Revising Leah

September 22, 2008

How I Learned to Write a Novel

I’ve always been of the opinion that writing is a skill. Nobody is born a great writer. Some writers might be more creative than others, but the act of turning that creative vision into good writing is a skill that, I think, just about anyone can learn. Since no one starts out knowing how to write, a potential novelist, then, must undergo a sort of “apprenticeship,” a period of training in which he or she learns how to write a novel. Looking back on my own life, I realize now that it took me two separate phases of training before I could write a complete novel that is ready for possible publication.

The first phase of my training occurred during my teenage years. At that age, people have an abundance of creativity and energy. Everything seems possible, and it’s fun to experiment. During this period of my life I learned, by trial and error, how to draft a novel — how to transform the stories in my imagination into words on a page. I was extremely prolific, sometimes churning out two or three 200-page long manuscripts in a single year, not to mention all of the short stories and poems I was writing (today, that level of output astounds me; I cannot work at that pace anymore). Because I had so many ideas for stories, I didn’t worry about revising and editing my work; in fact, I don’t think that the idea of revising my work ever crossed my mind. As far as I was concerned, every manuscript I produced was “finished,” and as soon as I completed one novel, I simply moved on to the next story. A lot of people, when they decide they want to be an author, make that decision having never actually composed a novel-length piece of writing. They don’t really know what they’re getting into or how much work writing can be, and I think that is why so many would-be novelists fail: the size and scope of the project simply overwhelms them. The most important lesson that I learned in those early years is that writing is a very long, slow process, and patience is the ultimate virtue when it comes to writing.

I consider the first draft of Leah to mark the end of this first stage of my writing education. By the time that I composed the first draft of Leah, I had reached a point where I was confident that I could take any complex story that formed in my imagination and transfer that story onto paper. However, when I made the decision to try to publish Leah back in 1995-6, what I didn’t yet understand was that inventing a story and completing a draft is only the first half of the writing process.

And that’s why the 1996 draft of Leah was a failure. And by “failure” I don’t mean “commercial failure” — although, since it was self-published, it certainly was that. Rather, I mean the novel was a failure because the quality of the writing and the execution of the story didn’t live up to my own expectations. Although I did a little revising, what was published was essentially still a rough draft. It was truly awful, and I’m embarrassed that it was ever published. What I didn’t know at the time was that I still needed to learn how to revise and edit my work.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that second phase of my training began when I started teaching. I was an English major in college, and so today I teach writing. In my short career, I have graded literally tens of thousands of pages of students’ writing. I’ve seen it all: from very bad, almost illegible writing to writing that might be even better than what I can produce. Reading and correcting so much writing provided me the chance to learn just what revising is and why it is so important.

What I’ve learned in these last several years is that revising is just as important as drafting, just as important as the initial idea that inspires one to write. I’ve learned that the revising process takes a very long time — even longer than drafting process, and, in a sense, it never really ends. There’s no such thing as a “finished” manuscript; there’s always something that you can do to improve it. And I’ve learned that while the revising process takes a long time and can sometimes feel tedious, it can also be just as creatively fulfilling and exciting as producing that first draft of a story. When you set up an exchange of dialogue just right, when you find the perfect word to describe a character’s mood, or when you phrase that opening sentence in the best possible way — that is writing!

As I browse the Internet, visiting writers’ blogs or reading websites that deal with creative writing and publishing, I often see writers seeking an editor to help them prepare their novels for publication, and I see entrepreneurial editors eager to offer their editing skills — for a fee, of course. Certainly, letting an objective party read and edit one’s work can be very useful, but it’s not a substitute for the revising process. It is still up to the would-be author to do the majority of the revising. When I read a student’s essay, I can offer suggestions for improvement and point out places where corrections ought to be made, but ultimately, it is up to the student herself to make those changes — and to go beyond the suggestions that I make.

Do you agree? Disagree? What’s your take on revising? How did you learn to write a novel?



  1. I think when all we writers start out, our output seems to be much higher than when we’ve settled. Maybe it’s because our brains are awash with ideas.

    My own route was to go down the path of short stories for magazines, since no publisher even glanced at my novel. When I returned to writing a novel (not the original one), my work was so much sharper and well-honed that the first publishing house took me on board.

    I think as long as you write; be it shorts, novels, or blogs, your work is bound to improve. It’s the learning curve. We all have to go through it. I think the more we know, the more we realise we know nothing! The less we know, the more expert we think we are.

    Comment by Anthony James Barnett - author — September 23, 2008 @ 10:44 am

  2. Yes, I agree. Like any other skill, one’s writing improves with practice. The more you write, the better you get. That’s why I say that nobody is born a great writer. Child prodigies exist in the fields of music or mathematics, but I’ve never heard of a single child prodigy in the field of literature. Great writers are made, not born.

    Comment by jmreep — September 23, 2008 @ 12:25 pm

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