How Writers Revise: Joanna Penn and Measuring by What You Create

Joanna Penn How Writers Revise

How Writers Revise: Joanna Penn and Measuring by What You Create

This post is part of the monthly How Writers Revise series, where I talk with successful authors about their editing and revision processes, as well as the challenges and setbacks they’ve faced in their careers and how they overcame them. If you’d like to receive these and my weekly writing craft posts in your in-box you can sign up here.

On the wall in Joanna Penn’s office hangs a sign she made that reads, “Measure your life by what you create.”

Many writers know the popular self-publishing entrepreneur by at least some part of what she has created: Joanna is the award-winning podcaster and blogger of The Creative Penn; a New York Times– and USA Today-bestselling author of more than 30 novels (as J. F. Penn) and nonfiction books (including the just-released How to Write a Novel); and tireless champion and resource for authors.

She has sold almost a million books published through her own small press, Curl-Up Press, to readers in 169 countries; is an in-demand international professional speaker named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World; and her Creative Penn podcast has been downloaded over 7 million times.

But in 2006, in her early thirties and “miserable” working in corporate IT, Joanna was self-publishing her first book, a nonfiction with the somewhat telling title How to Enjoy your Job or Find a New One (now titled Career Change).

“I hated my job. I was just like, ‘What is the point?’… I just felt like there must be more to life. And I needed to figure out a way to get in touch with my creativity again, but also figure out a way I could feel like my life was more than just the grind.”

Her original plan was to use the book as a sort of “business card” to move into public speaking, but in the course of researching and writing about how to change careers, “I basically discovered that I liked writing and writing a book, I enjoyed researching, and then just you know, one thing followed another and that’s it.”

But, says Joanna, “You’re talking to me almost sixteen years later…. Anyone who does anything for sixteen years is going to be quite a way along in their career. But if you were talking to me in year one, we just wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“I got treated like a lot of crap”

That first year, with that first book, Joanna got “really ripped off” in a scam where authors pay to have their work included in what’s called a “compilation book,” an experience that got her on national TV news in Australia, where she was living at the time.

But even that prominent media placement resulted in only a handful of book sales. “I put most of those books, those first lot of books, they went in the landfill.”

Joanna quickly pivoted: “I was like, “Right, that doesn’t work. I’m going to go online, I’m going to do digital marketing.”

She was an early adopter of self-publishing on Kindle, through Smashwords, and started selling to an American market, but those early years were a struggle.

“Self-publishing until about 2012 was very looked down upon…. So people treated me like crap. Basically I got treated like a lot of crap by a lot of people in publishing, and authors who thought that what I was doing was vanity, as it was called back then. But…I really love writing books. I really got the bug. And I think if you get the bug you can’t stop yourself, even if you’re not making any money.”

“You get to pivot”

By 2008 she’d started the Creative Penn blog, and the following year she started her podcast on her YouTube channel—years before it was even called podcasting—wanting to meet and network with the early players in indie publishing. “The community is so much, I think, a part of what keeps you going, especially when it is a long game.”

Those early interviews were rough, Joanna recalls: “I didn’t have any confidence.” But she learned from them. “My first podcast, I rang up someone on an actual phone and held a recorder next to the phone,” she says, laughing—and she’s left all of them up so that other authors can learn from her mistakes as well, and see how a long-term career in this business develops and is sustained.

Reviewing and sharing her own successes and missteps is a hallmark of Joanna’s business. Every September on the anniversary of leaving her corporate job she shares on her blog “lessons learned from X years as a full-time entrepreneur,” and every December she reviews what she did and didn’t achieve for the year. Then in January she posts her goals for the coming year.

It’s accountability for herself, Joanna says, but it also reminds her that things don’t always go to plan and may change. “You get to pivot, you know. We all get to pivot along the way.”

“What do you want? And what are you willing to do for that?”

By 2011 Joanna was making enough from her books, blog, and speaking engagements that she was able to quit her hated corporate job. In 2013 she was named of the Guardian UK’s Top 100 Creative Professionals. In 2014 she hit the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists with her fiction.

By 2015 she was making six figures from her own business; the following year multiple six figures. And this year she launched her own online bookstore to sell her own books and create more independence from big bookstores.

“I have a degree in theology; I don’t have a degree in publishing or English or whatever,” she says. “I’ve learned all marketing, I’ve learned all of this. We didn’t know how to podcast, we didn’t know how to do video, I didn’t know how to write a book…. I think it comes down to what do you want? And what are you willing to do for that?”

For 16 years Joanna has continued to pivot—she’s still frequently at the cutting edge of changes in the industry, like AI, NFTs, and blockchain—and she’s happy to share what she learns with the authors who, like her, understand that building a sustainable long-term publishing career is as much business as art.  

This is not a get-rich-quick scheme,” she says. “There are so many more easy ways to make money than this. I mean, like literally for many people going and being a barista in a coffee shop would be more profitable. And I mean, I work very hard. Since my over a decade full-time I work more hours than I ever did in a day job. But the thing is, you love it or you don’t. And if you love it, this is the most rewarding career.”

Joanna had more great insight and advice for authors about writing, editing, and building a long-term career as an author in our full interview on my YouTube channel here; or you can read the full transcript here.

I also asked her to talk a bit about how she edits and revises her own writing—a topic she discusses at greater length in her latest book, How to Write a Novel—and she shared her techniques. Her answers are transcribed and edited from the original interview.

How Joanna Penn Revises:

Can you tell us about your approach to editing and revision?

I’ll just overview the process: For me, self-editing is a big part of it. I print it out; I do it by hand. And then I put it back into Scrivener and I make all the changes, and then I use Pro Writing Aid, which is a tool that helps me do some adjustments. And then when it goes to my editor, and then it comes back with edits, then I do a revision.

Because I’m a discovery writer, when I finish and print it out as a first draft, my first edit is a pretty big reorganization, so it’s often a lot of “Oh, look, that just didn’t make sense. I need to put a chapter earlier on in the process, I need to foreshadow that,” and often it’s putting things back into the earlier part of the book, because I didn’t even realize it until later. And then there are kind of smaller iterations from there.

The tools make everything so much easier now. I love Scrivener—as a discovery writer I write out of order and drag and drop things around. It’s just like a miracle. I mean, I just absolutely love it.

For me, the self-editing process is to make the book into the best thing I can make it. When I’m doing my self-editing, I’m trying to look at it from the reader’s journey. I know some people do sort of pass-through edits, like, “Now I’ll look at character” or “Now I’ll look at theme.” I don’t do that–I read the book as a book, like a reader will read a book from beginning to end. You know, as a writer, it’s all in your head. So sometimes you’ve written things that might not make sense to someone else. Or you’ve you thought you said something, and you didn’t say something.

And then I hire an editor…and the editor to me is the first human who is going to read all the way through end to end, and then the feedback I get on that edit, I will then change things in certain ways. Depending on that feedback, then I also may use sensitivity readers, specialist readers, beta readers for other reasons.

All of these things, it’s about making the book the best it can be for the reader.

How do you decide what feedback fits your vision and what isn’t right for your story?

I would say first up, never look at your edits when they come back to you. Just don’t even look at them. Because seriously, whether you’re paying someone as a professional, or you’re assigned an editor from traditional publishing, they have a job. Like, if the editor came back and said, “Yay, go you, you’re amazing, nothing to be changed,” well, they’re not doing a very good job, are they? Why are they getting paid for just clapping you on the back and going, “Well done”? That’s not their job.

I feel like especially new authors, they think that’s what they’re going to get–they think they’re going to get “Well done. That’s amazing.” And I think good editors do give positive feedback, too. It’s not all criticism, for sure. But the editor’s job is to criticize. Essentially that’s how it feels, anyway–it feels like a personal attack on your stuff. What you have to do, like I said, is don’t look at them immediately. Only look at them when you have some time and some space to try not to be emotional about it.

And then I will read through the whole thing…and then I will think about it, and then I’ll start the process. And usually any reactions I have, by the time I get to them the second time around, I’ll be like, “Yeah, yeah, I agree.” I probably make between 80 to 90 percent of the changes at that point. Because to me, they’re from the point of view of someone who has a new vision, or sort of a new perspective on the work.

You just have to be confident and maybe you grow in confidence. But I get emails from people sometimes who say, “This editor basically wants me to change everything.” And my answer was, “I don’t think that’s the right editor for you.”

This is another thing–you know this. If you write thrillers, like I do, don’t employ a literary fiction editor. Or if you write paranormal romance, don’t get a historical nonfiction editor; you have to pick an editor who likes your genre. I feel like when people try and change the whole thing, it’s because maybe they don’t like the genre–that’s probably the biggest thing, a mismatch. And that is not the author’s fault. It’s not the editor’s fault. It’s like dating–you know, you have to give it a try.

I am dying to ask you why you do hand edits. You said that you do them, what, like in red pencil, like the old-fashioned way?

Black, black Biro. I print out one A4 page, which has two pages on it, although I have to wear glasses now because it’s gone a bit small. But then yeah, I scribble. It’s the reorganization, I think, for me, especially that first edit. It’s a lot of “move this paragraph here and move it there.”

I don’t know if you had a look at Thomas Hardy’s edits that I linked to in the book? It’s in the British Library. Thomas Hardy wrote Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and his hand edits are in it—of course he wrote hand edits, because it was before the typewriter, I even think. And it’s all like how I do it, lots of diagrams and crossings-out and arrows. That’s just the way I like to edit.

You have to switch over to an assessing mindset. Are printed hand edits one of the ways you distance yourself and do that?

It definitely is distancing. But I literally think it’s also being able to shuffle through a physical book and find pages where I’ve done things and then kind of knit them together. And then I put it all into Scrivener. Again, I should say to everyone, I back it up every day. Like I back up everything every single day–there’s a whole chapter on that. Lock it up, people.

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