Revision, right and wrong

Several times the past few days, online and in person, I’ve been part of discussions of revision that talk about writers being wrong, or editors being wrong, or how hard it is to revise because it means admitting one has made mistakes. I’ve been thinking about this a bit, and wondering if it maybe isn’t too simple a way to look at it.

When an editor says, “Hey, I think you need to make these changes,” I don’t think they are, for the most part, saying, “You got it wrong–go fix it.” They’re saying, “Here’s something that will make the book better.” Making something better doesn’t mean fixing it, exactly, and it doesn’t mean it was wrong before; most things can be better, most of the time; very few things, even worthy things, are ever perfect.

The writer may disagree as to whether an editorial change will make the book better. Honest disagreements may arise, because better is subjective. If it weren’t, we’d all have the same top ten favorite books. We can have these disagreements without either person having made a mistake.

In my experience, revisions fall into three general groups:

  • The revisions I agree with, either immediately or after giving it some thought. Most revisions seem to fall into this group. These are the revisions I make without hesitating (though not, necessarily, without some seriously hard work).
  • The revisions I don’t think will make the book better, but which I also don’t think will make it any worse. Since these revisions do no harm, I lose nothing by going ahead with them, too. For all I know, maybe they will turn out to make the book stronger for at least some readers after all, and why not give those readers what they need, even if it isn’t what I need?
  • The revisions I think will actively harm the book. These are the ones I have to think hard on (in part to make sure they don’t really fall into the second group after all), and then decide whether I feel strongly enough about them that I need to discuss them with my editor. There are always a few of these revisions, too, but usually only a few, again, in my experience.

There are no categories for “places where I messed up” and “places where my editor messed up.”

I should back off a little on that; there are exceptions, of course. Occasionally we all do do things that are clearly not right, and there are some clear mistakes. But I find that’s not where most of the work falls. Clear mistakes are more likely to have clear solutions.

I think maybe revision becomes easier if one doesn’t think, “Man, I messed up,” when that letter arrives, and doesn’t think so much in terms of right and wrong, either. It’s more like: Okay, time to see if I can make this book any better. Probably, I can.

Not that this isn’t hard work. Which is why I also believe in taking a day or three to pace the house muttering darkly before that work begins. 🙂

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