Revisions Revisited


For the past week or so I have been slowly making my way through a revision letter from my editor — his response to the first Thieftaker book.  When this book is released, it will be my thirteenth published novel.  That’s thirteen revision letters, not to mention the revision letters I’ve gotten on half a dozen short stories.  You might think that I’d be used to this by now, that I would take the criticisms like a professional.  Apparently you don’t know me very well….

I’ve probably said this before, but I have always thought that it would be great just once to receive a revision letter that said, “David, this is perfect.  Please, don’t change a word.”  But of course, that never happens, and never will.  There is no such thing as a perfect novel, and certainly no such thing as a perfect first draft.  I KNOW that I’ve said that before.  And yet, I still find myself mildly disappointed when I get those revision notes and starting reading through all the things my editor thinks need fixing. I also still find myself arguing with my editor on just about every page.  Not literally — something I learned early on:  upon receipt of a revision letter, I immediately contact my editor, make sure he knows that I received the manuscript, and thank him for his hard work.  And then I don’t call him or email him until I’ve had time to read through and digest what he has said in his notes.  Why?  Because by the time I’m done reading through the book and my editor’s remarks — after I’ve screamed and torn out my hair and cursed him and called into question his ancestry and suggested terrible things about the nature of his relationship with his mother —  I’ve usually decided that he’s right about most everything he said.

There are several reasons for this, not least among them the simple fact that my editor is very good at his job and has been doing this for a long time.  But more, I know that his goal for the book is exactly the same as mine.  He wants it to work.  He wants people to buy it and read it and love it.

As a parent, I often set down rules, or stop my kids from doing things, for reasons they don’t immediately grasp.  Admittedly, sometimes I tell them to stop doing things simply because these things bug me.  I don’t have a better reason than that.  But more often than not, it’s because I have a better sense of the long-term consequences of actions than they do.  In other words, I know better.  And when I can sit down with my kids and explain my rules or decisions to them, they often understand. They may not agree, but they at least know why I made the rule.

In the same way, when I sit down and consider the changes my editor suggests — when I look for the reasons behind them — I usually come to see their logic.  For instance, my editor is currently driving me nuts with his questions about the historical information in the book.  In the little imagined conversations I have with him every so often (imagined being the key word) I have reminded him that I possess a Ph.D. in history.  I assure him that I really did do a lot of research while writing the book.  But I know that he wants me to be sure.  He wants to be confident when we go to press that we haven’t left ourselves open to criticisms of the book’s underlying assumptions.  And on at least one p0int, he has forced me to question the accuracy of what I did.  The result is that I now feel like I’m on sounder footing with a key plot point.  Another thing my editor does (and I think many editors do the same) is suggest changes in my wording when something I’ve written doesn’t work.  Sometimes I accept these changes — a different word here, a change in the syntax there.  Often though, I hate his changes, and those are, quite often, the things that get me screaming.  But eventually, after I’ve called him a few dozen horrible things, I remember something he told me some time ago.  “You don’t have to use my wording,” he said with maddening equanimity, when I complained about some change he had made to a previous manuscript. “You’re the writer; I’m sure you can come up with something better.  I changed it because the original wording didn’t work.  It wasn’t clear, or it didn’t work with the rest of the scene.  I was just trying to draw your attention to it.”

Uh, right.  Okay.  Well, that’s reasonable.

Most of his comments are like that.  Reasonable, helpful, annoyingly well thought out.  And that’s why, in the end, I wind up listening to almost all of his suggestions.  But not all of them.  With every manuscript, there are certain issues on which my editor and I fail to reach an understanding.  He’ll feel, quite strongly, that I need to change this or that.  And I will be just as convinced that it should remain as written.  And almost invariably, on these issues, I prevail.  It’s my book, and my editor is always the first to say so.

So what sorts of problems does my editor find with my work these days?  You name it.  He’s very good at spotting my crutches — this time around “clearly” and “he stepped…” among others.  In a few places I’ve allowed my action to get ahead of my descriptions, so that my character is reflecting on the exterior appearance of a particular building or tavern, but he’s already inside.  There are also larger issues — one in particular involving the encounters my MC has with his nemesis.  I need to limit these and make them more effective.  I agree that all of these matters need some attention.  On the other hand, my MC has one particular haunt where he spends much time.  At times I call it by its formal name.  At times I use a nickname for it.  I think it’s perfectly clear what he’s referring to.  My editor thinks I should use the formal name always, or the nickname always, but not one and then the other.  We’ll see who prevails on that one.

Ultimately, there are two things that I hope you’ll take away from this post.  First, the editorial process is absolutely essential to effective writing.  Even if you feel comfortable editing your own work, in the end your story or book will benefit enormously from being read and critiqued by an experienced reader.  I don’t care if you’re finishing your first book or your eighty-first, you have to be able to listen to and accept criticism.  That doesn’t mean you have to make every change that’s suggested to you.  But you should be able consider these changes without ego and without defensiveness.  If you’re going to reject them, make sure you’re doing so for the right reasons.  And second, after you have gone through the editorial process a few times, it will start to inform your writing.  You will be able to anticipate problems as you write, and thus avoid them.  In other words, the editorial process will make your writing — even your writing of initial drafts — better.  And that’s the best reason of all for taking it seriously.

David B. Coe

15 comments to Revisions Revisited

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Great post. Thank you. It can be humbling and scream inducing to have outside critique of our work, of any kind, but in the end it’s enormously gratifying to know how much better that work is once the give-and-take of that critique has occurred. I’ve had a reviewer who, to this day, I think my husband would shoot on sight (if he weren’t anonymous, of course), but the paper really is enormously better for having had to struggle with those awful reviews.

  • David, I have a too have a love-hate relationship with revision letters. Though perhaps bipolar might be a better description for me. I *hate* getting them, I hate everything in them, I hate the person who sent them, I hate the fact that I ever thought I could ever be a writer. I get dejected and slightly depressed. Then I make the hated changes and I love the flow and tightness of story in the manuscript and the editor becomes my bestest friend again.
    Writers are crazy. And I love it!

  • As a sender of these letters, I have to admit I’m not a big fan of them either, even though they hold a valid and useful purpose. My sole intention is to help each author polish their story to its brightest shine, but having received a few of these letters myself, I know how each ‘suggestion’ can easily turn into a dagger in the writer’s heart. Sometimes I get emails back from the authors thanking me for putting so much time and effort into their story, and sometimes the emails are less grateful. Once I got back a 10-page single-spaced document refuting my edits and lecturing me on the proper use of commas.

    I would very much prefer to see a perfect story that required nothing more from me thasn the words “Publish that work of art!” It’s a lot less work for me when that happens. But if that happens three times a year, it’s been a really good year.

  • Great post, David. I feel exactly the same way. Every time I read a letter like this I have to remind myself that an edit letter is not review, that it’s goal is to improve the book, not slam it. The editor, after all, already bought it. He or she just wants to make it better.

  • Tdancer2

    My nemesis is usually a beloved turn of phrase or little scene that I fell in love with somewhere during the writing that never really fit, but I couldn’t bring myself to remove it. What do you do as a writer when your applecart is selling delicious spiced apple pies?? It is my editor’s job to save me from myself. Although, once in a while, I slip one in!

  • Hep, thank you. The outside critique is both maddening and invaluable. And I can say with utter certainty that every one of my books is better for having gone through the revision process.

    Faith, yes to the bipolar thing. I curse the process every step of the way, but am so grateful for it once I’m through.

    Ed, I’m actually surprised to hear that there are even one or two perfect stories each year. That’s remarkable. Maybe one day I’ll write one, although I doubt it. But under the heading of “professionalism” I think it’s really important to reiterate that the type of letter you describe is beyond the pale. I hope you didn’t end up publishing the story/article.

    Thanks, A.J. I try to remind myself of those things again and again. It’s hard, though — sometimes, at least — to keep them in mind.

  • Dancer, reading your question, I am reminded of the phrase “Kill your darlings.” I know exactly the sort of thing you’re talking about. I fall prey to them, too. But they can be treacherous. And in the end they can be detrimental to the entire project, despite how lovely the look and sound. If they don’t work, you have to cut them — be ruthless. Ask yourself how well your reasons for wanting to keep them stack up against your editor’s reasons for wanting to cut them. If you arguments come down to “But it sounds so good!” you need to cut.

  • Amy

    I’m looking forward to someday having a revision letter. I want somebody who’s familiar with the genre I like to write in to read my stories and tell me what doesn’t work, what does work and that my stories are cool enough that someday I might gain an audience.

  • David> Just out of curiousity, does your editor tell you things he likes? Does he mark places that work well? I found one of the worst things about my dissertation was that the advisors were more than happy to slam everything, but unwilling to tell me what I did right (assuming, of course, that there was actually at least one right thing in the piece). I’ve found that often the “positives” of an editoral letter help a lot, too.

    In my editing I’ve had easy and difficult authors. I did have one get very hurt by a letter (and I was being as kind as I could). I understand why the author was hurt, and assured the author that we were both in it to make the book as good as possible, and the press believed in the book, or they wouldn’t have accepted it, etc. On the other hand, my criticisms were right. But I know it is hard to not take editoral comments as personal attacks, no matter how kindly phrased. (That leaves out, of course, the editorial comments that are personal attacks, but those don’t usually come from professional editors.)

  • Perhaps it’s because the freshly-written manuscript is like a newborn child? No one likes to hear criticisms of their children.

    I certainly have that reaction. But lately I’ve been in a place where, upon receiving feedback, my brain starts automatically working on, “Okay, how can I fix this?” Which is probably good, but it makes me wonder if I’m a little too willing to accept changes, which might make it a matter of self-confidence and self-doubt. Which is an entirely different kettle of fish … or is it?

    Thanks for being so honest, David. It’s good to know that those kind of reactions aren’t unusual.

  • Amy, that’s a great attitude to have, and it will serve you well when you do have that first revision letter in hand.

    Emily, yes, my editor is pretty good about telling me what he likes about the manuscript. His editorial letters always begin with a recitation of what works, and occasionally such comments also show up in his marginalia. But at this point in our interaction — after 15 years and more than a dozen books — I don’t need to hear that as much as I used to, and he doesn’t feel the need to reassure me. That said, whenever I do critiques, I always make a point of telling writers all the things that I like, for exactly the reasons you mention.

    Thanks, Moira. If I can’t be honest about this stuff at this stage in my career, I’m taking myself way too seriously. I often refer to my books as my babies (much to the chagrin of my daughters), so I know just what you mean. But as I said to Amy, having that “How can I fix this?” attitude is a wonderful thing. I’m sure it makes you much easier to work with, and I’m sure as well that this is immensely beneficial to your manuscripts.

  • Unicorn

    I’m with Amy – looking for that first revision letter. Thanks for a very helpful, very honest post.

  • Thanks, Unicorn. Hope that first letter comes your way very soon. 🙂

  • Great post! I’m the same way — I first get that edit letter and I want to expound on all the ways it’s wrong. I always have to take a few days to think things through and I almost always come around in the end.

  • Right, Carrie. I actually think it would be dangerous for me to speak at length with my editor in those first few days. I’d say something I would surely regret!