Saturday, March 29, 2014

Revise vs. Edit

I recently completed an extensive revision of my manuscript FINDING OBENO, and like Punxsutawney Phil being yanked from his faux tree stump in the early morning hours, when I finally emerged from my revision cave, I was a bit skittish of natural light.
However, unlike the detested bearer of bad news and extended winters, I did not have the press awaiting my appearance, so I have no triumphant photos of my feat. But trust me, I looked pretty much like this.
While I was busy in my revision cave, my Writer’s Dojo blog was left to languish, but now I’m back and ready to tackle a new post on the very topic that had me occupied these last three months: REVISIONS.

Revising is a huge part of writing. And whether you are revising at the request of an agent or editor or revising based on your own intuition, it should be the part of the writing process that takes the most time. When I think of the writing process, I picture those inspirational photos of icebergs representing the depths of imagination. Writing my first draft is just the tip of the iceberg.
Where writers sometimes sabotage themselves is by confusing editing with revising. 

The official definition of EDIT is to prepare (written material) for publication by correcting, condensing, or otherwise modifying it. I consider editing as polishing up words, making sure all grammar, spelling, and punctuation are correct and tinkering with lines and swapping out the occasional word for a more interesting synonym.

Revising, on the other hand, deals with the structure of your story. The official definition of REVISION is a change or a set of changes that corrects or improves something: a new version of something.
But let’s break the word down to its essential meaning.

The prefix RE means “again” or “again and again” to indicate repetition.

The root VISION means the faculty or state of being able to see, if used as a noun, or (and I love this) if vision is being used as a rare verb it means imagine.
So at its essence, REVISION means to see and imagine again and again…and again

With that in mind, let’s equate your manuscript to your house. It’s an easy analogy because as writers we spend a great deal of time living in our stories. If your manuscript is your house, when you edit it, you are cleaning it up; dusting, vacuuming, scrubbing, mopping, and polishing your words until they sparkle.
Revising is not editing. It’s not cleaning up your story and words. It goes much deeper and takes a lot of blood, sweat, tears, pulling of hair, and often gnashing of teeth.
With that in mind, let’s return to our house analogy. If editing is cleaning your house, revising is renovating, remodeling, rearranging, and redesigning it. These tasks take time. Don’t rush through them. Revising is looking at the structure and elements of your “house” and doing the heavy lifting needed to make your house a home, where people will want to visit and live.
Revising may entail taking out walls (just make sure they’re not load-bearing) or adding walls and support to the existing structure to strengthen the foundation. 
It may necessitate removing beloved pieces of furniture that no longer fit or match the theme design and introducing new furnishings to create a welcoming flow to your house.

Think feng shui. Create harmonious surroundings that enhance the balance of your structure. You want your story to have a natural, organic flow. 
So chuck out or rearrange elements and pieces that disturb the flow of your story.

In my manuscript, the hope of the story, which is essential to the core of FINDING OBENO, was lost in chapter after chapter of darkness. I needed to bring more light into my “house” and ended up adding eleven new “windows” of hope in the manuscript to guide my readers through the dark chapters. 
When deciding how to renovate a manuscript, first make a plan to follow. I prefer creating a poster size chapter breakdown with colorful post-it notes, which I can manipulate until the design meets my needs.
The chapter breakdown becomes my revision blueprint. While revising existing chapters and writing new ones, I refer to the blueprint frequently, so I don’t veer off course and accidentally place a toilet in the closet instead of the bathroom.

After months of working on all the re- verbs: revising, renovating, remodeling, rearranging, and redesigning, I then begin to edit. It would be a waste of my time, as well as my critique partners’ time, to edit before revising, as many of the words I'd be polishing may end up cut, moved, or altered during the revision phase.

In 2011, I attended a writing workshop led by Editor Stephen Roxburgh. While discussing editing and revising, Stephen told us something I’ve never forgotten. “You can’t polish a turnip.” 
Make sure when you spend time scrubbing your words, they are in a story that can be polished. Revise first. Then polish away.

Regardless of what type of “house” you are building, before you focus on editing, take the time to REVISE. Look past all of your beloved words to the structure of your story. See your story and imagine it again, and again…and again. And when it’s structurally sound and organized so your plot flows through the space, decorate it with beautiful words and make them shine.

I promise, if you give your revisions the time and attention they deserve, when you emerge from your revision cave, you, too, may look like Gollum, but you will be clutching a manuscript both you and your readers will view as precious.


  1. Great blog post, Keely. I used to be afraid of revision. I would edit, edit, edit away, thinking I was revising, and of course, all I had in the end was a very polished turnip...or something less edible. ;) Revising can be scary, but is a necessary part of writing, and it's important to know the difference. Thanks for this. :)

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Eboni, and for your kind words. I, too, used to spend an exorbitant amount of time polishing turnips and in some cases large piles of manure. Once I realized cutting characters, scenes, chapters, and story threads was not an admission that I'd wasted my time, but a natural part of the writing process, I learned to love revising.

    Happy revising and polishing! Can't wait to read more of your revisions! :)

  3. I’ve nominated your blog for the Versatile Blogger Award because I think you’re awesome. (Acceptance optional and I apologize if you’ve been nominated recently—I tried to find fab bloggers who hadn’t been. Either way, pop over to my post nominating you: Cheers!

    I kept thinking "THAT is my favorite picture" at each one. Great picks. ;-) But, of course, the iceberg is just truth in a pretty picture. Revise, revise, revise... I like thinking feng shui.

  4. Hi Sarah,

    I apologize for not responding sooner. It has been a crazy summer, and my blog was left to gather dust over the last few months.

    Thank you for the kind words about my blog and the nomination. I imagine I've missed the window to keep this going, but I really appreciate you picking my blog.