This past week, I’ve had to come to terms with a lesson I thought I’d already learned years ago: sometimes the best thing you can do for a piece of work you’re writing is to cut it to pieces.
I’ve probably mentioned this fact in some of my other posts, but I’m currently in the process of writing a thesis for my English M.A., and up until last week, it was going…not so well. The thesis proposal I’d sent out to my committee over the summer term was returned with a startling amount of red marks and puzzled comments—enough to make me seriously question whether I should even be attempting to write a thesis.
But my committee members apparently were not ready to give up on it. They sent me encouraging emails, met with me in person, and helped narrow and fine-tune my argument. Through their support, I was able to realize (again) that just because something needs work doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t worth the effort.
Somehow, I had forgotten a similar lesson that I’d learned during my creative writing class in undergrad.
I’d been working on this one story for years (still working on it, actually) and had almost given up on ever finishing, but on a whim I decided to completely rewrite the first chapter of the novel in first person. The results were amazing. I was able to gain a depth of insight into the main character that had been sorely missing in my first draft.
As fantasy writer David Eddings argues in the introduction of The Rivan Codex, sometimes it’s better to scratch everything you’ve written than to continue with a story that doesn’t quite work:
If something doesn’t work, dump it—even if it means that you have to rip up several hundred pages and a half-year’s work. More stories are ruined by the writer’s stubborn attachment to his own overwrought prose than by almost anything else. Let your stuff cool off for a month and then read it critically. Forget that you wrote it, and read it as if you didn’t really like the guy who put it down in the first place. Then take a meat-axe to it. Let it cool down some more, and then read it again. If it still doesn’t work, get rid of it. Revision is the soul of good writing. It’s the story that counts, not your fondness for your own gushy prose. Accept your losses and move on.
Moral of this post (no matter how many times I may be forced to learn it): the need for major revision is not an indication of failure, it’s “the soul of good writing.”