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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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