revising vs. editing

I’ve mentioned the joy of revisions before, but I didn’t take the time in that post to differentiate between revising and editing.

edit, verb. To prepare (written material) for publication by correcting, condensing, or otherwise modifying it.

revise, verb. To implement a change or a set of changes that corrects or improves something.

At first glance, they don’t look that different. However, when it comes to writing fiction, they describe two different worlds.

When you edit, you’re fixing sentence structure, improving word choice, changing or updating punctuation, and a myriad of other issues that come up when you’re trying to follow, say, the Chicago Manual of Style. You’re fine-tuning a fairly solid product, like washing or waxing a car.

When you revise, you’re getting under the hood. You might do something as small as replacing an air filter or undertake a massive project like replacing the entire engine. But you’re looking at story elements far more than how you’re using grammar and punctuation rules to tell that story. You’re hunting for character motivations, plot holes, POV (in)consistencies, details large and small that are integral to the reader’s perception of the individual scene or the story as a whole.

Sometimes revising breaks more than it fixes. Like you need to replace the heater core, but to get to it you have to take out the entire dashboard, and then putting that back together breaks other things.

Or you find a hose just about to burst by fiddling with the radiator. (I could make car analogies all day.)

The key thing to understand is that revising is hard, greasy, dirty, frustrating, sweaty, sometimes even bloody work. You might injure yourself along the way (figuratively speaking). You’ll step back during the revision process and wonder if you’ll ever get the damn thing back together in any sort of running shape. This is fine. This is normal.

Keep a pre-revision version of your MS handy. Get in there and fix what needs to be fixed. Step back and let it sit for a few hours or days (or weeks if you can). If you find a spot that’s being stubborn, that doesn’t want to be fixed, leave yourself some notes and come back to it later.

Pace yourself. Give yourself breaks. Enjoy a glass of wine or a run or a movie or something else that distracts you from your revisions. Don’t expect to revise everything overnight. Create a checklist, a to-do list, or a priority list, something that highlights the most important things to revise and the ones that aren’t so important. Reward yourself for getting items checked off those lists.

When you finally get that engine running again, it’ll purr, and you’ll realize the entire process was worth it. And you’ll become a better writer for it.


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