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How Much Revision Is Normal?

I just read a new revision on a manuscript last week that really surprised me, in a very good way. This is, I have to say, my hands-down favorite thing to read: a revision I’ve already given notes on, a brand new take on a project, progress that makes the manuscript better.

In my own writing life, revision has been a hairy and elusive monster, best left in closets and various under-stair hidey holes, not fit for consumption. I never know how to approach it, how much to change, what was and wasn’t working.

This last revision I read really helped me realize something: the more drastic the revision, the better. In fact, I’m thinking of making an aptitude for drastic revision one of the requirements of becoming my client.

You read all the time about people who save sentences they’ve written to use for later…and then never, ever use them. I can see why. Every time you sit down to write, you’re working on your craft. Words happen to be a nearly endless — and endlessly malleable — resource. What you wrote last week and thought was so great might not even appeal to you this week, or work in the new context you’ve saved it for.

The revision I read was a completely new book, meaning, among other things, that the plot had changed, the characters had evolved, an entirely new sub-plot was added and every word was rewritten. The author looked at her last manuscript, took in all the notes and feedback she had, and returned to the drawing board to lay down the entire book again.

Most people will groan: “But I just wrote those 50,000 words!”

I was definitely in that camp at one point. I got obsessed with my daily word count, seeing how quickly I could reach it, how fast I could fill up a document with the required number. But that’s not the right attitude. Because most — if not all — of those words will be different by the time the manuscript is, as I like to say, “ready for prime time.”

The idea of filling up your word count to fill up your word count, of revising the same manuscript over and over without changing much, the complacency some people slip into when they know there are problems with their work but they think “an agent or editor will fix it” can only add up to writing that is not the best it can be. If it doesn’t work, fix it. If those words are bad but pad your word count, take them out anyway. If there are problems, address them. In today’s competitive market, agents and editors might dock you for flaws they would’ve accepted before because we are only taking on the most excellent projects.

I wish you all could’ve read this revision, compared side-to-side against the original manuscript. It was inspiring. That is the key, friends, to challenging yourself and striving each and every day toward your best work. And that’s what I hope we’re all doing here.

Short answer — after the long answer — to the question then. How much revision is normal? A whole lotta revision is perfectly normal, in fact, it is encouraged. Many authors routinely rewrite their entire books from scratch. And those are the authors I have deep respect for.

Too many writers just do what their critique partner or agent tells them. They do a “check list revision,” like they’re just checking issues and line edits off as they fix them. They don’t go any deeper than that. They don’t bring any of themselves into the revision, and they don’t think of their own improvements, depth, and layering to add.

Revision doesn’t translate to “quick fix.” It translates to, if you break it down, “re” (again) and “vision.” In other words, seeing the whole book again and making changes according to your new vision for the entire book.

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  1. JohnO’s avatar

    Ahh, good post, and timely as I’m chest-deep in revision (“It sucks! I can make it better!” “It sucks! I can make it better!” … etc.) The hardest part, by FAR, is cutting good stuff out.

    But the other thing I’ve learned is, even if it’s just a little voice telling you something’s not work, it’s probably right. It probably means … yes, you can make it better.

  2. Mary’s avatar

    And THAT’S what a lot of people don’t either a) trust or b) want to hear. I’ve done this before, many times, where I know something needs fixing but wait for someone to eventually call me on it (which they will, if they’re worth their salt as a reader, agent or editor).

    It’s exactly that kind of lazy writing that I’m working really hard to get away from at the moment. I’ve done my laziest best, I figure, now’s the time to gnash the teeth and protest and wail but do my best best nonetheless. I’ve sent out my laziest best with an agent and gotten it rejected by editors. Someone down the line WILL call out lazy writing down the line.

    Order of the day now? Writing stuff that is amazing and brave and makes you vulnerable instead of just “something good enough to get published.”

  3. Susan Adrian’s avatar

    AMEN!! And I’m currently rewriting my book AGAIN, completely changing an important aspect of the plot and all the subsequent ripples. It’s worth it. Every time makes it better.

  4. Mary’s avatar

    That’s great, Susan. Ripples are always good. Even when the ripples you change at the end cause ripples to form back at the beginning… it can seem endless at times but every ripple makes it stronger. =)

  5. Debbie Duncan’s avatar

    WONDERFUL post, Mary, and right on for where I am in my novel. I *thought* I’d finished it in January, but after setting it aside, attending SCBWI NY and sharing the manuscript with a few writers and readers whose opinions I trust and listening to their feedback, I decided it needed a major revision — as in, a different beginning and a new ending! I am thrilled with the progress I’ve made, as is my writers group. I never thought I’d say this, but I LOVE REVISION.

  6. Mary’s avatar

    That’s really great to hear, Debbie. Revision is absolutely important to any writing project, and a lot of people shrug it off. But it is so cathartic and if you don’t end up rewriting a good part of the book, I do think you’re missing out. =)

  7. Gwenda’s avatar

    Definitely! I get the word count thing though, particularly on a first draft. Because the important thing then is to get it all out there, get a full thing to work with. I’ve known so many writers who work and rework their beginning and never make it to the end, or work and rework and rework their beginning and then once they do finally make it to the end discover they need a whole new beginning.

    I’ve always been a fits and starts writer, and am currently trying to force myself not to work that way, because getting that first draft down really is the only thing it makes sense for a writer like me to concentrate on. (I hate them, but there are some writers who do a lot of drafting in their head and are able to turn out solid first drafts that only need minor tweaking–I live with one.) I’ve also become a total believer in the “listen to your gut” (and sometimes literally your body) when it sends up a little inkling that something _feels_ wrong and then figure out what’s bugging you at the time and don’t do it. The subconscious usually has powerful things to say. So I’m working quickly, but with more deliberation than usual right now–and with no illusions whatsoever that I won’t still have a mountain of revision to do. But revision’s the fun part.

  8. Mary’s avatar

    Oh Gwenda, darling, I have a whole post cooking about the “vomit out the first draft” method, which I also believe is absolutely important. Rereading and jumping into edits before a first draft is finished is deadly. The word count comment was totally out of context above, because, as an expert draft-get-it-down-er, I’m thinking of ways now to be a more careful vomiter. I still haven’t found that balance with myself.

  9. Gwenda’s avatar

    We should totally get “careful vomiter” T-shirts made. I have come to believe that any given writer’s process is always shifting and we just get more secure with all that change as we get better. :)

  10. Susan James’s avatar

    Thank you Mary. I really needed this reminder right now. My nemesis is backstory. I’ve had an agent say I had a great start but killed it with too much bs. I stripped it clean and had an agent say “great story but I’m wondering what she’s been doing all this time.” I know there is a balance, and I will find it, but yes, it means rewriting again.

  11. Michele Tennant’s avatar

    Can rewriting become an obsession? I have this picture book I’ve been working on for a while. After a rewrite, I save the file version and work on something else for a while. Then I come back to the PB and edit some more. I change a phrase here, a line there, move text to another section, etc. I am a bit of a perfectionist and every time I read my work I see something that could be “fixed.” It’s like I will only stop editing it when it appears in an actual book and I can’t mess with it anymore. Is this a common problem? When do you say, “it’s a really great story, just leave it alone already?”

  12. Mary’s avatar

    Michele — This is, and I’m not even kidding, THE ETERNAL QUESTION. I’m planning to do a post on this within the month but, since it is, again, not kidding, THE ETERNAL QUESTION, it might take me a little while. :) Stay tuned.

  13. Michele Tennant’s avatar

    Thank you, Mary, I will be waiting and editing like a mad woman in the mean time.;)

  14. Emily Hainsworth’s avatar

    Thank you for tweeting this archive, Mary! Couldn’t be better timed. :)

  15. Mary’s avatar

    Emily — Thanks! Glad I could help. :)

  16. louise’s avatar

    I write as if my books are going to be published as they stand. I imagine people picking it up and horror of horror spotting a typo or a major glitch. It soon has me rereading, reediting and fine tuning.
    If I’m editing someone’s ms and see an error on the first line (and I do) I immediately groan and think “lazy bugger”. Who wants to read a book written by someone who can’t be bothered? Why should we be bothered to read their book?

  17. Nicole Alexander’s avatar

    I found this post as a link off another one. Love it! I made the mistake of querying too early, but the feedback I received gave me the courage to lop off 25,000 words and start my story at an entirely new point, with a whole new opening section. It amazes me that what I thought was crucial to show word for word could actually be told in a few sentences. As a result, I ended up with a much tighter work. I’m going through another round of revision now (this would be round 10 if you count all of them from the first draft) and it amazes me how much I’ve grown as a writer in the process. I may not be at the point of liking revising yet, but I can certainly appreciate its worth.

  18. Jared Larson’s avatar

    Great holy Caesars ghost, Mary! This is exactly what I’m doing now. A drastic revision. I dread it, but I know it’s a must before I send it out there. Thanks for this. It gives me a glimmer of hope in this turmoil of revision. But deep inside, I know it’s right.

    You’re brilliant.

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