Thomas Mann once said, "A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." While others can just hack out texts, even books, we writers agonize over the wording of an email. We usually spend more time revising and editing than composing. Even while reading proofs, we find words to replace and passages to cut—if only the manuscript wasn't set to go to the printer. For the true wordsmith, doubt (and the fastidiousness it inspires) is not an obsessive-compulsive disorder but a virtue. We fret over a problem we are having turning a corner in a story, may write off the whole project as a disaster. This is no failing but the motor that drives us to do our best work. Doubt inspires discipline and discipline demands virtuosity. We learn, in time, never to give up on a narrative but to give it a chance to spring phoenix-like from the ashes of despair and find new life. I have often stumbled across a story years after abandoning it and have soon seen how to resurrect it, wondering why I gave up on the piece in the first place. Like good wines, some stories need aging. Who knows what the mechanism is for such revision in absentia? Perhaps the work must baste in the subconscious mind to find its full flavor. For it is in the unconscious rather than the conscious mind that we do our best writing—and rewriting.
Some few remarkable authors are first draft writers. Joyce Carol Oates must be, considering her output. Or else she never sleeps. Shakespeare was; his revisions were done in rehearsal. Generally though, the willingness to labor over a piece until it is right separates the writer from the wannabe. I could predict which of my students would become serious writers by how willing they were to revise. Beginners often assume, wrongly I think, that talent alone will bring them acclaim; they undervalue persistence. I have seen gifted writers quit, convinced they lack sufficient talent, when what they lack is doggedness. Talent can be overrated. Patience will more likely bring virtuosity and success. Moreover, we must learn to measure our work's value for ourselves and become our own editors. Looking to others for validation is a fool's errand. As Elie Wiesel advises us, "Write only if you cannot live without writing."
Revision can be tedious. Can seem like pathological nit-picking. It can feel like we are endlessly redigesting our own words. But, incredibly, rather than making a story seem labored and lifeless—as intuition suggests it would—revision liberates it and makes it appear effortless. Consider dialogue, the poetry of prose: we mull over whether a character would say, "No problem," or "Okay," or "That's cool," or "Sure enough," or "You bet!" or "You betcha." Phrasing depends on character, situation, locale, voice. It is worth laboring over, since it tells a reader much.
We must learn how to revise. When I took my 1,200-page first novel to a New York agent who wanted to represent it, he advised me to cut it by two-thirds. Leaving his office, dejected, since I had no idea how to accomplish this, I walked into a midtown gallery where a photographer was using one light rather than the usual two to photograph paintings. As if privy to my conversation with the agent, he approached me, held up a finger and whispered, "Subtraction!" Great advice, though it felt like a stab in the gut. By my second novel, The Seductions of Natalie Bach, I was learning how to revise. Applying all the platitudes and clichés of the craft: Be ruthless with yourself; Less is more; Never use two examples—or adjectives—when one will do; Find your best passage and cut it (Yaach), it's likely overwritten. Clichés, after all, are hard kernels of truth.
Of course we must be careful while composing not to let the stern editor ice us. Overwrite the first draft, then go mercilessly to the cutting board. First get it written, then get it right! We must reach the point where we enjoy red penciling. Word weeding!
Yes, writers have a helluva time writing. We're no damned good at it. But consider Thomas Mann's remarkable output or Faulkner's, Victor Hugo's or Doris Lessing's–obsessive revisers all. They knew that talent is merely the starting point.