Writing is Revising

by Samantha Hunter

I forget who said this, but they were spot on. If you want to be a writer, you will find revision is one of the major processes you'll have to get used to. Nothing ever gets written perfectly the first time, and something can always be tweaked or re-organized, focused or elaborated. Even after a book is done, published, and sitting on the shelf, you will find things you think you could have changed.

Personally, I love to revise. I enjoy tweaking sentences and scenes, playing with the words and finessing the details, which is really a luxurious way to spend a morning and much more fun than what most people have to leave the house to do for eight hours a day. When I am revising, I have that driven sense of wanting to get things "just right," and also I don't have to worry about meeting page lengths or coming up with the next idea – everything is there and all I have to do is play with it.

But there are levels to revising, and each one of them demands something different. Basically, there are four types of revision you will commonly deal with. It helps to be clear about which one you are focusing on, and to tackle one at a time:

  1. Copyediting
  2. Reorganizing
  3. Elaborating/Focusing
  4. Rewriting

Copyediting is strictly fixing. You have to catch errors, change word usage, correct grammar, and neaten things up. A manuscript will go through several rounds of copyediting, and still there may be a few errors in the published result, because we're human not machines, and we're dealing with a whole lotta words when we make up a book. This is the most mechanical and least creative level of revision.

Reorganizing is always interesting to me, because it has to do with understanding the larger life of your book, the character arcs, the plot lines, and the logic of the story. Organization has a lot to do with pacing and flow of your story – does something happen in a way that disrupts the reader's expectations (can be a good or bad thing – bad if it's a mistaken disruption), and is there a place where the love scene goes on too long or should it come earlier to punch up the passion? This is where I see my books as a puzzle, and if there is a piece out of place, it can be moved around (you can move things around on a smaller scale in the synopsis to see how it "fits" before doing it on the large scale in the manuscript. When you are working on this level, keep the original copy in a separate file, so that you don't end up with a scrambled mess you can't put back together again.

Elaborating/Focusing is probably the larger part of what all writers do when they are revising – adding detail and fleshing out dialogue or particular issues like character motivation or scene description, or cutting back on internalizations, lengthy descriptions, or needless words (I have a list of words I overuse, like "just" "sigh" "look" etc – we all do it, and it's like weeds – the minute we pull one out, a new one takes over, and we have to become aware of it).

When you go back and rewrite all those "placeholder" words (what you used at the time because you had bigger fish to deal with and couldn't quibble over a word), you will find you have elaborated into a better description, his "look" becomes a fuller gesture, or you have focused by cutting it altogether. This is also where cp and editor advice becomes most important – we get so close to a book we often can't see where things are "not enough" or "too much" and others will help us fill in the blanks. You will hopefully catch lapses in logic, gaps in the story, or big contradictions in this phase as well, since you are looking at larger elements (though you can also reorganize sentences, I would call that copyediting).

Rewriting is the one probably everyone dreads, even me. It's when major elements of your book have to be completely redone – the conflict isn't strong enough, the character isn't right, the plot doesn't work. This is when you start at page one and have to practically redo the entire book because that one change is so huge it's going to affect everything else. You might have targeted the book to one publisher, it was rejected, and now you have to rewrite it to end up with what will likely be a brand new book. No doubt, this one can be hell, but again, on the bright side, at least you aren't starting with a blank page – you have your pages there, you just need to redo them. It's about the only comforting thought I can offer on this one. Rewriting may also include all of the previous steps of copyediting, reorganizing, and elaborating/focusing.

A few general thoughts:

Your worst enemy and your best friend when it comes to revision will be stubbornness. You can't be resistant to change in your writing – you have to accept there will be changes and revisions, and you need to be open to that. On the other hand, you may once in a while be asked to change something you really don't want to change – you need to stick by this, and explain why, in writer's terms. ("Because I like it" "Because I worked hard on it" or "I don't wanna" won't cut it).

Why does that element need to stay? Is it critical to the scene, how you wrote it, does it provide a particular effect you were going for or contribute to the character's decisions down the line? This will be a conversation between you and your editor or cp, and usually will end up in some kind of compromise, but one of the best parts of revision is that it pushes you to think through your reasons for everything in your book – this is not a bad thing, though it may be why we feel so exhausted at the thought of revising. It's a lot of work.

You'll often find that an editor will ask you to revise before they'll hand you a contract – not always, but often. This is because revision will be a constant in your life as a writer (you will never, ever reach a point where you don't have to revise something, even if it's very small) and they need to see how you react to being asked to change your work and if you can do it. This may sound obvious, but not everyone can take comments and apply them well – it's a skill because the comments won't necessarily tell you how to fix something, they will just describe something that needs to be fixed. So, when I was told "Colin needs to be stronger, he's a little too sensitive" in About Last Night… I was able to brainstorm some thoughts with my editor about how to revise that character, but how I ultimately did it was completely up to me.

On a final note, I've heard people say they don't want to talk to an editor and ask questions after they have received a revision request because they don't want to look "dumb." Believe me, the only dumb thing you can do is not ask questions or make your ideas clear. If you sell, your relationship with your editor will always be one of trust and give and take – they will trust you to make good decisions and be thoughtful about your writing (and sometimes you will revise things just because you want to, not because they asked you to), and you will trust them to help you make the book stronger, which is what revision is really all about.

Copyright © of Samantha Hunter

Samantha Hunter lives in Syracuse, NY, where she's enjoyed the luxury of writing full-time for almost three years after spending ten years as a university writing instructor. When she's not writing, Sam likes to work in her gardens, quilt, cook, read, and spend time with her husband and their dogs. Most days you can find her chatting on the Blaze boards at eHarlequin.com, or you can check out what's new, enter contests, or drop her a note through her website: www.samanthahunter.com

(This article is included on Foremost Press with permission from Samantha Hunter.)

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