Revising as You Go is Procrastination

by Bill Henderson

Still revisingStill on Chapter 2 of your first-draft novel?

Let me guess. You won’t feel right about moving on until it’s just right. You’ve lost count of the number of times you’ve revised it. Just last week, you realized you needed to do a little more research––

Stop! I’ve been there, and guess what I call it? Procrastination.

That’s right, I’ve come to believe that, no matter how pressing revision seems right now, what’s actually happening is: you’re afraid to move forward into the darker, scarier territory of the unknown.

But what if you’re fine with the idea of moving ahead, you just…can’t? Ah, that’s another matter–and a bona fide legitimate reason to pause. What to do? Where to look? I’d start with the matrix of all good story material, your characters.

Who are they? What do they need? What do they desire? What personal qualities, deep within, caused them to make the decisions they’ve made, to create or pursue the situations they’re struggling with, the “hot water” they now find themselves in. Can you answer these questions? Did you once have the answers but now you’re not so sure? I may be time to jump into your unconscious again and dig for new ones.

Freewrite about your main character. Look for the hidden areas you haven’t tapped and find ways to bring them into play. A previously undisclosed or unknown secret can change everything. A secret quest can give new life to your narrative at key structural points. A never-talked-about event from the past can attach new meaning and to the present situation, not to mention suggest new possibilities for scenes, subbplots, and plot points.

Freewriting, as always, is the tool to keep at your side exactly for this purpose. I can say, without hesitation, it’s the world’s greatest procrastination buster. Want to know how and why? Click Here.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Greta James October 9, 2010 at 1:02 pm

The title hit me smack in the face! So true for me. Great article which I’ll be sharing with writer friends.

2 James Thayer January 5, 2011 at 12:02 am

Here are good ways to tell when to stop editing:
1. When your novel is getting bigger, not smaller. Essayist John Derbyshire wrote of his new book. “I tried to trim the thing down: By some odd, and I think hitherto unknown, physical effect no doubt rooted in the unfathomable paradoxes of quantum electrodynamics, the more I tried to make it smaller, the bigger it got.”
2. When you are adjusting minutia. Novelist Carl Hiaasen says, “Tinkering is a way of stalling.”
3. When you have stopped making editorial changes, and are just reading. This is the telltale I use most often.
4. When you are sick of it. John Fowles says the best cutting is done when the writer is sick of writing. The writer will probably get sick of the manuscript again, at a later date, during the editing. When you are sick of editing, it’s probably time to dust your hands, and quit.
5. When it is perfect. But it will never be. So stop your editing before then.

3 Richard Austin August 6, 2011 at 3:33 am

Of course, no advice is correct for every writer, but Kurt Vonnegut was known to write a single page at a time, as many times as was necessary, before he would move on to the next.

4 Bill Henderson August 16, 2011 at 1:58 pm

I didn’t know that about Vonnegut, Richard––can you share your source? I would want to ask him, “How do you know you won’t make a discovery on page 99 that requires going back and changing pages 23-28?”

It’s true that some fiction writers (not many, I’d say), work that way. If they are experienced, like Vonnegut, and find it productive, I’d say don’t change a thing. But in new and developing writers, that approach acts as a major productivity sap. It’s an unhealthy form of perfectionism that compels endless rewrites, sentence-by-sentence, page-by-page, and usually it masks a fear of facing the larger-scale plot and character issues that loom ahead.

Every writer is different, but new writers need to constantly examine and evaluate their developing work habits to learn what works for them vs. what kills their momentum and makes them lose heart. [Note: we're talking the early drafts, of course, not later ones, where revision takes over. At that point, a perfectionist approach can be helpful.]

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