Revision, revision – Guest post by Tania Hershman

Tania Hershman is the Orange Prize commended author of The White Road and Other Stories. In 2011, her stories have appeared in numerous locations including the prestigious science journals, Nature and New Scientist. She runs the Short Review, a magazine devoted to the short story. The following post originally appeared on her blog.

So, now that the whole issue of revising/rewriting is on my mind, I just came across this: American science fiction writer Robert Heinlein’s 5 Rules for Writers

Rule #1: You must write.
Rule #2: You must finish what you write.
Rule #3: You must never rewrite (unless to editorial demand, and then only if you agree)
Rule #4: You must mail what you finish.
Rule #5: You must keep the story in the mail until someone buys it.

Yes, Rule 3 jumped out at me! Anyway, one of the blogs that quotes these “rules” carries on to say:

That’s it. So simple, so hard to do. The killer are all five rules.

#1 kills those who think they want to be a writer but just can never find the time.

#2 kills those writers who are so afraid of having anything finished.

#3 kills everyone because of the huge myth that rewriting is critical. (Myth fostered by universities and people who can’t write a saleable word).

#4 kills every writer with any kind of fear.

#5 kills every writer who thinks that someone else’s opinion is more important than their own.

I find that quite fascinating. Especially, yes, Number 3. These rules were written in the 1940s, but I don’t think anything has changed. Perhaps the “rewriting” myth has just become even stronger given the increase in academic creative writing courses? What does it mean “never rewrite”? Does he mean there is no such thing as a first draft, just a written story that’s good or no good? Perhaps if we didn’t spend so much time “working on” one story we would write much more and “hit” the target more often?

Robert J Sawyer explained Rule #3 in 1996 thus:

This is the one that got Heinlein in trouble with creative-writing teachers. Perhaps a more appropriate wording would have been, “Don’t tinker endlessly with your story.” You can spend forever modifying, revising, and polishing. There’s an old saying that stories are never finished, only abandoned — learn to abandon yours.

If you find your current revisions amount to restoring the work to the way it was at an earlier stage, then it’s time to push the baby out of the nest.

And although many beginners don’t believe it, Heinlein is right: if your story is close to publishable, editors will tell you what you have to do to make it salable. Some small-press magazines do this at length, but you’ll also get advice from Analog, Asimov’s, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Lots of food for thought, for me at least. What does this say to you?

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  • J A Holt

    It’s against my grain to write and not rewrite, because first thoughts are rarely the best.
    Heinlein’s ‘Dune’ is the only novel I have abandoned after reading more than 50%. I thought it needed a rewrite; it needed a prune, at least.