What We Talk About When We Talk About Revisions

Editors signNational Novel Writing Month is upon us, and whether or not we’re keeping up with our word count, we probably keep hearing the advice to put all edits aside and just lay down the first draft. This is good advice, because 50,000 words is impossible to achieve if the writer is focusing on perfecting the first 2,500. And yet people may not know what we mean by revisions or edits. How will we know when to start editing? More importantly, how will we know when to stop?

The answer to the first question is relatively easy–when the first draft (what I like to call “pass through”) is done. And by “done,” I mean every scene that needs to be in the document is written. I point out the scene inclusion because when I’m writing my first draft I often put in place holders like this:

<<STORMY goes to ALLISON’S house, steals her car>>

So when those are all filled in I mark it as ready for editing. Revisions begin as soon as I’m ready, in the next minute, a few hours later, or after a break if I think I need one. Generally I jump right back in after a coffee, because I’m not fond of getting back up to speed on a book; I’d rather stay swimming in the characters, storyline, and themes. Before edits can begin though, I need to think about what my goals are for the second through twentieth pass throughs. Yes, twentieth. Revisions are the real work of writing, as the first draft is the feel good phase. This is the heavy lifting, but look at it this way: you spent this much time building up momentum, you can’t let the project crash and burn now.

At least that’s what I tell myself.

There are different levels of edits, namely:

Developmental editing–This answers the questions about whether the book fits the audience, if the story sounds too much like a competitor book, if the project is flat or not nuanced enough to be sellable

Substantive editing–This focuses on the substance of the manuscript, including the strength and interestingness of the characters, the believability of the plot, the pacing and mechanics (or seamlessness) of the writing, story and chapter structure, and use of dialogue and description

Copyediting (also called line editing)–Here we’re talking about removing egregious errors from the text, examining word choices at the line and paragraph level, ensuring consistency (character names, language use, etc.), and using a consistent style sheet

Proofreading–This is the last editing type to be run against the manuscript, in that it looks to remove any remaining errors from the text and checks against earlier edits to ensure all of the changes called for by the editor have been made.

To be sure, writers spend most of their time in the glut of substantive editing. We are working to improve the story, make it more real, make it extraordinary. I used to linger too long on jokes, and I still feel the need to overwrite on humor, but I let myself prattle on in the first draft and in revision I pull out my machete to hack away at the extraneous stuff. I delete whole characters, merge others, and tell myself I’m not a vicious person even though I removed the universe from my pretend people. I take out the list of themes I thought I’d be writing about in the manuscript, and hold them back up against each successive draft, amending the list as it reflects each new reality. I go over dialogue again and again, pinpointing language differences between characters and speaking it out loud (this is a little funnier when one is writing in a public place). If I see a typo of course I’ll fix it, but I don’t really worry about egregious errors until I’m very late in the process, say after the fourteenth draft or so.

Well, maybe that’s misleading of me to say. As a former editor, I spot a lot of typos. I’m sure other editors would cringe at me because there are still many peppered through the text as they look at my manuscript. But whatever, folks, I cleaned up 80 percent of my junk, I swear.

With regard to questions of pacing, I like to take flash cards (or an Excel spreadsheet, whatever floats your boat) and draw up the list of scenes, even if I mapped them out before writing, because well, things have a way of creeping around and shifting. On each card, I list:

The CHARACTERS–who are they, and what are their motivations

The SETTING–the name of the place they inhabit

The ACTION–what events occur during only this scene

The OUTCOME–what new development transpired

Are there “duplicate” scenes I can trash? In action-based stories, are there enough pauses for the reader? In reflective texts, is there enough movement? If I can’t identify a development, do I need this scene? Is this the best setting for this scene and this action? Has the same action occurred multiple times? Does the outcome move the plot forward? Do I want to change any of the four elements?

Not everyone wants to take as comprehensive or process-driven a method for revisions as I do, but I really loathe it when an agent or editor comes to me and says they love the book except, and the “except” is something I should have spotted in revision. Talk about frustrating. So if I can parse through my manuscript and get it as close to perfect as I myself can make it, then I’m satisfied when someone disagrees with me on plot or substance.

Now then, it’s only November 11, so don’t worry about any of these revision things. You’ve dallied long enough just reading this. Go write. Write with abandon. Full speed ahead. If you have a question for edits later jot it down in a notebook or as a comment in the text, but keep pressing forward. December 1 will roll around at the same rate whether you insist on writing now or get stuck in concern over one fiddly little sentence.

Xenaspeed, dear writer.

Photo credit: Narisa Spaulding on Flickr
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One Comment on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Revisions”

  1. November 11, 2012 at 6:33 pm #

    Great read.

    I personally need about a 6 week break from first complete pass-through until I start up on editing, because if it’s too fresh in my mind, I’ll too readily make excuses for the story that I wouldn’t excuse given a little more distance. I also can’t manage the twenty passes that you can, I’m more likely to cut off at 5 and move on to another story, because if I keep editing the same material 15 more times over after that, it’ll kill my motivation to put out more content.

    The editing process is different for every writer though. It’s better to over-revise rather than under-revise, if you’re trying to make a tough call on which to do.

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