May 30, 2017

To Revise or to Move On?

2-pens-writingStudents often ask us in our six-month course about which course of action is better—to revise as they go or to just keep writing and get it all out. As is the case with most things in life, there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. It depends on your disposition, the level of feedback you’re getting from a coach, teacher, or editor, and how much the revisions might impact the bones of your story.

The case for revising as you go
When you revise as you go, you are engaging in a learning process in addition to a creative process. You are integrating edits and getting clear about certain tendencies you might have in your writing. For instance, maybe you overuse a particular sentence construction, or you may omit metaphors and similes altogether, leaving the language a little flat. Perhaps it’s bigger picture—that you’re telling, not showing, and part of the remedy would be to slow down and do more descriptive writing. If you have the wherewithal to revise in the immediate aftermath of getting feedback back from your editor, you will learn a lot about your writing, and you can fix your story as you go. Depending on the feedback, revision can extend to large-scale storyline changes even. Revising as you go is also a solid strategy for those writers who hope to have a relatively clean first draft. For a lot of writers it’s worth the extra effort to tidy up each chapter, post-feedback, knowing they’re putting in hours now for later gains.

The case for keeping on
For any writer who knows they get mired in the details of revision, there’s really no choice but to move on. For some writers, the editorial process requires them to wear a totally different hat. They cannot multitask and might even feel they lose their creative juice when they try to switch between writing and revising. Many writers are anxious to see where their story takes them, and the idea of getting through the middle and to the end more slowly—as a result of revising as they go—is about as motivating as showing up for an underpaid, boring job. If you’re in this camp, don’t torture yourself. Writing a book is hard enough as it is. But understand that the consequence of not revising as you go will be a more unwieldy first draft, and that you will end up needing to comb through your manuscript a few extra times to preen, streamline, and polish.

And, of course, there’s always a middle ground
There are all kinds of strategies for any writer who wants to straddle the in between space. Anyone so intent on revision that they start to feel like they’re wading through mud, writing too few words and feeling frustrated, must find ways to keep going. On the flip side, those authors who can’t stand the idea of any revision are inadvertently creating more work for themselves later because no human being can hold the entirety of their own story. I’ve worked with too many authors who forget the order and sequencing of their own story and and who return to their edits after their entire book is complete only to be hit head-on by complete overwhelm.

Here are some middle-ground ideas for dealing with feedback.

  • Accept all your editor’s changes except for the big-picture queries so you at least have a relatively “clean” file to come back to later.
  • Take “chapter notes” in your own words after you complete a chapter. Read all the edits and make sure you understand all the comments. Give yourself comprehensive directions for what you want and need to do when you come back, so that if you return to this chapter six months or a year from now your notes will jog your memory and give you a clear roadmap.
  • If you’re working in later chapters and you receive notes about things that have not been properly seeded or contextualized, open up a clean Word document and keep a running list of ideas, characters, plotlines, etc. that you know you’ll need to plant earlier in the book. Later you can do a focused pass on your manuscript to look for the best places to insert a “first mention” of those things being noted by your editor as being brought up for the first time too late.
  • Print out each chapter as you complete it and put it in a three-ring binder. When you get feedback that impacts previous chapters, write notes in the margins of those printed-out chapters. This keeps you out of your computer files, but helps you notate important ideas for later revisions.
  • Be clear! Write clearly, think clearly, and execute your vision clearly. Don’t leave shorthand notes, even if you think you’ll remember later. You’re juggling a lot—a lot of content, ideas, and memories—so give yourself the gift of being your own good secretary.

Let us know what works best for you. Do you recognize yourself in the scenarios above? Do you know that you’re the type of writer who needs to revise as you go, or who absolutely cannot—and why? We want to hear from you.

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