The Top 5 Revision Pitfalls

There's a lot to think about when it comes to revision and self-editing. It's thought well spent, but sometimes the sheer enormity of the task can intimidate you into inaction. The following is a list of the top five self-editing situations that I struggle with, and how I combat them.

1. Bad Timing

Writing is addictive, and finishing a piece is a major victory. Sometimes in the heat of celebration, I want to stay in my newly-created world, and keep honing my language to ensure that readers see that world exactly the way I want them to. And that's when I have to stop myself.

When a piece of writing is still fresh, there are two things that keep you from doing a good job of editing it:

  1. You're still emotionally attached to what you wrote. The high you get when the ideas are flowing is, as I said, addictive. It makes you feel like a God. And therefore, the fruits of your labor are like your children. You love them too much to make sober judgements about them. You're biased in their favor.
  2. When you look at a particular passage, you can still remember what you meant when you wrote it, and that makes it harder to see what you actually said. When we write, our ideas form in nebulous, wordless blobs. We see scenes in our heads, and we feel characters' emotions. Sometimes it's hard to translate that experience into words, and sometimes the words we use to capture it fall short. When your writing is still fresh, all the thoughts you had while creating it are recent memories. While the memory of that experience is still with you, anything you wrote will remind you of it. Therefore, even if the words you wrote are legitimately confusing, they won't be confusing to you, because they simply remind you of the dream you witnessed inside your head. You have to take time to let that dream wither before you are able to see what you actually put on the page. It sounds awful, but it's true.

Waiting too long to edit is just as bad. As a writer, you cultivate the habit of observing the world around you. You look for inspiration everywhere. And that means that the ideas never really stop flowing. Even if writer's block keeps you from acting on them, the ideas never really stop.

Therefore, if you wait too long to edit, you run the risk of moving on in your heart. Your imagination is too preoccupied with shiny new ideas to submit to the drudgery of returning to the old ones. When you wait too long, self-editing becomes a chore.

When you time it right, self-editing--tough as it can be--is a joy. Witnessing your writing improve gives you confidence. Polishing the window into your imagination, giving readers a clearer view of the dreams beyond, is an edifying experience (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!)

But how do you know when the time is right?

That depends on what kind of writer you are. Some writers work slow--I should know, I'm one of them. Others work relatively fast. Some people balk at challenges like NaNoWriMo; they think it's crazy to try and write a novel that fast. Others seem incredulous that not every writer writes that fast.

In his memoir On Writing, Uncle Stevie recommends about a month to six weeks before you begin editing your new piece. That's a pretty good estimate for most people, but I wouldn't be so unilateral. I'd say you should wait about 50-75% as long as it took you to write the book. If it took you a month, two weeks might be plenty, but once you're pushing three, it's time to get back to it. If it took you a year to write, you might want to wait as much as nine months before you take another look.

Even that ratio might sound ludicrous to you, but hey, there's no universal formula for what works. That's the rule of thumb I try to follow with my own work, and it feels pretty good to me.

2. Laziness

Here's a phrase that makes me cringe every time I hear it:

"The editor will fix it."

An editor is not a car mechanic. Your manuscript is not a black box, whose inner workings are "somebody else's job". That kind of thinking is just lazy.

As a writer, every burden is on you. You're the one who is asking for a piece of the limited, shrinking attention span of mankind. People are busy. Committing time and effort to read your story is a big ask. The burden is on you to make it worth their while. The burden is on you to make it comprehensible.

Editing is your job. An editor is just your sensei. She cannot--and will not--fight your battles for you. She can only train you to fight them better.

Yes, editing is a lot of work. Yes, it's hard to drive yourself, especially if you don't know what you're doing (for help defining the task, check out my editing resources). But if you can't even be bothered to do it, what are your ideas really worth? Laziness in a writer basically advertises that the ideas in their stories aren't worth a second look, even from the author. That's not a very good sales pitch to prospective readers.

Sometimes, laziness works on a smaller scale. Say you have a particular scene that just isn't working out the way you wanted it to. You can't cut it because something important happens. But you just don't like the way the action proceeds. Rewriting it from the ground up seems like a daunting task. Plus, you don't even have any alternative ideas for how the scene could go. Why not just polish up the language and let good enough be good enough?

That's lazy. Don't sell yourself short like that. Don't be a quitter! Is that the kind of author you want to be? Good enough? I doubt it. They don't have a Good Enough Sellers List. If you want to be the best, you're going to have to put in the hard work. If you don't, that's just a sign to readers that you aren't worth their precious time.

3. Perfectionism

This is the one I struggle with most. As you make pass after pass through your manuscript, you tinker with language on the sentence level. Then when you finally read through the whole thing again, you find that some of the micro-changes you made don't make sense on a macro scale. When you edit, you start general and work to the specific, but then when you take a step back, you find you need to dive in again.

It can be maddening. And because I struggle with this, I'm not sure I know how to avoid perfectionism. I sincerely believe in being a tough, intense editor. But at some point you have to move from editing to publishing, or you don't deserve to call yourself an author.

Imagine, if you will, the perfect hamburger. For me, it's a half pound of high-quality beef, cooked charred-rare on a flat-top grill, warm red on the inside, crispy and caramelized on the outside. The bun is a soft brioche roll. It's topped with cheddar, bacon, an over-easy fried egg, lettuce, tomato, and raw red onion. A spread of mayo on the bottom, and a dash of brown mustard on the top, and my perfect hamburger is complete.

The only thing wrong with it is that it doesn't exist. As I write this, the hamburger has failed to materialize in front of me. I'm betting it didn't materialize in front of you either.

What good is a hamburger that is perfect in every way--except that it doesn't exist. There's only one thing wrong with it, but that one thing makes everything else about it moot. If it isn't real, I can't eat it (looking down at my belly, maybe it's better that way...).

That's what your story is if you let perfectionism get the better of you: a perfect burger that doesn't exist. If your story remains unpublished, it doesn't exist, as far as anyone but you knows. So at some point, you're going to have to put it out there. It will not be perfect, no matter how hard you work. The only thing you can hope for is that it's as good as you can make it.

Sometimes I'll tinker with the same sentence over and over, and still be unsatisfied. The moment I realize I've gone back and forth between two possibilities, that's when I drop it and let it be. Da Vinci said it best: works of art are never finished, only abandoned. My only advice for overcoming perfectionism is to look for your signal that it's time to abandon your work. Examine your emotions, and try to find the point where you're just torturing yourself. It's good to torture yourself a little, but know your breaking point, and stop just short of it.

4. Arrogance

As I said above, every burden is on the writer. If a reader can't understand you, or can't enjoy what you've written, the burden is on you to change.

I'm not saying you should change your story every time someone doesn't like it. You can't please everyone. But if you're a smart writer, you know your target audience. Even if it's just one person, you know who you want to please. If you write something and it doesn't please your target audience, nothing is wrong with them. Something is wrong with you.

When I first started writing fiction, I gave my drafts to my wife to read. On several occasions, she would come across a bit of sci-fi terminology she didn't understand, or a scene she couldn't visualize. In my unconscious incompetence, I got angry and told her that she didn't get it because she wasn't a sci-fi nerd. I was expecting her to change to suit me. But that's just not the way the world works. 

Don't be arrogant and assume you can persuade readers to enjoy and understand you. Readers know what they like, or at least they know what they're willing to consider. No matter what you want to write, someone out there wants to read it. Figure out who they are, and find a way to get your writing to them. If you're selling your work to the wrong audience, they won't change to accept you. The burden is on you.

In self-editing, that means taking a close look at the language you use to communicate your imagination. You have to focus on what you actually wrote, not on the images that inspired you to write it. If the words do not cause a reader to imagine what you want them to, then the words must change. You can't get mad when someone can't visualize a scene. You have to write that scene better. If you refuse to put the reader first, they'll simply take the path of least resistance and not read your work.

As an editor, this issue usually comes up when I tell a client a passage they wrote is unclear, and they refuse to change it because "it's a matter of voice." By telling me "oh, that's just my voice", they create an impassable roadblock. Thou shalt not tinker with my voice, they say.

In my opinion, "voice" a cop-out arrogant writers use when they can't explain why they've chosen to word something a certain way. If their wording doesn't get in the way of my understanding, I have no problem with it. But when you use "voice" to fend off harsh realities, you're only hurting yourself. 

Remember, it's not the editor's name on the book. Even if it's in the front matter somewhere, most people won't see it. Think of your favorite book. Do you know the editor's name? Unless it's an anthology, you probably don't. Editing is a thankless job. If an editor tells you something, it's for your benefit, not theirs. Ignoring it only hurts you and your readers.

5. Negativity

I would love to meet the writer that has never struggled with self-doubt. Actually, scratch that, I'd hate to meet them, because they'd have to be a self-deluding ass.

Doubt is natural. A lack of doubt is a sign of naivety or arrogance. Writing is hard, and even if you write well the odds are never in your favor. Even content factories like James Patterson and Nora Roberts probably worry whether their next book will sell.

Every writer has had that moment where they take a step back from their manuscript and think, "This is shit. I'm shit." If you've never felt that way, you probably don't care enough.

The only trouble with listening to your inner editor is that sometimes you listen too well. Drafting is the time to go easy on yourself, and let those ideas flow freely, but when it's time to revise you have to be tough on yourself. You have to let your inner editor loose, and actually listen to the voice that says your writing is bad, because that's the only way your writing can get better. 

But listening to your inner editor doesn't mean you have to take everything he says to heart. It's important to be hard on yourself, but it's also important to maintain a balanced perspective on your writing. If you go too hard, you stop. If you go too easy, you write below your potential.

Your manuscript is not shit. You're not shit. It's a draft. Even the worst draft can be fixed.

Now go do it.

If you're ever feeling down about yourself, just remember that this joker once boasted the top-selling hip hop album of all time:

You will be fine.