It’s been a few weeks since my last “Basics” post, and with Ed’s post on Saturday about responding to rejections and working on rewrites, I thought that a post on revisions might be in order.
In recent discussions on self-publishing, both here on MW and also at ConCarolinas, I made a point of saying again and again, that writers cannot edit their own work. That, of course, is a ridiculous statement that I should have clarified. Yes, we can edit our own work. We can revise and cut and polish and make our work read better. What we can’t do is be our own sole editor. We can’t possibly catch everything that is wrong with our own manuscripts. We’re too close to them, we know them too well, and more to the point, we know too well what we meant to write even if that’s not actually what found it’s way onto the screen or page. When we read through them we will identify and fix some problems, but we will gloss over others.
I bring this up at the outset because a) I want to make it clear that all of us should take the time to rework our books, and b) I want to make it clear that all the self-editing in the world can’t replace having a professional editor look at your manuscript before it is published in whatever form you choose.
So, what are the keys to successful self-editing? To me, the most important thing I need when I begin to rework a book is distance. Distance from the writing process, distance from the emotions and ambitions I entertained while writing it, distance from the characters who were speaking to me while I wrote. Why is distance so crucial? Because I don’t want to read this book as the guy who wrote it. I want to get as close as possible to the reading experience of those who will be judging its quality and commercial viability. They don’t know what I intended to do with the book; they don’t know the backgrounds of my various characters. They only know what the book tells them. And so I want to read the book with their experience in mind. Now, of course, I then want to turn around and fix the problems I find in a way that feeds into my creative experience, that reinforces all the stuff I’ve been trying to do as writer-guy. There is a balancing act here, and it’s not always easy to carry off.
How do I get that distance? I have any number of techniques that I use to distance myself from a book. Some of them work better than others. All of them work better when combined with others than they do if used alone. The first and most obvious thing I do is put the manuscript away for a while. Stick it in a drawer and don’t look at it for several weeks. Four weeks is good. Six weeks is better. When I’m working on a deadline this can be difficult to pull off; right now I’m not, and so I can put stuff away for as long as I want and go work on other projects. That’s ideal for me, because distancing myself from a manuscript should not be an excuse not to work.
When I read the manuscript through for the first time after putting it away, I usually will read it aloud. Yes, that’s a form of distance as well. Reading to myself it becomes too easy for me to slip into writer mode, to begin glossing over stuff that I “know” is just fine. When I read aloud, I treat it like a formal reading at a convention. I become more conscious of syntax, of rhythm and dynamics, and I catch stuff I would otherwise miss.
I also try to read the book with one of my usual Beta readers in mind. I actually treat it as a role-playing exercise. Instead of reading as David, I try to read as Jim (my editor), or Lucienne (my agent — I believe you’ve met her), or Nancy (my wife), or Faith (I think you know her, too….) I look for things that I know would bother them or make them hesitate. Again, the idea is to distance the reading experience from the writing experience. This works well for me.
Since I write on the screen, I will print out the manuscript to edit it. Again, that takes me out of the writing experience and makes the reading of the book different. It also allows me to respond to problems I find on the page, with pen or pencil. I can be writer-guy, but in a way that separates this reading from the writing I did at my computer.
I’ve suggested this one before: If you’re not yet comfortable editing yourself, go back and read something you wrote years ago. You’ll see the improvements you’ve made in your writing. You’ll also notice mannerisms and bad habits that you can still find in your current work. Mostly, you’ll see your work in a different light, because here the distance is truly great. When you then go back to the more recent manuscript, you’ll have a sense of what sort of things you ought to be looking to fix in your work. And, once again, you’ll also see the various ways you’ve grown as a writer, and that’s always gratifying.
What things DON’T I do when revising? First and foremost, I don’t retreat into rewrites before the book is finished. I push through and complete the book. Writing for me is momentum-dependent. If I stop writing to revise, I will lose all my momentum, and the book will languish. That’s my experience, and it might not hold true for you, but still I would urge you to keep writing and finish the book. There are times — after a vacation, or after I’ve had to step away from a project for something else, say copyedits on an older book — when I will go back and read through the manuscript as it exists so far. That’s fine. And I’ll even fix a few minor things as I find them. But I will not go back and do a wholesale rewrite. Instead, I have an “Edits” file on my computer (as well as a handwritten version) into which I dump all my revision notes as they crop up. So that if I realize in chapter 10 that I need to repair something I did in chapter 2 — an element of my character work or worldbuilding — or if I discover a plot strand that needs to be reworked, I will jot it down in the “edits” file and keep moving forward.
I also don’t make huge cuts in the manuscript. I will trim here and there for brevity and word economy. But if there is a section that I’m considering removing, I will usually keep it until I present the manuscript to my editor, agent or Beta readers. Why? Because on some level I have to trust the work that writer-guy did. I put that section in there for a reason. It may be that my readers will confirm my suspicions that it needs to be shortened or eliminated entirely, but I would rather wait on that to be sure. But again, this is just me, and I’m sure that the other writers in the group might well disagree.
Finally, I do not overwork the manuscript, at least not if I can help it. There is, in my opinion, no such thing as a perfect manuscript. Each of us brings to a book — as reader or writer — our own tastes and preferences. I could spend ten years reworking a manuscript until I had convinced myself that every word was perfect, and the first person to read the thing might still find 500 changes that she would like to see me make. Better to do what I can and then send it out and work on the next thing. I can’t make it perfect, and more to the point, in trying — vainly — to do so, I can lose the spark, the passion, the raw energy that made the story work in the first place. I can make it too precious, too studied, and thus dry and flat.
There is, of course, far more to be said about the revision process, and I might return to this subject again. But for now, let’s discuss this stuff. What works for you when you revise? What doesn’t?David B. Coe