In between college and when I went to get my masters degree in creative writing, I worked as a fiction editor at a publishing house in New York. I learned about all the journeys a manuscript takes on its way to becoming a book—from its cover design, to the strategic selection of its publication date, to the marketing that gets it picked up off a shelf and into the hands of the right readers. As an aspiring writer, the most valuable lesson I learned during my days at the publishing house was the power of focused revision.
Writers are touchy. And writing feels very personal. Getting a twelve-page revision letter from an editor is enough to send many writers back to bed for a week. I had new writers call me crying after I’d sent them what (I thought) was a very positive and encouraging revision letter. And I can understand that fear. In high school and even college, I loathed the idea of revision. When I was finished with an essay or a short story, it was over, done. I’d completed it to the best of my ability. I never wanted to look at it again. That was then.
These days, I see revision as the moment when my stories really begin to sing. Every first draft feels impossible for me. Every revision gets the book closer to what it always wanted to be. Revision is FUN. You just need a little help from your friends and separate file to keep all the scraps you’ll have to cut (maybe they don’t belong in this book, but surely you can write them into your next one). Here are some tips I try to write and revise by:
- Don’t revise while you’re writing. I could revise all day long and never write anything new. I make myself draft forward, instead of going back in to revise. I do that all the way through until I’m completely finished with a first draft. Then I have a foundation. Then I can go back in and make it better and have fun.
- Once you’re finished with a first draft, take some time and space off. A week is good, a month is better. Don’t even open your document. Take a breather. Read some books. Do the things you’ve been abandoning while you were finishing that book. Let your mind breathe, marinate.
- When you’re ready to dig back in, read the whole thing once. I load it on my Kindle, but before I had a Kindle, I would just read it on the computer (changing the font to something else, which makes it feel, bizarrely, like you’re reading something completely different—Try it. It works.) Read the whole thing in as few sittings as you can. Make notes on what stands out as working really well or not at all.
- Based on the notes from your reading, take a stab at revision. Are there scenes you can’t see clearly? Flesh them out. Is your character feeling something on page 26 that doesn’t ring true in the larger context of the book? Reevaluate her emotional landscape. Are you bored? Trim the word count 10%! (A daunting but excellent rule of thumb) Did you laugh out loud or cry? Pat yourself on the back.
- When you have one or two revisions completed on your own and you think your manuscript is really good, that probably means it’s time for someone else to take a look. Find a friend who you can swap stories with. If you don’t have writer friends, join a book club or a writing group to make some. I’ve done that in every new city I’ve lived in. Expect your reader to come to you with suggestions. Accept that your book is not perfect and will benefit from taking your readers’ questions into consideration.
- Don’t follow advice from someone who doesn’t understand what you’re going for.
- Do follow advice from someone who pushes you further than you thought you needed to go. There should be a voice in the back of your mind that says, “ohhh, this sounds really hard but it might be just the thing this story needs to be great.”
- Go back to your book and make it better.
- Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
- Never give up—not after the first rejection letter or the hundredth.
- In terms of publication, all you need is one person to say “yes.”
Lauren Kate is the bestselling author of “The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove”, “Fallen”, “Torment”, and the newly released “Passion”! You can find out more about her work on her official site.
Aren’t these editing tips fantastic? I had no idea Lauren had a job as a professional editor, but it really shows in these expert tips! I’ve already been working to apply them to my work, and I hope they come in handy for all your aspiring writers.