So I recently stumbled across an article Dean Wesley Smith wrote several years ago, about killing the myths of publishing. One of the myths, Smith says, is that you must rewrite something to make it good — in his view you shouldn’t, unless an editor asks you to [edited for clarity]. It’s fine to throw away a draft, then start over fresh and improve it, but actually going back and editing your work is giving in to the critical side of your mind, which is composed of bad advice from writing classes and editors and how-to articles. Instead write it, polish it (small changes are okay) and either submit it or self-publish it. Even if it sucks, editors and readers won’t hold it against you next time. And no amount of rewriting will ever fix a bad first draft.
Smith acknowledges that every writer is different, not every writer does things the same way, but I think that’s just boilerplate — the whole point of the article is that you should do it this way. That if you’re doing it the other way, with rewrites and self-editing (aside from edits requested by an actual editor who can buy it), you’re doing it wrong. And obviously this method works for him, as he’s published a lot of stuff. And for several others, whom he mentions in his article. But as a fundamental rule, it’s a pile of bollocks. Smith isn’t myth-busting, he’s myth-propagating. I’ve been reading variations of “don’t rewrite” and paeans to the first draft being pure unfettered creativity and the logical editorial side of you can only strangle your pure creative spirit as long as I’ve been reading about writing (which at this point is a while).
No question some writers can write awesome first drafts. I will agree with Smith that not every writer has to rewrite (although I suspect no-rewrite writers are rarer than he thinks). But “famous writer does X” isn’t always proof that’s how it can, or should be done. Stanley Weinbaum sold the first short story he wrote, A Martian Odyssey, and it remains a classic. That doesn’t mean most of us can write and sell a classic story first time out, not even if we tried (as Lewis Carroll put it) with both hands.
Besides I know for a fact that bad first drafts can be rewritten into something good. I’ve done it often enough and the results have sold. Smith’s argument I should just have published the originals or submitted them … that I find dubious. It’s possible, as he says, that editors may not remember them or hold them against me (I’ve not been an editor so I can’t say) though if I’d done that with, say, Wodehouse Murder Case. I rewrote it a lot before I started sending it out. And I improved it. If I’d sent in the first draft to Azure Valley and they’d rejected it, I couldn’t have resubmitted the revised version that sold.
Readers? Smith argues that as readers are free to sample your indie stuff, they simply won’t buy the book if it sucks — no hard feeling. But what if the book opens well, then bogs down mid story? Or simply ends without wrapping everything up? Sampling may not reveal that. And if I someone puts my stuff down after sampling because it sucked, are they likely to sample my next book? Some people will give authors multiple chances, I almost never do. Case in point, I won’t make any effort to read more how-to’s from Smith.
For a better discussion of revision (and the Heinlein quote Smith uses to buttress his case), visit io9.