Six impossible things

Fixing What’s Broke, Part 2

Writers go about doing revisions in different ways, depending on the what and why of the revisions and on the writer’s personal best process for them. As always, there is no One True Way; if what you are currently doing isn’t working, try something else. The only way to get it wrong is to give up on trying.

Possibly the most common way people start is by saving up all their revisions – the ones that occurred to them at 2 a.m., the ones their crit group and first readers want, the ones their editor wants, the thing they saw some critic objecting to in their last book, the complaints their mother made – and then trying to do them all at once. This has the major advantage of allowing for comparisons. If the six-person crit group split 50-50 over whether or not a subplot should be cut, the critical review wanted more complex plotting, and the editor wants the subplot altered to make it fit in with the main plot better, the writer has a lot more information to work with when trying to decide what the real problem is and how to fix it.

Doing all the revisions at once is also a useful method in the event that some of the changes overlap or complement each other – say, a particular character needs some backstory inserted and there’s a spot where the characters (and reader!) could use a breather. If one happens to be a particularly analytical or methodical writer, having all the revisions piled up in one place allows for them to be analyzed and/or sorted into logical groups, so that the writer can work on all of Character A’s problematic bits, and then work on inserting the new subplot, and so on. It prevents double-correcting – that is, fixing a problem point and then later discovering that the fix broke something else that hadn’t been written yet, so now it all needs to be fixed again. And if one is the sort of writer who loves doing revisions, saving them all for the end serves two functions – it provides one with a treat at the end of the first draft, so that the draft will get finished, and it prevents one from getting caught up in Endless Revision Syndrome before one has at least one entire first draft.

The main disadvantage to saving up all the revisions to do at once (whether “all at once” is at the end of the first draft or at different points during the writing of the first draft) is that it can be overwhelming, especially to newer writers. Writing gets better with practice, and an entire novel is a lot of practice. Consequently, by the end of a draft, one can see an enormous huge lot of problems that one couldn’t see at the beginning or middle. For writers who dislike revising, saving things up for the end means having a nasty long chore waiting for the manuscript to be done, which may put them off finishing and which will probably slow down the revisions process itself.

Writers whose work sets up like concrete shortly after writing can find it next door to impossible to make anything but tiny changes once the manuscript is finished; saving things for the end means that the fixes will never happen at all. Finally, some writers just don’t work in big chunks – they’d rather do a little of this and then a little of that and then go back to the first thing or on to a third thing than have one large block of Thing One to do, and then another large block of Thing Two, and so on. (In extreme cases, these are the sort of writers who need to work on two or three books at once so they can rotate from one to the next when they get bored. Note that if you try this, and nothing ever gets finished, you are not one of these writers.)

The other way of operating is to stop periodically during the writing of the first draft and fix up the part that’s gone before. The advantages and disadvantages are more or less opposite to saving them up: rolling revisions are usually not as overwhelming, they keep a newer writer’s manuscript at a more consistent skill level, it keeps things from piling up, it can be helpful for instant-concrete writers and for writers who hate doing revisions at all (but especially hate them when they come in large chunks). On the other hand, stopping to fix things in mid-draft can also trap the writer into Endless Revision Syndrome, result in so many rewrites that forward progress slows and eventually stops; the writer can lose forward momentum; and the writer may waste considerable time and effort revising and polishing scenes that turn out to be unnecessary and have to be cut.

Rolling revisions can be done according to a regular plan or a rhythm, only when some triggering event occurs, or whenever the mood takes the writer. In the first instance, the writer establishes a regular pattern: going back and revising the previous three chapters at the end of every chapter, or beginning each day’s writing session by revising the previous day’s work, or stopping to revise every five or ten chapters or after reaching an arbitrary word limit. In the second, the writer goes back over previous work less frequently and less regularly – when they get stuck, for instance (which could be every other scene for a chapter or two, and then not for five chapters), or only when a cool new idea requires clues to be planted in earlier chapters. And in the third case, the writer does revisions whenever they happen to feel like it (which can become problematic if the writer doesn’t happen to feel like it very often or at all, or if they feel like fixing things all the time, which is pretty much the definition of Endless Revision Syndrome).

  1. My problem with revising is that I view writing like a hologram, where every iota informs every other, and changing one bit (such as a character’s name) requires changing pretty much everything else—otherwise the rhythm and flow of the text is corrupted.

    This requires that in order to revise, I must hold all the elements of the manuscript in the forefront of my consciousness, like a cloud of words and phrases suspended in the air above my head. If I don’t manage this, I might miss something!

    So, no, I am not “the sort of writer who loves doing revisions”.

    • Hm… I wonder if that is the description of a writer who’s stuff “sets in concrete”.

      Or, have you tried taking notes? A list of names/facts and maybe an outline of plot? Then review/edit the notes when you make a change. Then check the previous bits for consistency with the new change.

  2. There’s also the “pie crust vs bread dough” analogy. Pie crust needs to be handled lightly; pie-crust writing gets worse the more one tries to revise it. Bread dough needs to be kneaded; bread-dough writing benefits from lots of revision. And some writers produce pie crust while others produce bread dough. (Hat tip to Mary Kuhner, who first introduced me to this analogy in rasfc.)

    I don’t have trouble revising most of the parts of my stories, but there are some bits that crystallize into something even harder and more intractable than concrete. “Names?! You want me to change names?!! Are you kidding?!!!”

    I also don’t have trouble with Endless Revision Syndrome. Except for the very rare bits that I Just. Can’t. Get. Right. But I’m going to handwave those away as a different problem.

  3. Oooh, I like the pie crust vs bread dough analogy. I find that a lot of my stuff is like pie crust. If I get the recipe right, I can do a little shaping and refinement, to fix it up, but if I really screw the pooch on the first go round, I can work and work and work but it will never get back the delicate crisp flakiness that I wanted.

    Of course, larger projects are like bread dough, in that you have to have your timings down, and do all the steps in the right order, and make the preparation work for you, so that when you finally toss it in the oven, everything is still alive and stretchy and ready to go, and it does exactly what you intended it to do.

    I have taken this analogy to an unintended place. Apparently, writing is just like baking, and nothing like building a house. At some point magic has to happen, and if you tear out a chunk and try to stick it back in, good luck. I feel like this is a nihilistic approach, and results in me throwing things out and starting again too often. :/ I should just get better at revision.

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