Writing 4.5 – Editing vs Revising


You may have noticed that my blog posts, which years ago numbered about three per week, have dwindled to less than three per month.  In fact, my last post was about a month ago, and I’ve only posted about seven times this year.  Why? Because I’m getting better at writing, but not this kind of writing.  I mean the real kind.

I’ve written seven novels, maybe eight, and two short story collections. Of those, one novel and one collection have been published.  Of those, neither sold very well, but that’s okay.  What I gained from their lack of success will pay me back several times over when the next one is published.  What I gained was learning the difference between editing and revising.

I am, or I have been, one of those writing fools who thinks my initial first drafts are more than likely “good enough” and without any need for anything other than general proofreading.  The key word in that sentence is obvious – fool.  It’s one the most common writing conundrums and deservedly so:  How do you know when what is in your head has made it to the page?  You – yourself – probably can’t know, and that’s why having someone help you edit is so important.

Here’s a line from the query for my current WIP, Woodbury Avenue:

During 12 years of unjust incarceration, Jay’s mild disability grew into violence, especially against women.

It’s a story about an innocent man who took the fall for a murder.  It’s also a story about coming to grips with yourself and dealing with who you are instead of pretending to be who you aren’t.  Naturally, I find it a very compelling story.  Naturally, I thought everything I imagined was actually in the story.  However, after three revisions, I wasn’t so sure.  That’s probably because my three revisions weren’t necessarily revisions.

Part of my writing process is to share each chapter with you and get feedback.  Some of you point out errors, obviously valuable.  Others express confusion regarding certain characters and their actions, also obviously valuable.  Another part of my process is to provide questions to see if certain elements are coming through the way they should.  Your answers usually let me know where I may need to spend more time and attention.  That’s most valuable, but there are also questions I don’t ask.

Why don’t I ask them?  Because I didn’t think to ask them.  When I was sharing Woodbury Avenue, I didn’t think to ask, “Did it come across anywhere that Jay had spent time in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, or does it seem like he simply has anger issues?”  You, through no fault of your own, didn’t think to ask, “Hey, what has driven this guy to be so angry?”  Enough film and literature can be found that includes people who are angry “just because,” so it makes sense that you may have seen my character as one of those plain, angry people.  But that’s where revising comes in.

Over the past four months, I’ve been blessed with having much downtime due to seasonal fluctuations at my day job.  This has allowed me to revisit Woodbury Avenue in order to thoroughly prepare it for querying.  When I started this third “revision,” it was 30 chapters and about 84,000 words.  Now it’s 32 chapters and about 90,000 words.  This wasn’t my intention, but it happened because before revising again, I was working on my query letter.  That was when I focused more on that line from above:

During 12 years of unjust incarceration, Jay’s mild disability grew into violence, especially against women.

I couldn’t find anything in the story about Jay having gone to prison.  And if I didn’t mention he had gone to prison, I couldn’t have mentioned why he went to prison.  Without that, how could anyone know his motivation for the violence he inflicts upon others?  I needed to take more care with my revision.

Jay is visited by his daughter about halfway through the story, but she doesn’t appear again until the last chapter to have a revealing conversation about him.  After thinking more carefully, I wasn’t sure if it made sense that he even had a daughter.

At the time of the story, he is 33-years old.  He was supposed to be in prison from about age 15 until about age 27, yet he has a 15-year old daughter.  Is that even possible?  The problem was that I wanted him to have a daughter of a certain age, and that’s all there was to it.  I hadn’t created a thorough timeline to carefully trace everything that could or couldn’t happen.

I also wanted an ending in which two people were fighting inside a burning house due to an intentionally set fire.  That’s nice, that’s dramatic, but did it make sense?  The person who set the fire was supposed to have redeemed himself.  He was supposed to be somewhat likable and sympathetic. If he truly were, why would he set a fire and attempt to kill two people in it?  Clearly I had not worked that part out either.

I’m pretty sure this revision has taken longer than writing the first draft.  Chapter 31 on its own took me about four weeks to revise.  Each time I thought I improved something, I found strings attached to earlier chapters, and I had to trace them back to other events and adjust them accordingly.  With previous stories, I either didn’t bother with necessary improvements or didn’t even notice the strings.

Basically, I was not revising.  I was just editing, cleaning up grammar issues, and proofreading.  I was rewording sentences and paragraphs for conciseness when I should have been reviewing the entire story for conciseness and breaks in logic for clearer and cleaner motivations and consequences.

The problem mainly stemmed from the aforementioned conundrum about making sure everything in your thoughts or notes is getting to the page.  Just because the writer knows what’s happening doesn’t mean the reader will know.

Readers only know what you tell them.  If you don’t tell them why your main character is stalking his neighbors, they won’t care very much about him.  If you want that stalker to eventually be sympathetic and win over your readers, then his motivations must be clearly detailed.  If not, he’s just another violent, disposable creep.

I’m sure some will laugh and ask, “Idiot, why didn’t you already know that?”

It doesn’t matter why I didn’t.

It only matters that I didn’t, and it only matters that now I do.


8 thoughts on “Writing 4.5 – Editing vs Revising

  1. Having similar struggles in revising my own novel currently. The strings that are all interwoven are hard to extricate make right / better. I’ve gotten some invaluable advice and insight from just sharing my draft query letter and synopsis. Writing the synopsis was particularly revealing: the overall concept of my book is highly derivative of many other things, so do I have enough of a unique spin? How am I manifesting that? It’s been painful but valuable.

    Would love to hear any specific insights you have into how you approach revising as I think this might be where a story goes from good to great (or from “meh” to “pretty good”) yet there isn’t nearly as much advice or structure out there for this phase of writing as there is for initial ideation, structure, and execution.

    • something that for most people is quite basic, but i have been shying away from – until now – is using a notebook or note cards to keep track of the main events in each chapter. it makes it easier to track back and find where those threads connect in order to more easily update and improve things. it’s something i need to start doing instead of believing i’m smarter than i actually am.

  2. I guess this is one of the big reasons why having outlines and stuff really helps too! You need to have over views of the big picture to also be able to zoom in to see the smaller details.

  3. Pingback: The Writing Process: How Many Times should you revise? – D. Thomas Clark

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