Sunday, November 15, 2015

Revising and Editing: my process

Gustave Flaubert - Un Cœur simple (2001). Paris: Le livre de Poche (foto: Roger-Viollet)

I don’t mind editing so very much, but revision can be a chore. What's the difference between those two? I think of revision as "big stuff" and editing as "little stuff."

In revision, I might cross off pages and pages, rewrite scenes, rewrite the ending, decide a subplot went nowhere and expunge it, or radically change a secondary character's personality. I might spend three days looks at scene endings to search for the impetus for a reader to read the next scene, and if there isn't one, rewrite three or four paragraphs. These sorts of tasks can take several passes through a manuscript to fix, and sometimes require a month off between versions, so I can come back with a fresh eye to find and fix anachronistic remnants of the old version.

In revision, I look hard at issues of narrative voice, particularly if I have multiple narrators. Every narrator (and every frequent speaker of dialog, for that matter) needs to sound different from the others. Does this matter to readers? Possibly not consciously. But it matters to me. I want to get it right. So every narrator might have a pet phrase, sentence length, and diction that is discernibly different. I might give one "yes" and another "yup" and a third "sure" to say as affirmative answer to questions.

Toward the end of revision, I make a concerted effort to add a few smells and tastes, as I tend to rely in drafting too much on visual and auditory images. If I can, I take a few-week break after revision before digging in to the edits.

I begin editing with a series of 25 runs through "find" in my word processor. In drafting, when I'm typing lickety-split, I tend to use "just" and "only" too often. In editing, I erase 90% of them. I tend to make characters shrug and nod an awful lot. (I joke my first drafts all read as if I'm writing Bobblehead novels, the characters nod so much.) 90% of those must go. I look for uses of "there were" "there was" and "it was" to start independent clauses, and I try to find a more vivid way of saying that. ("There were clouds building in the west" might better be said, "A line of thunderstorms stretched across the western horizon, blocking out the last rays of the failing light.")

I manipulate sentence length and paragraph breaks to subtly alter pace. I print the novel out and mark it up. I enter changes, proofread twice more, and the novel gets proofed by two or three other people and then a pro proofreader. (And maddeningly, a few typos inevitably remain. They do in traditional novels, too.) And then I can turn it over to my Loyal Readers.

The goal of revision it to make it a page-turner of a tale, with believable characters you care about. The goal of editing is to make that tale go down easily as chocolate mousse. A writer once praised my work by saying, "It's like the words disappear into the page, and all I'm left with is the story." I hope that's still true, and I put a lot of effort into making it true. Too much effort? A lot of writers trying to make a living at writing indie genre fiction would say yes, I do. They advise me to crank out the book and let the first draft plus proofing stand. But I have to live with myself first of all, and I can't bear to do that.

On average, the work it takes me to write a natural disaster thriller assays out to about a 1:1:1:1:1 ratio--that's research to planning to drafting to revising to editing.  It might take 100 hours to research and 100 to plan a novel, 100 to draft, 100 to revise, and 100 to edit. Non-writers might only think about the 100 hours of drafting, and wonder why all writers don't put out a book each month. If I were the sort of writer who could work eight hours a day on writing alone, I might produce a novel every three months. As it is, with the necessary break between draft and revision, it takes me, in the best case scenario, six months from initial idea to final draft.

If I wrote contemporary, non-science-based novels, I could cut the research hours down by 2/3 or better. If I wrote historical fiction, I'd need to double the research time. Also, I'm the sort of writer who is burned out after two to four hours' creative work, which I do six to seven days each week. After that, I must turn to business matters, to connecting with writer friends on-line, or to tasks in the real world. (Writers, believe it or not, need to clean out their gutters and fix meals and phone their elderly aunts and do all sorts of chores every week, just like non-writers!) Or I might spend the rest of the day writing a blog post.

…like this one, which is now written. I hope you enjoyed it.


  1. You do the same kind of heavy work I do when it comes to revision and editing. Courageous of you to count how many times you run through the editing. Not me, but I suspect it does get up into the double digits.

    1. It can get up there sometimes! Every novel is different, of course, and some take more, some take less. I could revise forever, but I'm trying to train myself to set a limit. 99% of the way there will have to be good enough. I'm not going to live forever, after all. ;)

    2. Yup, finding that stopping place can be really hard. It's frustrating to think that the next edit or proofread will be the last one, and then a sentence pops up that doesn't read right, or an open quote left out. The million dollar question is how could I possibly have overlooked that. You've been writing a lot longer than I have, so it's actually encouraging that you still put in the same amount of work and still have to settle for less than perfection.


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