Strategies for Effective Revision

Last week, we talked about the production process and how that affects the scheduling of time for writers. We talked also about the time commitment for revisions, and I mentioned that many authors have trouble revising effectively. I promised we’d start to talk about that today and we will – no surprise that this grew into two posts, so check back tomorrow for the rest.

First, what do I mean by “effective revision”? An effective revision has been substantially changed from the previous version. This means that the core strengths of the work have been buttressed, and its weaknesses have been diminished. In order to do this, the author must go right to the structure of the book and consider the merit of every element, then edit those elements appropriately.

Effective revision is often extensive revision, and it’s hard to make big changes to an existing work. Many aspiring authors choose instead to just write something else, and to incorporate their lessons learned into a new work. This is all well and good, but when you sell a work on proposal, you will have to learn to really revise. Working writers must develop the skills to make effective revisions, in order to remain working writers.

It would be lovely if every single one of us delivered a perfect book every single time, but it doesn’t tend to shake out that way. I find that every once in a while, a story (or its characters) really gives me a tussle. Part of that is that I always want to try something different and learn something new, to push the boundaries a bit, but those books quite often need revisions.

I think there are two main reasons why it’s tough to revise. Let’s talk about both of them today, and leave the mechanics until tomorrow.

1. Emotional connections

An emotional bond with the work as it stands is one reason that authors tend not to rush to learn to revise. Oftentimes, we like the book just as it stands and don’t want to change it. It is always possible to do this, but it’s not always smart. A revision is an opportunity to improve the work – and here’s the nut of it:

A revision letter is not an attempt to make the book into something it is not. A revision letter is not an expectation that the author will reshape the book to suit the editor’s personal preferences. An editor is acting in her professional capacity when she writes a revision letter – her goal is to build upon the strengths of the delivered manuscript, to address its weaknesses, to make the book stronger, more compelling and more marketable. She identifies areas that need work on the basis of her understanding of how fiction works, what readers expect in this particular subgenre, and what balance of elements the author’s readers will expect from a new book from that author.

We are in a particularly competitive and changing marketplace. Any chance to improve your work before it’s published is a good one. Take it.

2. Observations vs. Action Plans

Another complication in revising effectively is that there’s not a linear connection between an editorial observation and an action plan for making a revision. Just because the author has received a comment on the work, that doesn’t mean that the author knows what to do about it. Let’s look at an example.

One common editorial comment that authors hear about their work – especially in a rejection letter – is that one of the protagonists “isn’t sympathetic”. Two words, huge implications. What exactly should you do to fix this? This comment is often in a rejection letter and not a revision letter (or an invitation to revise) because it’s not easily fixed.

We have to take it apart to look for an action plan.

What does “sympathetic” mean? We like to have sympathetic protagonists in fiction (the alternative is the anti-hero). A sympathetic protagonist is a character with whom we, as readers, identify. A sympathetic protagonist may be flawed, but should also be admirable. A sympathetic protagonist is usually an active character – someone who does things rather than sitting and worrying about them. In romantic fiction, the sympathetic protagonist usually has a nobility of purpose and a moral code.

He or she might have attitude which disguises this truth about his or her nature, but the bedrock is there – and generally, those protagonists with such social defenses find their defenses compromised in the presence of the other romantic protagonist. So, the heroine who is the right woman for the scarred hero sees past his world-weary or bitter facade to his good heart. She sees that he has been disappointed or hurt and her attention (and love) is what heals him over the course of the book. Of course, that can work the other way around, as well, with a scarred heroine and perceptive hero. It might also be that there is something about the other romantic protagonist that lets the scarred one reveal his or her hidden truth, or confront the past.

You can see that there are a number of ways in which the book in question might fail to deliver a sympathetic protagonist. The protagonist might truly be unsympathetic – he or she might not be admirable, might not be noble, might not be active, might not have a plan, might not make an emotional connection with us as readers. Alternatively, in the case of a scarred protagonist in a romance, the issue might be with the other protagonist, who fails to see through the defenses to the truth. This might manifest in the pair arguing all the time and sounding both petty and tedious.

Which element is at issue will determine how the author can revise the work effectively. Does the character need a personality transplant? Does he or she simply need a plan or a goal? Does he or she need to appear more directed and driven? Or does he or she need to reveal more in his/her POV scenes? A line of introspection added here and there can make a world of difference. Does the other protagonist need to be more perceptive? Do the pair need to challenge each other more, provoke each other, turn up the sexual heat and/or propel the plot forward with more gusto?

You can likely see that it’s important to discern which of these root causes is the issue. That’s the only way that an author can make an action plan to fix the problem in the work. We have to get from observation to plan, and that means understanding what is truly meant by the observation.

It also means knowing our craft.

We’ll talk tomorrow about how to get to the root of the issue, whatever it is, and some techniques for making effective revisions. There are no absolutes here, no perfectly right answers, but you might get some ideas from hearing how I do it. (Or you might not.)

Here’s a question for today – what do you find most difficult about revising a book? Or about hearing criticism that’s meant to be constructive?

4 thoughts on “Strategies for Effective Revision

  1. I don’t really have any tearful stories about criticism or revision, I actually liked revising my first book. I ended up with two completely different books. Only the character names and occupations remained the same by the time I was done. I also noticed that when I started revisions way back when I used to cut and paste, but now I just delete with the knowledge that better words will come. As for criticism, maybe it depends on what stage of your career you’re at. Right now, I love getting constructive criticism, especially since I think it will help me get published. The last bit of advice I got sent me into quite a bit of research that I still haven’t quite emerged from. But, when I do I am hoping that my writing will be even better, because that is the point.


  2. First, in answer to the question posed:
    My very first reaction is that of defense. As I’ve grown older, I have managed to (mostly) keep that down to a millisecond, and keep my mouth shut until the second phase kicks in, which is to put myself into an objective frame of mind, in order to consider the criticism, and see if it might be helpful to my goal for the work. When it takes more than a millisecond, I do my best to work through the defensive stage before reacting. Doesn’t always work, but it’s a useful goal!

    2nd, have you considered writing a text book based on these posts? I think it would rock.


    • Thanks Diana, for sharing your thoughts. I think it’s pretty natural for writers to be defensive about their work. We do put a little piece of ourselves into every project, after all. And kudos to you for trying to get past that. There are often good lessons to be learned from feedback – the trick is to be open to them.

      As for a textbook, I can’t imagine writing one. These blog posts and my workshops are about as close as I’m ever likely to get – but thank you for the kind words!



Comments are closed.