Should I finish my work before I revise it?—Frequent Questions

Q: Should I finish my work before I revise it?
A: Oh my goodness—yes.

"Do a good job. Be vulnerable. Make things. Choose to be kind."—Lindy WestCreating requires you to let go of your self-criticism and just write. Revising is all about being self-critical—in as kind a way as you can manage. You can’t just switch a toggle and go from creator to reviser and back, not without losing momentum and mindset.

I’m currently writing a book—my first time writing for myself, instead of a client. Yes, I will occasionally spend 15 minutes sitting in a waiting room going over something I’ve written and adjusting a word here, a comma there. But I’m looking at the work through my eyes, not through the eyes of a reader. The reader can be a scary beast, wild-eyed and hypercritical. Once you start looking at your unfinished draft with hypercritical eyes, you’ll see so much wrong with it that you wonder if it’s worth continuing.

Of course there’s a lot wrong with your work—it’s a first draft! And we all know what Hemingway had to say about first drafts. Still, even if it is at this point, Hemingway-sh*tty, commit to finishing your draft. Then put it away for a while. And then revise.

This weekend I had to put together a sample of my book to support an application, carving out 10 pages from the tens of thousands of words I’ve already written. I spent part of one day and all of the next rewriting, revising, staring down every word and sentence to make sure it’s my best. No first draft can withstand that kind of criticism. And when I tried to put the sample away and get back to the work of writing, adding to the pile of words I’ve already created, I couldn’t do it. I had to step away from the computer and read, play with Fenway, clear my mind.

I’m back in writing mode now. But I’m annoyed that I lost so much writing time.

So finish your first draft. Don’t welcome the editor into your head until you’re done. You will thank me.

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And if you need some help to get started with writing, visit me at shywriters.com to see what I’ve got cooking for you.

An unwelcome voice — when distractions get in your head

"You want to write, but who in the world would want to read it?" That unwelcome voice again.Scrolling through Twitter this morning, I found a post from a young writer, something about how her teacher had told her not to publish a book for 10 years. He called her work in progress a “burner novel”—something she needed to get off her chest, but not something anyone else needed to read. Maybe he’s right; I don’t know. But neither does he—he hasn’t even read the manuscript.

My first reaction on reading this was to call the teacher an arrogant prick.

My second reaction surprised the hell out of me: I found myself applying his arrogant, ignorant dismissal of this young writer to my own work.

Hmm, I thought. Maybe I shouldn’t be planning to publish this book I’m working on. I mean, yes, I’ve been writing for 25+ years, but this is my first actual book. Maybe I need to wait more, grow more as a writer.

Of course I know this is, to use a technical term, bullshit. But once an unwelcome voice takes up residence in your head it can be hard to evict it. Still, that’s exactly what you must do. So I did:

  1. I reminded myself that the Twitter thread had nothing to do with me and my work.
  2. I opened up my latest draft and saw, as the Bible said, “that it was good.”
  3. I wrote this post for you, so you can see that anyone can be vulnerable to criticism, any of us can get that unwelcome voice stuck in our heads. And when that happens, try not to waste a second worrying about it. Just open the back door and shoo it out like an annoying summer fly.

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I do a lot of work with writers who get stuck listening to those unwelcome voices. Check out ShyWriters.com for my latest programs.