mired in perfection you will never finish your goddamn book.

There is no perfect first draft in the history of ever.

There’s another wave after I finish 100 pages or so, which is usually the first third of a book for me, more or less. I am starting to examine how all those chapters are hanging together, and if there’s a “there” to the book. I’ll do a quick line edit of all the pages right then, and look for threads that have emerged to take some prominence, and whether they’re worth pursuing or not. (Side note: This is when I usually start tracking threads. I don’t usually start the book with an outline, but I build one along the way.)

I repeat this for the second third and the third third. Again: I’m shooting for clarity of ideas and language. I try not to get in my own way. And by the final third, I should be able to see if this is a book or not. No math to this: just instinct. Is this a story that needs to be heard? Does it deserve to live in the world? Will it satisfy some insistent urge in me to see it published? Edits aren’t always just about fixing and tweaking, seeing tangible results on the page. Edits are about asking yourself the big questions about yourself and your work.

For me, the entire process of creating a book is one big conversation with the world.  Writing is when I figure out what I want to say to the world, and revising is when I figure out the best way to say it.

After I take another look at the full draft, I take another look, and then another look, and maybe even one more look after that. Taking a look means: I print it out and sit in a café with a red pen and line edit the fuck out of my book, work on the language, work on the depth of meaning. Or I scroll through my document on the screen and look specifically at the beginnings and endings of the chapters again, to see if they’re tight and taut and would make someone want to keep reading, or, alternately, make someone want to sit still for a while and contemplate what they just read. Or I look for the loose threads, and I tie some knots. Tight.

And if I do it right — not perfectly, but right — I have a manuscript in my hand.

How do I know when it’s done? In my fantasies the ghost of Grace P. comes down from above, points at my computer, and says, “You’re finished, dear.”

In reality, it’s just me and my gut. But that’s enough for now.

You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher and would like a free subscription hit me up!) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans. Last week I donated to WWOZ, Citizen She, and the Backstreet Cultural Museum.