By Leah Henderson, Writing for Children & Young Adults, Spalding School of Writing Faculty
On any given day, I hear or read a new article, blog post, or craft chapter offering up what an author believes to be the “best writing advice.” It feels as if everyone thinks they have the answers, but of course most of the answers are different. And you know what, that’s okay, because no two writers are alike. We each have distinct ways of writing, seeing, and interpreting the world around us. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that we’d each have different approaches for creating stories.
So, I am not going to give you what I believe to be the “best writing advice”—that isn’t really my style. Instead I’m going to share something I try and always remember when tackling a new project, with the hope that it might be helpful for you in some way as well.
I don’t know about you, but I often create vivid masterpieces in my imagination, only to have them become appalling crayon sketches once I get them down on paper. Not only is this frustrating, it is often paralyzing. But the trick is not to become defeated at the crayon round.
Every writer, whether a beginner writing their first sentences or a pro with shelves of published books, we each need to remember and believe in the power and wonder of revision!
No story has ever been perfect on a first draft. Yes, there can be nuggets of brilliance, and gems to marvel at, but I’d arch an eyebrow if a writer told me they’d never written a crappy first draft or at least one that needed a little extra love and attention.
Stories are built on layers.
There is nothing better than diving back into a beloved book only to find new elements and clues to discover. And I’d bet many of these details come through revision.
Yes, there are writers who believe in a “clean” first draft, but even those writers have done at least two to three rounds of revision (if not more) in their heads, where they try, then discard, or reshape different scenarios to fit their stories before writing a single word. For me, I work a little differently. I need to see it laid out in front of me. And even though I often squirm the first time around, I force myself to remember that I am settling into my story in the first few drafts—figuring out characters, scenes, and the overall arc. So, I try not to get discouraged if it looks like a paltry imitation of that masterpiece in my head. Instead, I start focusing on specifics—a character’s mannerisms, subplots, or the click and whir of a fan to add a bit more texture to a scene. I attempt to fill out and color in the lines of what I sketched in crayon. I keep smudging color, intensifying shadows, and deepening contours with each rewrite or revision. This might sound like a lot of rewriting and adding, and frankly sometimes it is, but I don’t worry about that while I’m knee-deep in my mess. I focus on getting every thought out of my head and onto the page. Some of my ideas work, though many of them don’t, but I won’t know unless I’ve tried. So, I don’t hold back. In these early drafts, hesitation is not my friend. I might attempt to say something ten different ways before deciding which is the strongest. And I’m okay with putting in that effort because I know:
Revision can be magical.
When I come to the final drafts of a project, I’m always a bit amazed at how much certain moments and characters change, grow, and develop and how much that masterpiece in my mind is starting to take shape on paper. In early drafts, a lot of these aspects couldn’t have been envisioned because I was too focused on other details. And it wasn’t until I got those details just right that I could free my mind for other possibilities to take shape. Not that my final versions ever look exactly like that masterpiece I first saw in my head, but that’s okay, because sometimes my imagination stretches farther than I initially thought it could.
So trust in the power and wonder of revision and trust in your imagination to get you through. With patience and thoughtfulness, you will see the true pearls of your story shining brighter and brighter with each attempt to get it just right.
And with any writing advice, collecting the bits and pieces that work for you and your writing, while keeping in mind that there is value in trying a different approach or challenging yourself to think differently, is what will strengthen your writing over time. It doesn’t mean you need to completely abandon what works for you, but as with anything, growth cannot happen without change.
So be open to the writing advice you hear, because you never know what will be the “best” writing advice for you.
Leah Henderson is a mentor, avid traveler, and a believer in all readers seeing their possibilities. Her middle-grade novels include the forthcoming The Magic in Changing Your Stars and One Shadow on the Wall, a Children’s Africana Book Award notable and a Bank Street Best Book. Her work appears in the YA anthology Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America, and her picture books include Mamie on the Mound and the forthcoming Together We March. Leah teaches Writing for Children and Young Adults in Spalding University’s low-residency MFA program. You can find her at leahhendersonbooks.com or follow her on Instagram and Twitter.