Write First with Your Head, Then Revise with Your Heart
By Caroline Donahue — THE BOOK DOCTOR
After how long January feels, February seems to flash past, a quick five minutes. In the midst of this zooming month, I have begun revising my novel.
So far, the daunting steps of reading the first draft over several times and considering whether the structure is really working have been completed. As I waded through scenes that took me years to write, only to make judgements on whether they are, as Heidi Klum used to say on Project Runway, “In” or “Out,” I was struck with the realization that a first draft and later ones have entirely different intentions.
A first draft is for the head. We need to understand a lot of things through writing a first draft. To be clear, you may write many sections of a book many times in a first draft. But for the sake of clarity, I think of a first draft as the first time you’ve written a piece all the way through to the end and have been able to type THE END, if only to delete it immediately afterward.
This first draft is to understand what happens in the book. This is true for fiction as well as memoir. Anything with a narrative. We are writing that first draft to understand the scope, to know what is part of the story, who the players are, what they are like, and what span of their lives we will witness as readers.
There are a lot of decisions to make in this first draft, and our head works very hard to make them. First person or third? Multiple perspectives? Multiple timelines or chronological? Past tense of the increasingly trendy present? A first draft is often accompanied by lists of decisions to make. I have even assigned my clients these sorts of lists when they get lost in the weeds.
But now that I have pushed the boat away from the dock and am floating in the middle of the water, far away from shore in my revision, I have come to understand that the second draft is no longer the draft of the head. I know what happens and who is involved, my tense, my POV and the span of time covered. So what is this new draft for? This, my friends, is when the heart gets involved.
If you simply tell a story point by point but without any emotion or atmosphere or without engaging the senses, you’ll never get into your reader’s heart. My editor and mentor said when I gave him the end of my first draft that I now had the foundation and structure of a book, much like the frame and roof of a house. But now, I need to connect the electricity and decorate the book so the reader feels at home in it.
And this is when you need to start re-reading what you’ve written with your feelings at the front. Try to distract your head with tasks that will keep it away from the action. Have it format the draft or make sure the line spacing is even while you get on with the real work of making the book come to life.
Look at all the characters from an emotional perspective rather than a factual one. Instead of asking what the character does for a living, for example, ask how she feels about it. Does she love her work or hate it? Or, even better, does she love it even while she is going broke because it doesn’t cover all her bills. There we go…the heart has been engaged.
Read through anything you write a first time to see if it makes sense, if it is logical. This is an essential part of revision; however, you’re not finished once you’ve determined that everything makes sense. The review that puts a hand on your heart and asks if you are feeling anything when you are reading it is the one that will make the difference between a fine book that people forget about quickly and one that they text their friends in the middle of the night to tell them that they absolutely must read it.
I recently read a book twice in a row because I connected so completely to the emotional level of the story, even though I found a couple of factual errors that could have been easily avoided.
A reader will forgive small breaks in logic, but she won’t forgive a lack of feeling.
So, as you consider your writing this month, make sure you know where your heart stands on the way it’s going. As writers, our ability with language makes us susceptible to staying in our heads, but I hope I’ve convinced you that the key to a masterpiece is in the heart.
Originally published at https://thewildword.com on February 27, 2020.