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The Doctor: Patron Saint of Revising

Have you heard the good news? I’ve found religion! I’ve joined the cult of Revision—please allow me to testify to you about it.

I’ve been a writer for many, many years, but I was always a revision denier. To me, whatever came out of my head and ended up on the page was sacred. A second draft was the one that I ran spellcheck on. On the rare occasions that I did take notes from someone, my goal was always to incorporate them with as few changes to my original draft as possible.

But now I’ve seen the light! My conversion to Revision must be a religious experience, because I’ve been preaching to my writer friends non-stop about it. I realize now that writing is revision, and I was just doing it all wrong before.

So what changed? Well, I can’t say it was any one specific “Come to Jesus” moment, but there were three big events that really opened my eyes.

The first was that I finished and published my first original graphic novel, Hero House. And while I’m immensely proud of it (and you should buy it here, or buy it digitally here!), there were a few nagging things that bothered me about it when it was all said and done. And unfortunately, they were all things that I should have caught in a second draft—mostly characters and plotlines that seemed to go nowhere. I started to wonder if maybe I shouldn’t have paid closer attention before finalizing the script.

Next, I read a book called “The Writer’s Tale” by Russell T. Davies (with Benjamin Cook). It’s just 600 or so pages of email correspondence from the showrunner of the relaunched Doctor Who, written at the time that he was writing and running his final episodes. It’s an amazing, unfettered look into a writer’s head during the entire process of writing, and even if I wasn’t a huge fan of every single episode from this period, seeing how they came together is utterly fascinating.

Davies also has a very similar (although more tortured) process to how I write, sweating out an idea in his head for a long time before committing it to paper. What truly inspired me, though, was watching him revise. He’d come up with an idea, he’d love it, but then he’d thoroughly think it through, and make sure that everything that happened in the script was in service of story. Suddenly, whole plotlines and characters that he really enjoyed would disappear, and the scripts would be the better for it. It was the first time I’d seen what it could really look like when someone committed to revision, and it made a believer out of me. Appropriate for a book about a show about a guy who can change everything about himself when things get dire. You just know the Doctor is a big Reviser.

So now I was a believer in Revision, but I hadn’t yet accepted it as my personal savior and been born again. That can only come in times of crisis, and with the help of a spiritual adviser. For me, that came from working on my first project (not yet announced) with a truly talented editor. I worked and worked on my story, and even did a little bit of revising on my own when my opening wasn’t working for me (although only as little revision as possible to keep as much intact as possible). Finally, proud of what I’d done, I handed it in and awaited notes.

What I saw when I opened the marked up documents was an ocean of red. My heart sank.

But I spoke to my editor and heard his concerns, and suddenly everything he was saying seemed incredibly reasonable. Not just reasonable—obvious. I realized that I was going to have to do what Davies does; I was going to have to truly revise, not just put a coat of polish on it. So I did something I’d never done before: I threw out vast chunks of what I’d written. At least 2/3 of the story was completely cut away and redone. And I’ll be damned if what I ended up with wasn’t worlds better than what I handed in at first.

Obviously this religious metaphor is a bit of a goof, but I’ve honestly come to think (and talk) about revision in spiritual terms. I’ve talked friends’ ears off recently about how writing can be elemental, but revision is taking those elements and truly making them work for you, like what a wizard would do. Revision makes you a wizard. That’s how I sell it.

I may not be the most qualified person to give writing advice, but I feel 100% confident in giving this: don’t try to go it alone. Find a reader you trust and listen to what they tell you. Think about your story based on feedback, and be open to the possibility of changing what you’ve written. If my new religion had a Bible, that would be Page 1.

Unless you’ve got a better idea. I’m open to hearing it.

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