This is a subscriber-exclusive edition of I Have Notes, a newsletter in which I share essays, conversations, advice, and notes on writing.
Last year, when asked how my book was going, I would often say something like “Well, it’s certainly a lot of words.” Was I being self-deprecating? A little, but when drafting I do often chart my progress in words accumulated. Some days are better than others—a day spent churning out a chapter might be followed by one in which I fight to eke out a few hundred words—but until a full draft exists, I can generally tell myself that I’m making progress, getting closer to my goal, so long as the chapter list keeps growing.
Now that I’m in the revision stage, the manuscript is 7,000 words shorter than it used to be. I can no longer tell you how things are going based on the word count. I can say that I have gone through the entire work a dozen times—at this point, there are scenes I can recite from memory. I spend a lot of time absently petting the dog or looking out my kitchen window, turning sentences over in my mind, trying to come up with a different way to convey an idea or feeling. I am a writer who tends to think and plan and draft quickly, but when I revise, I’m just slow; there is no other word for it. I go line by line, asking myself: Is this word, this detail, this phrase, doing what I want it to do here? If not, how can I say it better?
Every decision I make now is an attempt to narrow the gap between how something currently sounds and how I want it to sound. Progress isn’t necessarily linear, but it is satisfying to read and recognize that, compared with last week or last month, my manuscript is getting closer to what it needs to be. It’s sounding more and more like my writing does when I feel free, unafraid. I can see it growing stronger, day by day.
You might wonder why I don’t simply write this way from the start, with painstaking attention to detail, questioning every word and narrative choice. The answer is that I’ve tried, and I can’t draft that way—it’s too much pressure when I’m just trying to get the story down. It took me years, as a writer and an editor, to learn this lesson: Even if my first attempt winds up being extremely close to the final version, I need separate sessions for drafting and revision; I can’t do both at once. This is true whether I’m writing a 1,500-word article or a 75,000-word book—it’s much harder to arrive at a full draft if I approach it with that sort of maximizing mindset.
Every writer has their own approach to revision, which can also vary quite a bit depending on the project—the length, the timeline, the stakes—and how strong the first draft is. I thought I’d share two ideas I’ve found especially helpful when revising this book—not the only two I’ve deployed, but the two I began with: