Saturday, January 26, 2013

How many revisions?

"Hi Noah, In "Land a Literary Agent" you say that a draft you send in to an agent should go through "20 or 40 revisions" first. I've never heard a consistent definition of revision, so I'm wondering what your idea of a revision is. I've heard "revision" mean everything from a complete rewrite to a read-through with a couple of minor grammatical changes. On a side note, thank you for making your work so available. I've read "Land a Literary Agent," "Write a Query Letter," and "Ask a Literary Agent Year 1," and I am currently reading "The Plot Thickens." I'm working on my first novel and I plan to use what I've learned from you to sell my book when it's done. Thanks"


There is no firm rule us to how many revisions a work must go through. In my books on the craft of writing, which are read by a lot of beginning writers, I tend to be more strict, and err on the side of suggesting more, rather than fewer, revisions. A common problem among first-time authors is that they will assume that their book hardly needs to be revised before sending it out to publishing professionals. They might just go through one cursory revision and send it off in haste. By impressing the point for a great number revisions, my hope is that they take it to heart, and that they will do at least two or three revisions, even if I know they will not do twenty.

There is no fast rule for what defines a revision. Typically, a revision is considered to be a pass through your entire book. If it is a first revision, one would assume that a lot more work would be entailed in that pass than, for example, a fourth or fifth revision. By the time you get close to your final revision, it could certainly be a matter of just skimming through and looking for certain grammatical or typographical issues. It is different for every writer.

The other important thing to consider when it comes to revising your work is the issue, often overlooked, of time. We as human beings are changing every day, and the way that we perceive our own work will change from the day we wrote it, to a week later, to a month later, to three months later, to six months later, to a year later. That is one of the great virtues of giving yourself time between revisions: it gives you distance away from your work, gives the work time to breathe. It gives you a different perspective. You might notice that if you pick up a work that you have written five years later, you may have the funny experience of not even remembering what you wrote, or being surprised that you wrote it. That is because you have changed.

That said, there is also a great merit to not giving yourself time between other revisions. In fact, it is crucial that you hold your entire book in your head through some revisions, so that you can remember, in one sitting, instances of repetition. This is why all different types of revisions are called for: the revision done immediately, the revision done after time, the revision done in one sitting, and the revision done over multiple sittings. Just as there is a great virtue to holding your entire book in your head in one sitting, there's also a virtue in a different type of revision, of isolating a random chapter and approaching it out of context. This will put it in yet another light.

That said, you don't want to revise forever, either. After a certain point, you have to let your book go. You learn a tremendous amount through revision, perhaps even more than by writing. I've heard it said that 90 percent of all writing is revision. But what some writers don't realize is that you also learn a tremendous amount by letting a book go. Through moving onto a new book. The learning curve on a single work is finite. In order to grow as a writer, you will need to embark on a completely new work, maybe even in a different genre.

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