Where does revising stop and editing start?

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It might seem like there is a fine line between revising and editing so let’s first look at what revising is, then compare it with editing. In her very fine book The Writer’s Portable Mentor, Priscilla Long says: ‘Revision is about deepening, extending, elaborating, and only then burnishing and honing. Polishing a too-thin piece is to do the right thing at the wrong time. And most unrealized works are, basically, too thin’.[1] Note, she mentions ‘polishing’ but hasn’t yet mentioned editing; in fact, she never does throughout her whole book. The word isn’t even in the index!

American creativity coach, Eric Maisel, says this of revising:

Revising encompasses everything from toiling over a single sentence until it is good to changing the whole novel from the third person to the first person. It involves taking things out, putting things in, making small changes, and making enormous changes. Revising is to writing as evolution is to creating: if, in the fire of creating, you made a creature that can’t reach the leaves at the top of the trees, in the revision process you give him a longer neck and call him a giraffe. There is no less imagination, soul, or craft required at this stage of the process—but there are also many real problems to solve. 

He then writes of ‘Revising again’.

Usually one revision will not be enough. The changes we made the first time through, as good as they may be, are likely to produce new problems or highlight areas of weakness. A craftsperson works on to the end, until the piece is as good as he or she can currently make it. Then, when the piece finally feels strong and whole—which is nothing at all like perfect—a craftsperson puts it where customers can see it and buy it.

The essence of ‘revising’ is a process of making your piece of writing, whether it be a short story, scene, chapter or novella, the best it can be in the context of what else you have written towards that particular piece. With a short story, you may not revise anything until you have hammered out a whole first draft of 2,000 to 3,000 words. If you are starting a novel, you may write a first chapter of 3,000 to 5,000 words and then revise it. After two or three chapters, you might go back and revise your opening because you have a better feel for where and how you want your reader to enter your story. And so on.

There are two approaches to revising: one is to write a large amount, perhaps a whole novel, and then go back and revise the whole thing; the other is to have a daily practice of revising what you wrote in your most recent writing session and carry out a quick revision. Then you might carry out a major revision at the end of each chapter, if they are long, or after several chapters if they are short. Revising your previous session’s work puts you in the flow of your story and gets your brain ready to write new material.

For most authors, and especially novices, revising isn’t a one-off task. It’s a continual process of improvement and refinement. It may also involve a period of total detachment from their work—a few days, weeks, or even months, break so that when they come back to their writing they see it from a different perspective, one that allows them to perceive both problems and solutions.

So where does ‘revising’ become ‘editing’? A definition based on the people involved could be that revision is carried out by the writer and editing is carried out by someone else, usually a professional. With this definition, revision, would be the furthest you could take your manuscript yourself, with feedback from others, but without paid professional assistance (i.e. editing). In some ways this is a useful distinction because no matter how expert and experienced a writer is, there are always aspects of their manuscript that, being so familiar with the work, the writer fails to see. This is particularly so with fiction writing which involves complex plot and character development.

However, a definition based on people involved is less useful when we consider a writer who is so proficient that they do almost all of the ‘editing’ themselves. In that instance, where do we draw the line in terms of what activities are considered to be ‘revision’ and what are considered to be ‘editing’?

And what happens when the process is highly iterative? That is, the writer’s revision is followed by professional editing which results in more revision needed, with those changes then needing to be checked by an editor, so on. And what about the use of beta readers or getting a manuscript assessment done? Where do these activities fit in to the editing process?

While allocating roles in the manuscript improvement process is instructional, I believe a more useful way of looking at ‘revision’ and ‘editing’ is to base it on a classification of ‘manuscript improvement’ tasks, with tasks being grouped together based on what type of activities they are. This gets away from who does what, and allows the line to be drawn between ‘author revision’ and ‘professional editing’ according to the individual writer, with novice writers needing more professional assistance than experienced writers.

Regardless of where you draw the line between revision and editing, the more you understand about what professional editors are looking for when they work on a manuscript, the more you will be able to recognise those mistakes yourself, many of which are simple mistake a writer can and should be able to find and fix on their own. While professional editors are happy to be paid to fix any mistake, most would rather focus on ways to improve a manuscript that writers find difficult to see themselves, than on basic errors such as spelling, grammar and punctuation that writers could easily fix themselves with a little education about what’s needed.

[1] The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long, 2010, Wallingford Press, Seattle, p. 281.

IMAGE: Lichen, Durras Lake North, NSW (2009) © Yelsel International Pty Ltd

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