Re-Writing 101: Revising vs. Editing and Beginner Tips on Doing Them Yourself!
One of the most frequent things I encounter with writers, especially storytellers, is people treating Revision and Editing as though they’re interchangeable words for the same process. Well…
As an example, allow me to share a wonderful experience I had in one of my first creative writing courses:
It was a requirement for the final portfolio that students “Revise” their work. During a discussion of this, one student asked, “How many little edits do we need to do for it to count as revised?”
Now, this seemed at first like a perfectly fine question. We’d been in the course for a few weeks now and had gone over the basics of revision and editing, but it was still an introductory course. Without missing a beat, the Professor answered,
“If all you’re doing is “little edits,” then you aren’t revising.”
A shocking answer, I know. The looks on the faces of students ranged from outright insulted, to chuckling, to that wide-eyed nod like everything in the world finally made sense.
Was it life-changing information? For those of you who, like me, this was once new information for, I certainly hope so. To break it down:
Revising is looking at the “big picture” stuff, like whether the story itself you’re telling makes sense and is overall conveying the message you want to express to a reader. Numerous writers, especially beginners, may skip this stage altogether, thinking that a first draft only needs a quick check for spelling and grammar mistakes before calling the writing "done" and finished.
Editing is more along the lines of the “little stuff,” the intense line-by-line work that further enhances all the “big picture” stuff you worked on in revision. The hunched-over posture of an editor with a red pen in hand over a rouge-smeared manuscript is most often an example of an editor at work performing this task and is closest to "editing" as many might understand it.
Now, as a final note before we dive into just what sorts of things you do when Revising or Editing: neither Revision nor Editing is the same as a third word you may hear getting tossed around in their midst, that word being “proofreading.” While we won’t be going over much in terms of proofreading in this resource, that’s because proofreading is just one small part of Editing. Proofreading only really covers your everyday grammar and language rules along the lines of what you learn in just about any English or writing class. And the funny thing about proofreading is… if you have your own brand of voice as a writer, typically honed through meticulous Revision and Editing, you can change the rules.
Now I see those eyes sparkling. We’re writers, storytellers, creative people who love the idea of breaking the rules. But let me first make a recommendation: revise first, edit second, proofread last.
Wait, though… that sounds like…
a horrible, disgusting, detestable rule.
Now before you go over your work in the reverse order just to spite me, let me reiterate the recommendation is wholly for your own benefit! Just imagine... you spent days perfectly proofreading a draft, only to then discover that an entire scene doesn’t work. Your finger hovers over the keyboard, and you shed a little tear as you hit delete (or to ease the pain, copy/cut and paste the section temporarily to a different file for those working in word-processors.) But if you Revise first and Edit second, chances are you’ll rarely if ever run into this problem again! When you look over the following lists, also remember - these are only suggestions. The best advice I ever got when it came to using writing resources and reviews was "take what you can use, leave what you can't." If some of these bullets work for you, great! They're completely customizable based on your needs, so take this baseline example and make it into a resource you can call your own~ Now then, that ought to be enough digression for one day. Let's get to what you came here for!
So you've finished your draft, have you? That means you're ready for the first phase:
Also known as Macro Editing or even Developmental Editing, when you Revise you are tasked with “re-visioning” or “re-envisioning” your work. When Revising, a writer looks at their work for conceptual issues and large problems. These problems may not necessarily be with the writing itself, but are issues focusing on your writing’s overall storytelling and ability to express your creative vision.
For some people this step can come immediately after drafting, but don’t knock the benefits of taking a step back from your work and letting it ferment a bit before you set yourself to the task. Whether you need an hour, a week, or even a year, the best time to revise isn’t necessarily when you feel the heated passion of the muses urging your fingers to create.
For those who write using a word-processor, some may find it easier to print their work and go over it in pen physically. For those without printers, using a comments feature and changing the font or font or background color can sometimes help as well. Do whatever it takes to make the writing on the page appear different and gain a bit of perspective distance from the story. Also consider saving a copy of your original draft; it will be fun to look back on once you’ve finished revising and editing!
When you are able to sit down and look at your work from a refreshed point of view, ask yourself big questions as you’re reading. You can make notes either in the margins or on a separate piece of paper, but avoid the temptation to edit! Put your pencil or pen down between notes to keep focus on processing what you read and Revision-centered questions.
Questions can be divided into categories, each focusing on and addressing a major element of storytelling, such as:
Character and Plot:
Is the story character-driven or plot-driven?
Are the characters believable and connected to the story, or are they easily swapped out? How can characters become integral parts of the story?
What makes characters unique?
What can be done to show character and build tension beginning in the first paragraph? Sentence? Word?
Is the narrator a character or a separate entity from the characters in the story? Could another POV suit the story better?
Tension and Stakes:
What about a character and their situation will make a reader care?
What is there to gain? What is there to lose? Make certain this matters to the main character.
Is the situation unique or everyday?
Are any problems addressed in a realistic manner by the characters as possible according to the rules of the story-world?
Does the setting enable or disable characters?
Is the setting integral to the story being told? If any answer is no, why not?
What settings would add “Heat” and “Pressure” to the story, raise the stakes, or force characters to make a decision?
Showing Versus Telling:
Feel with the five basic senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste. Modify for overabundance / lacking in particular senses.
In places where there is “telling,” does it suit the story, or is it a place where more needs to be “shown”?
Also pay attention for areas that “show” but could be summarized or made into “telling.” Pay special attention to:
Dialogue and Subtlety:
Do characters talk to each other, or do they talk beyond each other, expressing their motivations through the “action” and conflict of words?
Does the dialogue move the story, or do characters merely act as the author’s mouthpieces to “tell” information to readers under the guise of “showing” through the character action of dialogue?
Is the voice of each character unique and identifiable even without dialogue tags?
Pacing and Progression:
Do areas of “showing” whisk the reader through the story, or is it overindulgent and clunky?
Do areas of “telling” serve a purpose to move the story along, or do they merely skim important details?
What is the purpose of each scene, and what has been accomplished at the end of each scene in relation to achieving the entire story’s goals?
Odds and Ends:
Are there any special or unique needs of the story that stand out?
Any places where a reader may feel dropped out of the story or feel otherwise unsatisfied?
Is the story one worth reading?
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but they are examples of important questions you might want to ask yourself when revising. Once you’ve gone through and made notes, the revision process truly begins. You may decide to add or delete passages, rewrite characters and situations, or otherwise change your story in an effort to better express your vision to a reader unfamiliar with your story world.
It is advisable not to approach revision as if you can answer all of these questions in a single sweep through your work. Attempting to Revise all elements at once often results in a discombobulated mess, and can be quite overwhelming if there are numerous areas in need of work. Address one question at a time, fine-tuning your writing one element at a time by re-reading and Revising until everything clicks into place like a series of perfectly meshed gears.
Now that we’ve gotten the big stuff out of the way and you have a well-revised draft in your hands, we can move on to the next step where we add some oil to those gears to ensure they not only mesh, but run smoothly together.
Whew! Revision sure is something, isn't it? Don't be surprised if you find that Revision takes numerous times longer than writing your initial draft. Once you've had a little rest, you can move on to the next phase:
Also known as Micro Editing or even Line Editing, when you Edit your work it’s time to brush through your writing with a fine-toothed comb. During Editing, you go through your work line by line as you train your well-developed beast of a manuscript into a truly perfect specimen. The goal in Editing at this point is to focus on things at the word and sentence level.
An interesting note:
People can only retain about 7 words at a time when reading.
That’s not to say that you can’t write in huge and flowing sentences using tons of punctuation; as a matter of fact, you can use just about any sort of punctuation to achieve different effects, playing with pause length, white space, em dashes—they all have potential, but the longer your sentences the more likely it is that people will be tempted to go back to the beginning, re-reading over and over as they try to find out what exactly the point was behind what they were reading not necessarily because it was confusing or overtly wrong, just that it’s difficult to hold onto an entire paragraph worth of words without the brain becoming tired.
So, you might watch for run-ons when you edit. Use specialized punctuation like semicolons, colons, and em dashes—not hyphens or dashes, mind you, this is writing, not math class—sparingly, and when you do use them, make sure they’re being used to achieve some sort of additional effect.
When you edit, you may want to consider some of the following elements:
Repetition and Freshness:
Is each image fresh? Is a particular metaphor overused, or worse, cliché? Freshen it up.
Are words repeated in close proximity when another word, phrase, or idea would keep the story moving forward?
Empower the leitmotiv. Erase the false leitmotiv.
Cut redundant words and ideas down to essentials (example: “they had run” becomes “they ran”)
Avoid using the same word twice in the same sentence. Try not to start sentences immediately following each other with the same word.
Narrative and Story World:
Does the language used to craft the story world make sense? Do Victorian-era characters use texting lingo? Does a futuristic society use archaic mannerisms?
Do the narration style and word choice reflect this world to further immerse a reader?
Standardization and Craft:
Check punctuation, spelling, and grammar. Gauge standardization against authorial voice.
Ensure that any usage other than industry/dictionary standard is understandable by a reader, does not distract, and remains consistent throughout a work. For example, is it e-mail, email, or Email? (Consistency is key! Whether it’s as simple as single or double spacing between sentences or any number of other things, so long as it’s consistent, it can become part of authorial style.)
Watch out for -ly endings. Use stronger verbs instead.
Does the unique voice of the author remain consistent and strong from first word to last?
Continuity and Consistency:
Is the family dog suddenly a family cat? Does a character holding something heavy wave to another character without putting the item down first? Does a character wear a sundress one sentence and jeans the next? Check for inconsistencies and continuity problems and correct/clarify them. Specificity is key.
Format and Presentation:
Is the document formatted properly for presentation to others (is it submission-ready)?
Is the font easy to read, or does it distract? Use a serif font for easier reading.
Break up full and half-page paragraphs into easier-to-digest, smaller units. (An easy test is to zoom out the view of your document or print it out and lay it on the floor. How much white space is there, or is all you see a gigantic block of black text staring back at you? )
Vary sentence lengths.
Use shorter sentences for quick actions, longer ones for slow or deliberate actions. (Fast-paced writing uses short sentences to make a reader feel like the scene is going faster. Long sentences respectively slow a scene down.)
Odds and Ends:
Are there any particular areas that stand out as in need of additional reworking, areas that are weaker than others?
Are there themes that do not follow through consistently from beginning to end, subplots that pop up but are never resolved?
Ensure the work is a single tight unit.
While this is again by no means an exhaustive list, the above questions are examples of important things you might want to watch out for as you perform your final edits. Compare it to the original draft for more fun insight into your writing and style!
Once you've exhausted yourself with editing on you own, the next step could be one of several things: asking for beta reader help, hiring an editor to give your manuscript a look by someone with an outside perspective (someone like me!), or publishing your work!
If you found this resource useful, feel free to post your own tips, tricks, stories and suggestions in the comments section to share with your fellow writers and help this resource grow!
Thanks so much for reading, and as always,