Writers must first revise

For a good, even great, book, writers need to revise, not edit.

I’ve spent some time in recent posts, discussing revision – ways that grammar can help with syntactic and with stylistic revision – with making your sentences clearer and your language rhetorically effective. In these and in an earlier post, I considered the difference between revising and editing.

I pointed out how for some the terms can be subjective and can often be interchangeable or even identical. Also how there is not agreement – even within the same resource – on what the terms mean; for example, the use of the terms can be vague or even glossed over, as in the webpage I mentioned previously that listed “revision” as one of the steps of the writing process, but never addressed this step and barely touched on the “editing” step.

Here, I argue that as writers we need to make a distinction. If the author is doing the work on his or her writing, it is better to focus on revising or rewriting, not editing.

My college students, as well as my adult Writing Workshop participants, would often take a piece of writing back and “tweak it” and call that revision. As Robert J. Ray, author of the Weekend Novelist series of writing handbooks, says “People hear the word rewrite [or revise] and they think the word edit. Edit means ‘cut and replace.’ Cut the bad word. Replace it with the good word” (196).

This is surface work, important in the polishing phase of producing a manuscript, but unproductive, or even a waste of time, if there are story or structural problems with the manuscript and the writer ends up deleting scenes or paragraphs or even chapters that don’t work.

College writing instructors strive to help students understand that their first attempt at a composing is not the first draft, even though they have been “drafting” by getting down ideas, supporting materials, a plan for the writing, and even putting them in some kind of order in prose. This is what is known as the zero draft or rough draft or “lousy first draft” as author Stephen King calls it: it’s not meant for anyone else’s eyes.

I would like writers to understand that here’s where revision comes in – taking a fresh look, being ready to pull up sleeves and deal with all the problems existing in the story if it’s fiction or in the development if it’s nonfiction. Though editors at traditional publishing houses have now become mostly acquision editors (finding the next best seller for the publisher), editors used to assist with this function of revision. One of the most well-known examples is Maxwell Perkins of Charles Scribner’s Sons who is credited with discovering and shaping the works of authors such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and Thomas Wolfe. With Wolfe, Perkins cut thousands of words and hundreds of pages from the author’s original, so much that critics felt the books’ success was due to Perkins’ vision, not the Wolfe’s. (This “editing” or reshaping is not limited to publishers:  many critics credit Ezra Pound’s editing of the manuscript of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land to its success as a masterpiece of modern poetry, calling the work one of collaboration.)


This kind of editing is on the developmental or global level.  In my professional editing work, my colleagues and I felt there was a line we could not cross in “editing” – because the piece was the author’s work.  Lay people, even people with lots of experience with writing, couldn’t understand why we accepted the work as it was: though we provided comments or made suggestions, we wouldn’t rewrite it unless asked. Rewriting is a different process which involves more work (and also deserves different pay scale).

Although editors can and do perform this rewriting funciton, when an author does this work on his or her own writing, I prefer to use the term revision so that writers know just what is involved – not just a simple “cut and replace” of a word or sentence (or paragraph) even polishing of an isolated sentence or paragraph. In nonfiction, writers would look at the development of the ideas, examining the structure, outline, and build on the chapter and paragraph level. In memoir and fiction, writers look at the story and scene level. This information bears repeating from early post on revising vs editing.

Revising and rewriting focuses on major changes that include:

  • Adding, changing, or deleting parts of the piece to help the writing flow
  • Organizing story elements or ideas into an order that makes sense (character development, story arc)
  • Coming up with an interesting lead that hooks the reader (and if non-fiction, a conclusion that sums up things)
  • Adding specific descriptions, explanations, and details

The problem with writers who use the tweak or cut and replace method, or even work on improving sentences before doing the global or developmental revising, is that those sections may turn out to be cut or wrong for the work. The author has thus wasted his or her time.

You may not accept my definition and use of terminology. As stated, the terms can be subjective and individual. You may not even accept my premise that writers must revise or rewrite in order produce a good book.

Again, the terminology and emphases differ, but what can writers do to improve their work through revision? No surprise that not everyone agrees here, either.

Some, like author, editor, and writing coach Qat Wanders, say that most readers will not catch global problems (in a story or book’s development), so you can save a lot of time and money by focusing on fixing the surface errors.

We’ve spent many posts looking at common errors in grammar and usage and how they affect an author’s credibility. But we’ve also discussed that both inexperienced and experienced writers make them. Editor and writing instructor Bonnie Johnston points out the general detection of error rate is between 80-95% (with 95% being that of professional editors).

There are free and paid programs to help with these grammatical and usage errors, or you can spend the money on a professional editor. If so, Johnston urges, make sure you have a common vocabulary, that you are using the same style and craft manuals. (This is also true if you share your work with beta readers – make sure you’re clear on terminology and purposes.)

On the other hand, Lauren Ranalli, children’s book writer and author marketing coach, believes in the value of editors for both surface and structural issues. Several former workshop participants have shared their various experiences with “editing” services. One editor looked at grammar and word choice and occurrence, especially noting discrepancies between uses. Another editor did similar edits, but also imposed his own house style rules on the text, ignoring certain conventions that differ between disciplines (science vs literary) and cultures (British vs. American style of punctuation). Not only did he mark these changes as absolute without explaining them, he also did line-editing, “fixing” word choice or sentences which I felt was heavy-handed since in these cases it was actually a matter of style.

A third participant got an even more comprehensive review of her manuscript. After making the suggested revisions, she then sent it back for another review (at additional cost) – only to have it returned with different, often contradictory suggestions. (This can and does happen. It’s hard to catch every error — see detection rates above.) Moreover, word choices and sentence structure and prose may strike you differently on a second or third reading. In my experience as a professor, when my college students submitted several drafts after revision, I would sometimes catch something I didn’t see in an earlier draft. If so, I would point it out, but I wouldn’t “penalize” them for any error they should have known about but I missed on a previous reading.)

Writing Workshop participants come to my classes with different goals: Some want only to create a record of family histories “self-publishing” through photocopies. Others want to go the traditional route with a publishing company. There are many options with how you put your work out into the world, as well as how prepare this work for “publication.” It comes down to what your goals and resources are, especially whether you are concerned with a surface edit or whether you are interested in revising or rewriting the work to make it the best you can. As the title of this post suggests, I believe that writers must first revise before they spend time polishing their prose.

(People cited: Ray, The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel; Wanders; Johnston; Ranalli.)

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