Revision and Omar Khayyam

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

* * *

That powerful verse from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam must surely resonate with every adult of a certain age who reads it.

Fortunately for us on The Kill Zone, however, Mr. Khayyam wasn’t writing about writing. Authors can indeed go back and cancel half a line, delete a few sentences, or even start the whole darn thing over from scratch. So, let’s talk about revision.

* * *

There are a variety of opinions on the need to revise a manuscript. Here are a few:

Clearly, not everyone agrees on the need to revise, or how much time should be spent on it. But for those who do favor spending that time, how should they approach the revision process?

* * *

In my limited experience, revision is a serious part of my writing. Although I don’t keep detailed time sheets, I’m guessing I spend at least half my time revising. (When I talk about revision, I’m not talking about fixing grammar, typos, or punctuation mistakes. Those can be fixed by software and good editors. To me, revision concerns the story itself, the way it ebbs and flows, how the underlying theme plays out, and the rhythm of the words.)

My first draft is an act of getting the story out of me and onto the page. Some of it may be good, but some of it is just plain vanilla story-telling without any spice. Revision is an opportunity to transform that first story idea into an entertaining, thought-provoking novel. But it’s also a balancing act. How do I keep the voice, the tone, the essence of the thing I created while changing it? It’s like trying to make sure you don’t spoil the wine while polishing the cup it’s in.

* * *

There are plenty of books and online resources with information about how to revise, but here are a few pieces of advice I’ve found helpful:

  1. To get a clear perspective of your work, take some time off between finishing the first draft and starting the revision process. (Sue Coletta wrote a TKZ post on Critical Distance last week.)
  2. After taking the break (which may last a week or a month), read through the first draft at one sitting, if possible. Some craft experts recommend printing the manuscript so that it’s easy to make notes on the pages.
  3. Review the overall arc of the plot: I use Scrivener’s outline feature to get the number of words in each chapter, and I add a sentence or two to describe the timeframe and goal for each chapter. Then I download this to a spreadsheet and calculate the percentage through the book for each milestone. I may rearrange the chapters (easy to do in Scrivener) or even delete sections that don’t serve the story. I may add new scenes or chapters.
  4. Revisit the characters. Is the main character well-defined and can you trace his/her arc through the plot? Do the secondary characters add spice to the story?
  5. Reread each scene. Does it tell a story in itself? Does it end with a reason for the reader to turn the page? Is the dialogue snappy?
  6. Check the pacing. Does the pacing give the reader a chance to catch his/her breath after a tense scene?
  7. Back to the beginning. Review the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page of the manuscript. Will this hook a reader?
  8. Get feedback from Beta readers. Their first-time-through reactions are invaluable.
  9. Never Give Up

This list appears to be linear, but my process is more iterative. I go back through steps #3-#7 as many times as I think I need to, and I employ a developmental editor and a copy editor to help me refine my work. I also have the good fortune to have a novelist husband who listens to my concerns and helps me figure out how to solve all the little problems that pop up as I make my way through this labyrinth called Writing.

  • So, TKZers: How important is revision to you?
  • What steps do you take to revise your manuscript?
  • What percentage of your writing time is spent revising?

Indie Authors – Should You Revise & Republish Some of Your Earlier Books?

Jodie_June 26, '14_7371_low res_centredBy Jodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

I  often get contacted for editing by authors who have previously published a few novels, either on their own or through a small publisher with limited resources for editing. Their earlier works, while promising, were prematurely released and sales are slow, with few or mostly negative reviews.

These authors were often unaware at the time of any weaknesses in their books and just wanted to get them out there, perhaps on time for Christmas sales or for some other self-imposed time deadline. Many of these early works really needed an edit on some level: a major developmental edit for help with premise, plot, & structure; a content edit to address plot holes, inconsistencies, character motivations, point of view, etc.; a stylistic edit to address slow pacing, convoluted phrasing, too many author intrusions (backstory, info dumps, too much neutral description, telling instead of showing); or just a good clean-up of grammar and flow.

If those authors are serious about building a career as a respected novelist, leaving those books out there in the shape they’re in will only harm their reputation. And if they’re just out as eBooks on Amazon, it’s pretty easy to take them down and upload a revised, more polished version. I’ve done it several times with both of my books – quick and painless, really. Amazon doesn’t seem to care how many times I revise and re-upload the same title – I love the freedom! If you know basic formatting (here’s a how-to article on formatting your manuscript), you can make the changes pretty quickly and get the e-book back up.

Here’s an example of an email, typical of many I’ve received:

“Jodie, I have now read both of your books and your articles on point of view. Fantastic material. All of your comments and recommendations now make sense. With that foundation, I realize what an amateur job my first novel was. Maybe someday we can revisit and do major surgery or a lobotomy on [title of book].”

James Scott Bell has spoken here on TKZ about the need for “a long tail” – a backlist of other attractive titles by you that readers can choose from if they happen on one of your books for the first time and enjoy it. That’s the way to keep the royalties rolling in over the long term.

But of course this means all your titles need to be strong, of high quality. What if your earlier books are nowhere near the quality of recent ones? What if your worst, most amateurish production is the first one of your books someone reads? Do you think they’ll look for any more by you? Worse, they could write a nasty review saying they won’t waste their time with any more of your books. So you could also think of the “long tail” as a chain connecting readers to you. You don’t want any weak links to break that chain!

I’ve confidentially advised some authors, either my clients or not, to get one or more of their backlist titles cleaned up. Some agree and are grateful for the feedback, and others don’t seem to care, or even respond negatively. I don’t get that. If they’re getting bad reviews on Amazon for an early work and a professional editor suggests it would be a good idea to get it edited, why would they leave it up as it is? (And I’m not soliciting editing work here – I get way more requests for editing than I can handle.)

Some indie authors tell me they can’t afford to get their early books edited. I say you can’t afford not to, as those books are or could start dragging your reputation down and significantly reduce potential income. At the very least, If you’ve already (or since then) honed your fiction-writing skills by reading some great craft-of-writing books and/or attending writers’ workshops, here are three resources I recommend specifically for tips on revising fiction: James Scott Bell’s excellent Revision & Self-Editing, Elizabeth Lyon’s Manuscript Makeover, Jessica Page Morrell’s Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, and my Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power. All have very useful, concrete tips, with examples, for taking your fiction up a level or two and making your story more compelling. And if you’re struggling with making your first page zing, check out some of the great first-page critiques here on TKZ (links on side column). Then, after you’ve used the advice to revise your early book(s) yourself, be sure to follow it up with a low-cost or free final proofread for typos, grammar, and punctuation.

If the process of going back and revising a whole book feels overwhelming, here’s a great step-by-step plan of action for revision and self-editing. If you don’t have the time or inclination to do that right now, consider pulling any prematurely published early books out of circulation and resubmitting them later when you’ve had time to get them cleaned up or do it yourself. Don’t leave amateurish books out there where they can start collecting critical reviews and tarnish your name as a talented author. Or, if your muse just took a vacation on your WIP, take a break and use the time to revise an earlier novel.

Here’s what A.D. Starrling said in a recent comment (Oct. 22) here on TKZ:

“I have done a revised edition of Book 1 while simultaneously writing Book 3 (I know, one should really STOP rewriting once the darn thing is published, but the feedback for Book 2 was so good, I just had to bring Book 1 up to that level!).”

So my advice, as a freelance professional in the business of helping authors turn good stories into stellar ones that garner great reviews, is to take the time to make sure that at least the weakest links in the chain of your backlist are brought up to your current standards. Of course, I’m mainly talking about eBooks and self-published books here, which are so much easier to revise and republish.

Writers – what do you think? What if one of your early titles received a bunch of negative reviews on Amazon? Would you consider taking it down and revising it, then getting it edited by a professional, then republishing? Then you could always consider changing the title so you can lose the old, negative reviews.

What do the rest of you think of this?

See James Scott Bell’s excellent related post here on TKZ yesterday: Facing Down the Harsh Realities of Publishing.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at,, her blog,, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.