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Writing Advice: When to Revise

Dear Nancy,

I’m half way through the manuscript of my first book, and I’ve just finished a workshop in which I got some substantial feedback on my existing chapters. Now I don’t know what to do – should I go back and revise, or push forward with new pages?

Befuddled in Brooklyn.

Dear Befuddled,

I’m afraid there is no clear answer to this one. The best I can do is…it depends on the kind of revision that you are talking about. If the workshop has helped you to re-imagine your project, or given you some new, overarching structural ideas, and you want to bring that fresh vision to the page, by all means, dive in and revise. In this case, though, it isn’t so much revising as rethinking. Implementing that kind of change can reinvigorate your work and your energy for it. It can make space for new ideas, new possibilities.

If, on the other hand, you are talking about polishing sentences, adding in context, or taking care of any other more small-scale issues, revising might be a way of spinning your wheels and avoiding the more difficult production of new words.

Feedback can be very useful, but I tend to think that it’s a mistake to try and deal with every issues that gets flagged by your workshop readers. Better, often, to let the feedback sit a while and go back to it in a few weeks (or even months). Then the really important things will jump out at you and the minor, nit-picky stuff from that pedantic reader (every workshop has one) will fade into the background, where it belongs.

Getting caught up in minutia won’t help you when you are trying to birth a whole book. I’m a firm believer in the importance of beautiful sentences, don’t get me wrong. But when writing a book, you have to balance that consideration against big picture stuff – story arc and conflict, tension and pacing. And plot, of course. Once you get that big stuff down, polish away. Before that, you might be applying your mental energy to pages that are going to get radically altered anyway, down the line, once you have worked out the kinks in your story.

Good luck,

Nancy.

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