Revising and Self-Editing


We here at Magical Words have posted before about revisions and our editors’ revision letters.  I’m going to write about it again today, not only because I’ve been casting about for a topic for today’s post, and not only because I happen to be in the middle of revisions, but also because it’s nearly impossible to understate the importance of the revision process to the quality of a completed novel.  You know those stores that sell unfinished furniture?  The desks and dressers and chests are all put together; they’re solid and everything fits.  But they haven’t been properly sanded; there’s no stain on the wood, no finish to make them shine.  That’s what even the best novel would be like without revisions.  Yes, the structure would be solid; you’d be able to tell that the author had plied his/her craft well.  But it wouldn’t be done.

I received the revision notes on book III of my Blood of the Southlands trilogy from my editor this past week.  He had a few issues with the book, and pointed to one scene in particular that needed to be reworked.  Aside from that though, this promises to be a fairly easy revision, dealing mostly with small matters of phrasing and tone.  There may be a couple of other scenes that need to be tightened or expanded, toned down or punched up.  Things of that sort.  Still, even though the revisions on this book will be limited, I wouldn’t want too many people to see it until I’ve had a chance to go over the manuscript again.

For me, the revision process is about more than fixing problems my editor identifies.  It also offers me the chance to edit myself.  It’s been a few months since I finished this book.  Reading it through now, I can see things in my own writing that I missed earlier and that my editor didn’t notice or didn’t mind.  Some of them are subtle; some are so glaring I’m embarrassed to think that ANYONE has read the thing.  (“Good God, David!  Did you really write that?!  Were you drunk?  Asleep?  Just plain stupid?”)

In a larger sense, reading the book over for revisions allows me to experience the book fresh, to see how the narrative flows, how the characters develop, how the language sounds.  If I had my way I’d finish a book and put it away for three months before sending it out to anyone, including my editor and my agent.  I immerse myself in my writing, and I often can’t see everything clearly in the days just after I’ve finished a novel.  Waiting a month or two would allow me to put some distance between the creative process and that first critical look at the finished product.  More often than not, though, I can’t afford the time.  I usually finish my books on time, but just barely.  I finish them, polish a little, and send them out to my editor.  I can do this in part because I know that I’ll have another pass at each book when the revision letter comes back.  By then, I have that distance, and I can find the passages that don’t work.  And, just as important, I can see the ones that do.  There’s something special about reading through a book I’ve written and finding something that I don’t remember writing but just love, be it a turn of phrase or a snippet of dialogue that I’ve nailed.  I have to be my own critic, but there’s nothing wrong with taking a moment to pat myself on the back, as well.

The revision process on this book has been especially challenging and rewarding.  Because an editor is bound to take some time going over a manuscript, it’s not uncommon for an author to get back a revision letter on one book while s/he is in the middle of writing the next one, or even done with the next one.  When the revision letter for book I of the Southlands series came in, I was well into writing book II, and with book II, I was already writing the series finale.  In this case, the revision letter for book III has come in after I’m done writing the first book of a new, unrelated series.  After living in the Forelands/Southlands universe for eight years — creatively speaking — I’ve moved on.  My head is filled with the details of a new world, with the stories and voices of new characters, with new story lines.  It’s not easy stepping back into the Southlands.

And yet, I have no choice.  On the one hand, it’s been hard to make the transition.  I want to get back to the new shiny.  I’m ready to begin writing the second book in the new project, and the last thing I want to do is move backwards into the old series.  It would be like someone taking away my new iMac and telling me that I had to go back to working on my vintage 2001 Windows machine again.  [Shudder…]  On the other hand, I had forgotten how much I enjoyed writing this last book.  Without realizing it, I’d come to miss these old characters and their world.

What does this post have to offer those of you who don’t yet have an editor sending you revision letters?  A couple of things, I hope.  We’ve said this before at MW, but it bears repeating:  A book is never going to be perfect.  And in fact, in our quest for perfection we can overwork a book and make it too precious, too studied; we can rob it of the spontaneity and passion that made it worth writing in the first place.  If you’re struggling with a book, and feel that you can’t get it quite where you want it, maybe you should stop working on it and put it away.  Not for a day, not for a week, but for a season or even two.  Write something else.  Put some creative distance between yourself and your book.  And then go back to it and read it through, not as the writer who first created it, but as your own editor.  Resist the temptation to begin revising as soon as you encounter that first imperfection.  Instead, read it beginning to end and make notes to yourself.  Truly submerge yourself in the role of editor.  Even write yourself a letter outlining all that you love about the book and all that you think needs work. (That first part is crucial — don’t skip it!  It’s important that we give ourselves credit when we get things right.)

Then, armed with your own editorial notes, begin the rewrites.  Eventually, when you’re working on your fourth or fifth or sixth book, you won’t need to go to these lengths to self-edit.  But at this stage, you can do yourself more good by stepping out of the role of writer and into the role of editor.  You’ll be teaching yourself to edit your own work (a skill every writer needs) and I guarantee that you’ll see things in your writing — positive and negative — that you’ve never noticed before.

David B. Coe


15 comments to Revising and Self-Editing

  • Do you think your editor missed the little mistakes, or just figured, “David will catch those on his next go round, so I’ll just let him deal with them.”

    Anyways, great post. I wonder how this process differs to editorial notes from beta readers in the days before agents/editors. I’m just about to send my first novel off to readers, and I’m wondering what to expect as far as changes and advice.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • I’ve also found that getting a little distance from your work can really make a difference in the revision. I feel like setting a piece aside for even a few weeks lets it cool off, and then when I go back, I can read it a little dispassionately and attack it with the red, editor’s pen.

    I think there’s also a danger in too much revision. Like you said, there’s no perfect novel, and I’m a firm believer in the law of diminishing returns – after so many drafts, the small improvements aren’t worth the effort. I think it was da Vinci who said, “Art is never finished, it’s only abandoned.”

    The trick is knowing when to revise and when to abandon. 😉


  • Dave, I’m inclined to think that he actually missed a few of these, although not out of carelessness. My editor is marvelous at finding problems that relate to character, plot, worldbuilding, etc. His comments are great, and always help me improve the book. When he deals with smaller stuff — syntax, typos, etc. — it’s usually because these issues make my intent as an author less clear, or because something I’m doing is distracting enough that it undermines my work as a storyteller. My agent reads my books at this stage as well, and she is terrific at finding logical inconsistencies — “if character X says this here, why does he have to ask this later in the book?” That sort of thing. My editor doesn’t see those things; she does. The things I’m finding are stylistic; repeating words in consecutive sentences or paragraphs, so that the prose just seems clumsy. And then of course, a copyeditor will look at the manuscript at the next stage and will be looking for really nit-picky stuff, as well as some of the inconsistencies we might miss (“So and so has blue eyes on p. 67 but green eyes on page 432. Which is right?”) So when I say that my editor missed these things, I don’t mean to find fault. It’s just that we’re all looking for different things. Among all of us, we find most of the problems that are bound to crop up. Thanks for the comment. Glad you found the post interesting. I’d say it’s likely that beta readers are going to have lots of helpful comments for you. The advantage that an editor has (and an agent too) is that s/he has knowledge of the business side of things, as well as years of experience doing this kind of work. The comments I get from my editor and agent are designed not only to make the book as clean as possible, but also as successful. This isn’t to say that they have me change things to make the book more marketable — they usually don’t. But they know the field, and they use that knowledge to help me craft a book that will be as readable as possible.

    Nathanael, thanks for the comment. I agree absolutely: putting a manuscript away for even a week can be helpful. As I say in the post, I rarely have time to put a book away for a month or two. But I always put it away for a week or two, even if this means that my book will be a week late reaching my editor. (In publishing terms, a week past deadline is nothing at all.) As you point out, even that short time can give me enough distance to make the read-through enormously helpful. But if I could put it away for six weeks, that would be great… And thanks for the Da Vinci quote. That’s perfect.

  • The problem I have is that I can never truelly walk away from a story. My mind is constantly churning on the world and the universe. My mind is constnatly going over old stories, forming new ones in the current universe and new ones in universes yet to be formed. For some reason that mental seperation is about impossible for me. So far, I haven’t a “new shiney” and gotten bored with the old stories. They have all been “new shiney”‘s and all demanding my immediate attention. I need to find a way to prioritize them, to beat them down and keep them in line.

    That’s my issue that I wish I had an answer to.

  • David, Great post. And as usual, your post has given me an idea about my own this week. You make my work easier!

    I have a writer pal who works in her series 2-3 years (gasp cough) ahead of deadlines. (I hope I get this right because it’s confusing to me. But…) For instance, she is in rewrites (hers not her editor’s) on book 10, with book 11 in rough draft, and book 12 outlined. Book 7 just came out. She is also in editorial rewrites of book 8, while book 9 is under the bed curing. Becasue she worked so far ahead of herself early in the series, she now has the option of taking years to write a book while publishing one book a year (under that name in that series). Yeah, she has others. I am not nearly that prolific or that confident about future sales… But it must be wonderful to be able to put a book aside as she does to let it cure (mellow, ferment, whatever).

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter

    >(“Good God, David! Did you really write that?! Were you drunk? Asleep? Just plain stupid?”)

    Oh, this made me laugh. I’ve soooo been there.

    > I want to get back to the new shiny. I’m ready to begin writing the second book in the new project, and the last thing I want to do is move backwards into the old series. … On the other hand, I had forgotten how much I enjoyed writing this last book. Without realizing it, I’d come to miss these old characters and their world.

    This is a really good insight, David. It really sums up what it feels like!

  • I understand completely what you’re saying, Mark. But in a way the distance I’m talking about doesn’t have to be from the world and the characters so much as from the manuscript itself. When I’m in the middle of a series, I’ll put away a manuscript for a while and get to work on the next book in the sequence. Yes, I’m still steeped in that story arc, but for the purposes of revising and editing I’m giving myself some distance from this current collection of words, and when I come back to it I see the manuscript in a new light that makes it easier for me to spot problems. Does that make any sense? I’m not sure I’m being clear. It’s great that you’re not bored with your series, that your world still feels fresh and new to you. But you can still step back from a given book, or even a set of chapters within a book, and look at them fresh a month or two down the road.

    Thanks for the comment, Faith. Glad to know you were inspired by this one. I’ll look forward to Wednesday’s post. I totally envy your friend. I wish I could get that far ahead. And I wish I could sell that many books!!

    And thanks to you, too, Jagi. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone in feeling these things. I have love-hate relationships with my work; my relationships with people are much more stable, thank goodness.

  • David said, “A book is never going to be perfect. And in fact, in our quest for perfection we can overwork a book and make it too precious, too studied; we can rob it of the spontaneity and passion that made it worth writing in the first place.

    and Nathanael said, “Like you said, there’s no perfect novel, and I’m a firm believer in the law of diminishing returns – after so many drafts, the small improvements aren’t worth the effort.

    In one of my favorite Tim Powers novels, there’s a character who is painting a mural on his apartment wall. Every time the main character goes to see the painter, he’s adding to the picture. At the end of the story, the painter has added so much detail and shading that the whole wall is nothing but blackness.

    I’ve often thought of printing out that scene to hang by my desk and remind myself to let the story be!

  • That’s a great image, Misty — perfect for illustrating this point. Thanks. See you later this week!! Yay!

  • Putting distance between writer and manuscript is invaluable. I’m soon to return — finally — to my WIP and I just know, when I sit and do my initial read-through of what I put away, I’m going to do my share of cringing and smiling.

  • Yes, CE, you probably will. But ultimately your manuscript will be far better for the time you took away from it, and the time you’re going to put into revisions. Good for you!

  • I’m not fond of revisions, even though I’m fully aware of their benefit. My biggest problem is, even with time off, that I am not very good at seeing things to improve. Cutting things out isn’t too big an issue, but being able to see where things just don’t work, catching inconsistencies, punching up a scene, or reworking another to make it stronger, are difficult. Part of this may be that I put a lot of time on the front end of the story, fleshing everything out, running the story through my head over and over, trying to make sure everything works before I start writing it. When I’m through the draft, the story for me is done. The spark has burned itself out so to speak, and my energy for the story dissipates. With my fantasy, which has been one of those on again off again stories (the idea for it began in 1999), where I worked on it here and there, and then really focused on it for about 18 months to get the draft done, I found I was ready to set it aside. I wrote another book, completely different, which has eaten up the past two plus years. I go back and edit it a bit here and there, but I have little drive to delve back into it as it were. I love the story, don’t get me wrong, but it has been around in my head for so long now that it is hard to get back into it. It needs fresh eyes, which I don’t seem to have for it anymore. Be a different story if it were to ever sell, but you know… I don’t have a crit group to peruse it either which would likely be a big help, but with family and school, I just don’t have time to devote to critting other folks work. It’s my first completed story however, so it might be that I just chalk it up to that and let it collect dust on the shelf or more than likely, it’ll end up getting slowly added to my website as free content. It might be that it’s gotten to that point of diminishing returns. But, with all things writing, you never know. I seem to come back to it time and again.

  • I understand what you mean, Jim. Even having some distance from a book or story, we can only see so much, because it’s out writing. That’s why having an editor or a crit group or trusted beta readers is so important. Effective self-editing takes years and years to learn. It took six or seven books before I felt that I’d gotten good at it. At some point, when you sell the book, you’ll have the opportunity to work with an editor and s/he will be able to help you revise those parts of the book that need work. And yes, I said “when.”

  • I’ve been a member of OWW (Online Writing Workshop for Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror) for over a year and developed some good relationships with folks there, but most of them seem pretty intent on the chapter by chapter reviews. I’ve selected a few folks to read the novel in its entirety, but unfortunately some are friends. I only have two readers that also write.

    Any tips on developing a good group of beta readers?

  • Actually, Dave, I’m the wrong person in this group to ask, since I really don’t have Beta readers outside of my agent and editor and my wife.