On Revising (Part 2)

How often should you revise your work before it goes to a publisher or agent?

My advice on that is this; pick a number that seems reasonable, then add at least two more to it.

One of the things that I noticed about software is how they keep putting out new versions of older programs. Windows 1.0 becomes 5.0, Firefox is 1.0 first, and now, I believe, it’s on to 42.0 or something of that nature. (I remember a joke in Douglas Coupland’s novel Microserfs, his study of Silicon Valley tech culture in the early 1990’s, where coders call their kids 2.0. That’s still one of my favorite books of my 20’s.)

Inspired by this, I decided that whenever I write manuscripts, I will stick to this numbering format to keep track of which versions are which. With The Holy Fool, I am now technically on version 3.6. That reflects four revisions of various levels and depths from the original rough draft.

As far as your work goes, I think there should be a reasonable medium between the one revision that kids might reluctantly do for a school project and the 20 different revisions that happen to some Hollywood movie scripts. (Part of the reason behind the latter situation is that those often have multiple authors).

I think that four revisions is a decent number, a good minimum if you are doing the primary work of revision on your own. Each of those revisions should have a different purpose, as well. You should never try to do everything in a single revision, or you could easily lose track of problems you have with the manuscript. Here are different types of revisions that I go through on my projects.

  • Word count. There are plenty of writing advice articles on how big your manuscripts should be. The general consensus is that genre books and most fiction should be under 100,000 words or less. If you haven’t been watching your word count, that could result in a lot of sentences, paragraphs, or even scenes and chapters that have to depart from your work. You might think it’s impossible to cut a 160,000-word manuscript down below 100,000, but trust me, it is possible.
  • Continuity issues. I remember a scene from the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Commando where a car is trashed rolling onto its side, Arnold rolls it right side up, and he drives away in a perfectly maintained car. You want to avoid similar silliness, which can come from calling one thing by two different names or having one thing in two different places. I changed the name of a soccer club halfway through my rough draft, so I wound up having to change pages of description. It was worth it, but you have to be meticulous when you do it.
  • Big ideas. Is your main character unlikable? Do you need to give more or less background on your story? Are there subplots that are just fizzling out? This is where your heavy lifting happens.
  • Editing and proofreading. Basically, all the mechanics, grammar, and formatting. (I actually consider this to be part of the separate editing process, although I include it here just so people remember that you have to do it.) If you can get a good reader to help you out with this, it is a part of the writing process that truly benefits from another pair of eyes.

I’ll get into the ins and outs of those different processes in a later post. For now, just keep in mind that revising is truly the heart of the writing process and the most complicated part of that process. It’s not something you’ll be able to knock out over a long weekend, that’s for sure.

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