Please Don’t Revise Your Manuscript!

Please don't revise your manuscript

Please Don’t Revise Your Manuscript!

Hello, you brilliant author, you. Yes, you—who have set out to tell a story you dreamed of telling, and by damn you did it. You finished a manuscript.

Whether you did it during NaNo or any other time, do you know what an accomplishment this is? All of us who write or exist in the publishing world know how often we hear it: “Oh, I’ve always thought of writing a book….”

Of course you have, darling, you think. We all have a story to tell, after all. But how many people actually sit down and do the colossal work of putting it on the page? Not many, percentage-wise.

But you did, you dedicated creative soul. You fabulous finisher, you.

I’ll bet, now that you have this shiny new manuscript, you can’t wait to dive in there and start revising it, can you? To polish it up all nice and pretty to get you the agent you hope for, or garner you a publishing contract or fulfill an existing one, or to get it in front of readers as you always dreamed.

This may sound very odd coming from me, someone who edits books for a living, but I’m suggesting that you don’t do that.

At least not now.

Why You Shouldn’t Revise a Fresh First Draft

First off, I’m not intimating that your story doesn’t need revision. I can almost guarantee it does—maybe even lots of it. But what is it you’re actually itching to do? I’m guessing you want to turn back to page one and dive right and start fixing.

But you’re skipping a step.

I’m an editor—and there are lots of people who go by that job title. (Seems like more and more all the time, actually.) But have you ever noticed there’s no such job title as “professional reviser”? That’s because it’s a different skill from editing—and one that (generally) can be performed only by the author of the work.

Editing and revision are so often lumped together or used interchangeably, but they’re two separate processes—both essential to creating a well-developed story.

Editing and revision are so often lumped together or used interchangeably, but they’re two separate processes—both essential to creating a well-developed story.

Revision is an extension of writing: the process of taking all your craft skill and knowledge and dedicating it to digging out more gold from what you already wrote, developing it more fully, clarifying your ideas and how well you’ve conveyed them, strengthening the story as a whole.

Editing, though, is a different skill and process: assessing what’s actually on the page and how well it conveys the author’s vision, how it could do that more effectively. That can be done by professionals like me—outside experts who help pinpoint where the story could be developed, clarified, strengthened.

But it can also be done by the author, and it should whether you plan to work with an editor or not—before you start revising.

Diving immediately into revision before you take time to edit is like starting to work under the hood of a car before diagnosing what the problem might be. How can you “fix” anything if you haven’t yet taken a look at what might be “broken”?

So what exactly is editing, then, and how is it different from revision?

Editing vs. Revising

Readers of my book Intuitive Editing know that I break each chapter into two sections: “How to Find It” and “How to Fix It.” In a nutshell, that’s how you can think of the difference between editing (the former) and revising (the latter).

Intuitive Editing helps with both “How to Find It” and “How to Fix it.”

Editing is often challenging for authors not just because they may roll it into revision and thus diminish its effectiveness, but because it’s damned hard to get objectivity on your own work—a core requirement for successful editing.

So before I offer a suggestion for how to edit, let me first urge you when to edit: not yet.

Fresh off a first draft you haven’t yet gone back into for revisions is your first, best chance to get that objective, eagle-eye view of your story, and you can increase your objectivity by taking some time between writing “the end” and turning back to the beginning to see what you’ve got.

This is one reason NaNo’s timing is delightful—with the holiday season right on its heels, it’s a perfect time to step away from the monthlong grind you may have pushed yourself through (or the intensive labor of completing any first draft) and just relax.

Decorate the house for the holidays. Start baking. Spend time with the family and friends and pets you may have sidelined while gritting out your word count day after day. Get out in the sunshine—your vitamin D levels are probably tanking after sitting at your computer for so many hours. As a friend of mine I frequently quote advises, “Have a glass of wine, sugar.” You worked hard. Celebrate and sit back.

Not only is this recharge time wonderful for your psyche and your mental and physical health, but when you do come back to your manuscript after all the holiday madness has finally settled, you’ll have some distance, the fresh perspective that grants you the most objective read of your work you’ll likely ever have.

And now, author friends, you get to dive in.

How to Edit

No, no, put your computer and your pen and your fancy writing apps aside. First you just need to take the car for a test drive to see how it’s running.

And that’s the fun read: the initial cold read of the story that you do simply to see what you actually have on your hands.

I do this with every single manuscript I edit: I load it onto my Kindle and I read it like a novel. I don’t take notes; I don’t stop to analyze. I just see what the story is and let it wash over me. I’m in “reader brain” at this point: just taking in the lay of the land and doing what I call “feeling the story.” This is the closest you may ever get to the experience your readers will have when they read it: of seeing it fresh and new.

Things will jump out at you. Don’t trouble yourself overmuch about that–and don’t come out of reader brain. If you’re worried you may forget that, say, your opening feels slow to hook the reader, or momentum sags in act two, or your protagonist or plot feels a little underbaked, go ahead and briefly jot it down, but stay in reader brain: Don’t analyze it and don’t start fixing it.

Once you finish, just sit with what you read for a bit—an hour, a day or two. Feel the story. Where did you feel it could be strengthened? What specific areas and craft elements didn’t feel as effective as you’d hoped or fully convey your vision?

Now you can get analytical as you slip into “editor brain.” Why aren’t those areas working as well as they could? Do readers not have a clear sense of your character’s motivation or goals at the story’s opening—or see what challenge to her status quo she’s facing that pushes her out of her point A, for instance? Do we lose sight of what your character has at stake midway through? Does the plot become episodic as the protag’s goals lose focus or urgency?

Use all your writing knowledge and craft skills to diagnose these problems, and then start conceptualizing how you might address them. That opens the door for “writer brain” to come back into the room.

And then—only then, my friends—should you dive in and start revising. And you can repeat this cycle as often as you need to, draft after draft, as you tighten, develop, and hone your story to a polished thing of beauty.

Here’s my high-tech representation of the full process of creating a story, in line with this system:

From this point, regular readers know I advocate a modified version of Sol Stein’s “triage” approach to effective revisions that I’ll write more about in a future post, or you can see it explained in my book Intuitive Editing, along with exhaustive techniques and tools for editing and revising your own work. You can also learn more about the editing and revision technique I describe here in my online course, “How to Train Your Editor Brain.”

And if you’re considering hiring a professional editor, join me and Jane Friedman on Wed., December 15, at 1 p.m. ET for my “Get It Edited” webinar. This is 90 jam-packed minutes of everything you may ever have wondered about hiring a professional editor: from “do you need to?” to how do you find and vet them, what does an edit look like (with real-live examples of sample edits and contracts), what should it cost, red flags, and more. ($25, playback available for registrants.)

Authors, tell me: Do you treat editing and revision as two separate processes and skills? What’s your process when you finish a manuscript? What works best for you—and what’s proven challenging? And would you be interested in a live online workshop with me on how to approach your edit and revision?

4 Comments. Leave new

  • I try to be systematic about approaching editing and revision separately, but sometimes one or the other sneaks in where they shouldn’t. In Intuitive Editing, there’s a great piece of advice where you tell authors to “go walk the Camino de Santiago” among other things, to gain objectivity. Gaining the right objectivity has been my challenge. Over the summer, I completed revisions on a ms, and decided I’d try this “getting away” approach, and set it aside for two weeks while I went on vacation. Though I didn’t actually walk the Camino de Santiago, I went to many places I’ve never been to. On the cross country flight home, I did a cold read of the ms and was astonished to realize it needed so much more work.

    That line in Intuitive Editing really stuck with me, because getting away from my home, my town, and filling my mind with new sights and experiences was the key to amplifying objectivity. For my next objectivity break, if it doesn’t coincide with a vacation, I’m planning to visit places of interest around my area I’ve never been to. And yes, I would love to attend an online workshop on approaching the edit and revision!

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      December 10, 2021 12:10 am

      I love this insight, Cate–that being completely away from your usual milieu and routine gave you even more objective perspective. I think traveling often does that for us anyway–it makes sense it would help you take a fresh view of your story. Love your idea of even just shaking things up closer to home.

      It’s hard to separate out editing and revision completely–actually probably not really possible. They’re definitely very close cousins. 🙂 But especially in early reads to assess what we have and where it might benefit from development or tightening or deepening…to me keeping editing as its own process and not giving in to the temptation to dive into revising makes a huge difference. Thanks–as always–for reading and taking time to leave another thoughtful comment.

      Reply
  • Peter Arzberger
    December 9, 2021 7:38 pm

    Each week I look forward to reading your posts, and loved your book. If you were to offer an online workshop on editing and revising, I’d sign up.

    I’ve signed up for the Dec 15 Course “Get it Edited” webinar with Jane Friedman. Looking forward to it. A question I’ll ask is how important is it to find an editor who is attuned or sensitive to the cultural setting and behaviors in a manuscript?

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      December 10, 2021 12:08 am

      Peter, your comment made my day–thanks! Looking forward to seeing you at the Get It Edited webinar with Jane next week, and thanks for that question–it’s a good one and I’ll try to weave it in. (If not, please do ask live. And if all else fails and I miss it, email me!) Thanks for stopping by to comment.

      Reply

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