The more I revise and the more I help new writers learn to revise, the more I’m convinced that good revision, like any good writing, is essentially play. Robin Marantz Henig’s recent article in the New York Times , “Taking Play Seriously,” looks at recent scientific studies that ask, What is play’s role in the evolution of species? Of course there are many theories, but here is one from Patrick Bateson, a biologist at Cambridge University: “Play is the best way to reach certain goals. Through play, an individual avoids…the lure of ‘false endpoints.’ Players are having so much fun that they keep noodling away at a problem and might well arrive at something better than the first, good-enough solution.”
First drafts are first, good-enough solutions. We adults are particularly prone to false endpoints because we like results and we like efficiency. With writing, often that first draft satisfies whatever longings drove us to write in the first place. But first drafts offer only one perspective, and quality writing, like quality thinking, requires multiple perspectives. The rich layers of meaning in our favorite books were achieved over time, by authors noodling away at an idea rather than accepting its first manifestation. As Carol Bly asks, “What more do I have to say here?” I like asking, What other shape could this thought or story take?
Many writers complain that their second draft is far worse than the first. Of course it is! Second drafts lack that initial inspiration and drive. Play with your subject; can you see it in an entirely new light? Start over from scratch. Keep noodling. Don’t allow the success of one draft to interfere with the possibility of a better one.
Revision, like any kind of problem-solving, becomes more difficult the more seriously we take our work. As soon as concern for our end product appears, our process is crippled. However, if play is our process, even very serious material can be great fun. Why? Because we’re still learning, discovering, and growing as we write. Play on, writers!
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew