Friday, April 4, 2014

Editor's Eyes: 3 Golden Rules of Revising

In March I received my editorial letter for HOW WE FALL (Merit Press, Nov. 2014). I'd been through it with beta readers, critique partners, and my agent, but this was the first time I'd actually gotten a real taste of the author's side of going through edits. Being an editor and having written editorial letters myself, I knew a bit what it would be like, but it's still very different when it's your own book. And it actually wasn't nearly as bad as I was preparing myself for. I thought about the comments for a while, turned the issues into action points, and discussed the notes with my critique partners. It was a pretty light edit and a tight deadline, but I cleared my schedule and was pretty confident I could get it done.

But then I opened up the manuscript and had no idea how to make those changes. Change words? Add sentences? Cut sentences? Combine scenes? I knew those things would be part of it, but I'd done probably five sets of serious revisions on this book, and changing this or that might not actually solve the issues I needed to solve. After all, this was it. Not only did I need to make my editor happy, but after we were through with edits, I wouldn't have future chances to work on the story.

Part of the problem was that even though I had action points to address and I could see how to change most of the issues, often revisions need to go deeper than changing a point or two or the consequences of some action. Good revisions push the book deeper, tighten and focus the plot, and make the characters more compelling and active/reactive. My usual advice to authors who don't know how to approach revisions is to use the specific editorial notes as a launch point for improving whatever issues that problem deals with. Don't just fix the surface, dig deeper.

Once I got into the mindset and wrapped my brain around which elements needed to change and why they needed to change, things went much better. And I met my deadline! The whole process got me thinking, though, about what's behind a solid set of revisions. No matter what plot or character issues you're resolving, here are three main things to keep in mind as you work through your story:

1) Use tension on every page. Even minor frictions pull readers onward, keeping them reading to see how characters deal with the issue and to find out what happens. Plus, family tensions, lack of resources, timing, and everyday frustrations can make the scene's conflict that much more of a problem and will make the scene and the situation more complex.

2) Make every scene a turning point. If nothing has changed by the end of the scene, fix that. Making a decision, receiving information, reaching a breaking point, discovering a problem, etc., are all things that push the story forward.

3) Layer thought, emotion, action, & reaction in every scene. It's how we experience & process the world, and if you're missing one or more of those, your scene will feel flat and limp, or even worse, like a summary of events rather than a story. Without those things, the writing is dry and lacks human connection. Check your scenes, particularly the major scenes, to make sure you have the balance you want of all four.

My main advice on revising is this: don't stop at 90% done. I like to say that final 10% is actually 50% of the story. That last layer of depth and polish is a huge percentage of the reader's experience, so it's definitely worth it to make those changes.

Have you ever had to do revisions for an editor? What tips can you share?

Thanks for reading!


  1. I imagine it would be difficult to provide examples in a blog post, but I almost wish I could see examples of what you’re talking about. Your words are clear, that is, I just want to see what the editorial notes said, and how you acted on them. :)

    Another thing that occurs to me — as a neophyte dilettante writer — is that you have to trust the editorial notes you receive. There may be technical or poetic merit to feedback, but I imagine there could also be philosophical differences where changing something would only move it closer to a different vision. I have no real point, just thinking aloud.

  2. This post is so timely :-) I do think the hardest thing to do is incorporate the last bit of editorial feedback that drives the story deeper when your book already feels almost baked. It can sometimes be a huge slog. This part is where my brain disconnects and wants to explode the most in the process. Fair play to you for working it all out in time!

  3. I agree with you - that last 10% is really 50%. A lot of the prose is already in place but for it to turn into a real experience for the reader, that extra work must be done. The last of the hard yards, but worth it.

  4. This is post (and the comments) made me feel less alone as I slog through revising yet again. I love the "golden rules," and also, "Don't just fix the surface, dig deeper."
    It's scary when, as LG O'Connor put it, "your book already feels almost baked."
    This post is helping me find the courage to keep digging deeper and do that last 10% that will really make the story come alive and (I hope) turn good enough into unforgettable.
    Thanks to Kate and everyone who commented!