The 3 Rules of Revision

Those of you who know me know how much I hate revisions. I really, really do. For me, it’s all the work of drafting with none of the fun. This explains the snark in last week’s comic as well as tweets like this:

At first I just used the angst for Twitter fodder, but eventually it got to the point where I was seriously floundering. I had feedback from four beta readers and much of it conflicted, not to mention that I had my own deep-gut worries. How the hell was I going to fix this mess, and more importantly, which things was I going to “fix,” and which things were actually right the way they are? Well, a couple of things happened. I called on a pretty amazing writing buddy (of which I’m lucky enough to have several) to help me talk it out, since she’d helped me talk out some of these same things before ALL THE FEEDBACK. Some things she just helped me logic through. But the main thing she did was tell me that the way I had some of these things was just right—as my gut was screaming at me all along. I’d become so afraid of unintentionally ignoring good critique out of fear, that I’d gone too far and started ignoring my own writerly mojo. Then I looked up and saw this quote, which I have printed and taped to the top of my computer screen: “Let me be wise in my creation, let me be fierce in its defense, let me be true to my message and my vision.” –Laurell K. Hamilton Funny how when you see something often enough, you forget to really notice it. I’ve always thought this was a beautiful quote, although potentially dangerous in the hands of writers with big egos or a reluctance to let in feedback. But its value is clear. When too much feedback brings in the doubt monsters, you have to go back to your own message and vision, and be true to that. Voilà:

Now I am revising and making progress as should be (even though it’s still totally no fun).

But I relearned an important lesson from my near-loss of revision sanity. Three of them, actually, and I’m going to share them here. The most important thing about them is that yes, they are in order of importance—and that’s what’s so easy to forget.


1) Trust your instinct.

If you feel deep down that you shouldn’t change something, don’t change it.

Just make sure that your deep negative reaction to a suggestion comes from genuine conflict of vision rather than fear or hurt feelings. Sometimes the critiques we react to most negatively are the ones that we deep down suspect are right. Just like insults that hurt our feelings, they’re worse if we secretly know they’re true.

So if you get a suggestion that makes you mad or sad, don’t reject it out of hand. Let it sit, think it over, and try to be honest with yourself. Do you hate this because you know it’s right and that hurts? Consider changing it. Do you hate this because it just doesn’t jive with your artistic vision for your book? Stick to your guns. You’re the creator; no one can make you change your work.

2) Trust your readers.

Not your beta readers: your future book readers. Rarely are beta readers and critique partners your actual ideal book readers.

I give a lot of critique, and this is one of the things I most often find myself saying. “Trust your reader” means don’t underestimate the intelligence of your audience. Don’t over-explain. Don’t dumb it down. Don’t smack them in the face with clues. Trust them to understand your vision and message, and revise accordingly.

Will all of your future readers get it? No. But the ones who do will love you for it. Write for the few, not the many. Readers, like kids, know when they’re being talked down to, and they don’t like it. Trust your reader, and they will sense it.

3) Trust your critique partner(s).

At some point during the writing process, it becomes necessary to get outside opinions. Writing in a hermetically-sealed bubble can be a good thing, but revising in one usually isn’t.

There’s a caveat to this lesson: you have to have good critique partners and beta readers. Finding them isn’t always an easy thing, but once you do, you’ll know it. And you’ll quickly realize whose tastes mesh with yours, and whose opinions (though always valid) simply don’t match up with what you’re going for. I’m lucky enough to have this, so I know it’s out there. If you haven’t yet found someone who suits what you need, keep looking. A good reader is one of the strongest tools a writer can have.

And once you’ve found one…

Trust them with your work. Trust them with your emotions. Trust them to know how much you can handle, and if they push your limits, trust that they believe you’re ready for it. Trust that they’re being honest, and that they don’t have ulterior motives.

Finally, trust their opinions in every regard except when it conflicts with numbers 1 or 2.


So there you have it: my three rules of revising. Funny how all three of them come down to trust, isn’t it? The past couple of weeks have been a good reminder of this for me.

Writers, do you ever find yourself forgetting lessons you’ve already learned? How do you get back on track? Also, do you have your own “rules” for revisions? Feel free to share below!

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  • This is a great post… I’m at the tail end of revisions for my current WIP, and I have to say the one that really hits truest with me today is: “Trust your instincts.” Most of the time I’m very good at doing that but with my writing, not so much. My only real rule for revisions (that I can think of off the top of my head… see, evidence for why I need this rule) is to write everything down… I always think I’ll remember something that occurs to me but I never do… 

    • Thanks Julia! And YES, oh man, always write down ideas is one of my rules too–not just for revisions, but for everything writing-related. No matter how sure I am I won’t forget an idea, I write it down. Great addition, and good luck finishing up your revisions!

  • Missy Frye

    I recently went through a terrible time of self-doubt while revising my WIP. For some reason, I distanced myself from the basics of writing and my own instincts. I’m much happier now that I’ve returned to a centered place. 

    This is a great post! Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks Missy! I’m glad to hear you found your way back on track.

  • Richardsfive

    Fabulous post. Especially love the quote about being fierce in the defense of your creation.

    One of my rules is:

    Try the change on.

    If I get a suggestion that I’m not certain about, I try it on by making the change in a seperate document and then living with it for a few days before reading it again. The emotional reaction I have at that reading tells me pretty clearly whether this is a change that should stay or go.  Because in the end writing for me is about joy and what makes me lose the joy has no place in my work. 

    Actually I do this during first draft as well. Ninety-nine percent of the time the changed document is the one that survives because if I’m telling myself in the first draft something doesn’t belong, no matter how brilliant I thought it was as I wrote it, it probably doesn’t.

    • I like it! I especially like, “what makes me lose the joy has no place in my work.” That is so true, and a great way to look at it! I use that separate document trick as well. There’s something less scary about thinking of changes as “well let’s just see…” than “permanent change.” Like you, most of mine end up becoming permanent in the end, but that little mind-game frees me up to accept it. Great tip, Regina!

  • I love revisions! I love drafting too, but revisions are so fantastic because they’re where things finally start to make sense. I love the satisfaction of taking a broken scene (or character, setting, etc.) and finding the way to fix it. Then again, I even get excited about line editing, so I am probably the outlier among writers.

    For me the major challenge in revisions is knowing when to stop. I’m pretty open to changing things, even when it requires heavy rewriting (I love rewriting!), so I can end up in this mindset where I think everything can and should be improved. There have been times I’ve tried to change things and fix them, only to realize the “fix” was no improvement and wasn’t necessary to begin with.

    • I have another writer friend who loves revisions and rewrites too, and I just don’t get it. To me, there’s no joy in it. Sometimes figuring out the perfect solution feels satisfying, but I don’t get that creative rush of energy I do when I draft. I’m just like, “Well, time for the next chapter.” And I do most of my “making sense of things” work before the first draft, so even that creative rush is rarely there in revisions. So I definitely envy you that!

      And as to knowing when to stop, that’s tricky for me too. I battle between always knowing I can make it a little bit better in some small way… and my impatience + urge to query. I think, probably, that comes down to instinct too.

  • jclementwall

    I LOVE to revise. In the first draft, everything feels out of control to me. I have to battle my certainty that I’ll never get it right, that the whole idea was ill-conceived. In revision, I can feel in the tightening of prose things getting better. In fact, my problem is that I’ll stay there in revision mode FOREVER. Only one story ever has felt done when I typed the last word of revision. Every other piece I’ve written, it has been a matter of my realizing I. Have. To. Stop.

    LOVE your rules. 

    • I wonder if that feeling has to do with process? Because I’m usually a pre-plotter, so don’t really feel out of control when drafting. Which could be a good thing, but if so, it sure makes revisions boring. =)~ Thanks J!

  • Cynthia Robertson

    I love drafting – first drafts are such a rush;  a speeding rollercoaster ride. Weeeee! But then getting down to the revisions is the painful work, where I have to tease out the themes my subconscious laid down. I’m never satisfied with just polishing the surface story. I’ve gotta find and shape all the delicious subtle meanings, and that takes work. I love/hate that part.
    I totally agree with your rules and yes, it’s all about trust, in ourselves as writers and readers, and in our vision; and in those friends we trust to read our work and tell us what they think. I try to say all you’ve said here to my workshop group over and over again, Annie. You’ve done a beautiful job of hitting all the important points. AND I adore the quote 😉

    • A woman after my own heart! =) I was beginning to think I was the only one who hates revisions;  glad to hear you feel the same way. And thank you very much for the compliment!

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    Are you sure you didn’t write this post with me, specifically, in mind? I’m a revision hater, too (Glad there are others out there like me. I seem to have run into a lot of “I love editing” folks and was beginning to think there was something wrong with me).

    Your tips are tremendously helpful. It IS about trust. I love this morsel best: “A good reader is one of the strongest tools a writer can have.” Yes! That is so, so true. I don’t believe any author – new or established – can write as “good” a book in a vacuum as they can with the right feedback.

    • It’s not just us! I was starting to think so too, but interestingly, it actually seems to be pretty evenly split so far. It almost seems like half of writers love drafting and hate revising while the other half are reversed. Trend?

      And I’m so glad you found my tips helpful! I totally wrote it for me, but since you and I seem to be book twinkies, I guess that means I wrote it for you too. 😉 Thanks Melissa!

  • I just got my first edit letter last week, so this is very timely for me. I couldn’t agree more that it all comes down to trust and listening to your gut. And a little bit of distance always helps, too. I read my editor’s suggestions on the first and second days, let them sit for a couple more, and went back to them to see if I still felt the same way. A few of her suggestions which had originally scared me a bit turned out to be spot-on when I stepped back to really look at the work, and a few are things we’ll probably talk over and discuss editing in a different way. The point is to have that open dialogue–whether it’s with yourself or with an editor–and be willing to explore changes while standing by the things you feel work for you.

    • I can only imagine how scary that is! But yes, I imagine it’s like any feedback; it needs time to sit. That’s a great rule, and one I *always* force myself to follow. No critique should be immediately dismissed, so I always give myself as much time as is reasonable to consider things. Open dialogue indeed. Great advice, Natalia!

  • Well, I love revising.  I better had, because it goes on for years.  I can’t imagine how else to create intricate patterns, bring out hidden themes, keep teasing the secret centre of the story, allow characters to get real, speak good, act nasty, keep going, defy logic, defy themselves, drop out, bring in new people, change the story, the title, go crazy, and etc.  Mind you, after all that, I’m still not rich or famous.  But I’d hate to be lying on my deathbed and think, oh, my god, I should have taken that character one more step toward her own demise.  I should have dragged her to greater depths of self loathing, because if I hadda, she would have, blah blah blah, and etc.  And of course it’s all that guaranteed revising that gives me pause on the threshold of another novel, because I’m thinking, OMG, all those years!  Am I up for it?  Well… what else am I going to do?

    • I hear you! There are different types of writers, though, and some of us (me included) do almost all of that deep, intricate, theme-based good stuff *before* we draft instead of after. There is no one right way! So for me, that stuff is mostly finished… all that’s left are the mundane, logistical type things and kinks that need ironing. But, like you revising, I could spend months or even years in brainstorming before I write–and often have.

      Thanks for commenting!

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