Once you’ve written something, especially something long, like a 150,000+ word novel, you have a preoccupation that can last the rest of your life, if you let it. Now that books have become ebooks, there is no reason to stop revising, tinkering, polishing and embellishing, even after the thing is published. In the past, once a book was printed, that pretty well put an end to revision, unless there was a good reason at some point to produce a second edition. That makes sense for certain kinds of non-fiction, but rarely in the case of fiction. Now the whole concept of “edition” is becoming obsolete.
I can upload a new version of my novel to Smashwords any time I want. Should I discover an irritating typo in the text, or have a brilliant idea that improves the plot, I can make corrections, insert a new scene or even do a major rewrite. Out with the old text, in with the new. Yes, in effect there is a new edition, but if only the new text exists (outside of my own computer) it’s not exactly the same as in the world of print.
Just because something is possible, however, doesn’t mean that it’s the thing to do. There comes a time when further tinkering with a piece of work no longer improves it. If you get a great new idea, write a great new work, rather than trying to make the old work into a new one.
A rational approach to revision might be as follows: ask several people to read your opus in manuscript. If you belong to a writers’ group, you may find readers there. In any case, it’s best to ask people whom you know to be readers. Non-readers probably won’t give you the kind of feedback you need. Family members and friends? Only if they will give you objective opinions, and only if that won’t compromise your relationship afterward.
The comments most worthy of your attention are those made by more than one of your readers. If all or most of them agree that a character needs more development, that a scene does not contribute to the plot, or that your dialogue is weak, those are probably valid criticisms that you should address by rewriting. Then take the rewritten sections back to your readers.
A group of readers also delivers a diversity of comments. Some pick up on lurking typos or grammatical problems, others pounce on continuity problems, still others focus on character motivations. This is another helpful aspect of asking a group to read your work, since it’s unlikely that any individual will note all those details.
Then there’s the question of “professional” editing. Some writers declare that no one should dare to send works to publishers or agents, or self-publish them, without first having them “professionally edited.” I don’t necessarily agree with this opinion. I think it depends. Some writers are perfectly capable of editing their own works, especially in conjunction with thoughtful critiques by a group of capable readers. More particularly, before rushing out to find an editor, consider that anyone can call themselves an editor. There is no testing and approving body for editors analogous to a college of physicians and surgeons. Presumably, editors make their reputations through the results of their work, which suggests that a certain amount of research and investigation is in order before you fork over your cash (which can be considerable for editing a novel — hundreds or even thousands of dollars). Second, know what you expect from the editor — an overhaul of the entire work from concept to plot to characters and scenes, or merely a thorough read-through to pick up typographic and spelling mistakes and other minor flaws. Finally, bear in mind that paying an editor to review and revise your work is no guarantee of success (i.e. acceptance). Decide in advance what you are going to do after the editor is finished — revise their revisions?
This posting is prompted by the fact that I am right now in the midst of a revision of my second novel, Islands of the Gulf, which is the sequel to The Friendship of Mortals. Once I have worked through it with input from my novelists’ critique group, my intention is to make it available on Smashwords, by the end of 2011, I hope.
However you undertake revision of a piece of writing, do it with an end in mind. When that end is reached, declare the work finished and move on.