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When to revise

by Durant Imboden

Polish first or forge ahead?

When you're writing a long manuscript, it's hard to resist the temptation to improve what you've already written--even if that means delaying the completion of your book, play, or screenplay.

For many writers, revising existing text has several advantages over forging ahead:

  • It helps the writer avoid difficult questions such as "What happens in the next chapter?"
  • It's easier than writing new material.
  • It lets the writer polish a diamond in the rough into a glittering gem that can be enjoyed privately or displayed to an appreciative audience.

Most writing handbooks insist that revisions should be delayed until a work is completed, if only because so many new writers fail to get beyond the first 25 or 50 pages. The attitude seems to be, "Better a flawed concerto than an unfinished symphony."

This is certainly a reasonable point of view, but it ignores the fact that many authors (and not just beginners) tend to write without being analytical. By forging ahead, the writer runs the risk of producing a manuscript that just doesn't work in terms of character, plot, or (in the case of nonfiction) logical cohesion.

Here's an alternative suggestion:

Write the "setup" section of your manuscript, which might be the first 50 pages of a novel or the first 30 pages of a screenplay.

Next, take time to reflect on what you've written and see what needs fixing. Does your original concept, treatment, or outline still work? If not, this is the time to make basic structural changes, modify character attributes, and make final preparations for the months of work that lie ahead.

To avoid the "fine tuning but never finishing" syndrome, set deadlines for each stage of the work. For example:

  • Revise setup section: Two weeks.
  • Revise subsequent chapters: No more than one day of revision for each week of new writing.

It's also a good idea to have an overall schedule for the project--e.g., 2-3 pages a day, 15 pages a week, 60 pages a month, with revisions sandwiched in as time allows. This will motivate you to keep working, since you'll be able to relax by polishing your text whenever you meet your production goals.

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