The Craft of Writing: Revision by Johanna Harness

07 Dec

Revising is not the same thing as editing.

When I edit my work, my vision of the story remains the same.  I may eliminate entire chapters, rewrite complete scenes, change every sentence in the book, but the structure remains. I have a stack of edits sitting beside me: pages full of marks and squiggles and notes to “tighten” or “rephrase” or simply “fix.”  Edits are often about wordsmithery. I pour myself into a world of sound and rhythm and presentation. Editing is a delicious way to spend time if you love words.

The world of revision is a messier place.

If editing is rearranging furniture, revision is knocking down walls.

Revision takes a good deal more skill than writing or editing and I’m not convinced most writers ever do it.  It’s not that they can’t do it. It’s just a hellishly frightening leap and it’s enormously difficult.  The easier path, always, is to set aside a book that needs serious revision—and write a better one from scratch.

Remember: you don’t have to make a lifetime commitment to every book you write. My first book was so bad, I don’t even claim it as my first book.  I call it Book Zero.  I’m convinced gazing on it directly may cause blindness. I’m not going back there. And that’s okay.

So why revise? If revising is more difficult than writing a new and better novel, why do it?

I’ve found only one reason: because a really wonderful idea chose me and I discovered, through the process of writing, that I lacked the skills to do it justice. I wanted to tell that story more than any of the stories I possessed the skills to tell.

We revise to become better writers, to earn the right to tell complex tales.  Is that worth our time?  Maybe it depends on the story.

So what do some of those scary revisions look like?

During the course of revising five novels, I have:

  • Changed the point of view. Changed it again.  Oh why not? Changed it again.
  • Changed from past to present tense. Fell in love with it.  Fell out of love with it. Changed it back.
  • Eliminated a significant subplot, including a major character.  (The first major character I eliminated was named Mim.  Now, whenever a character disappears from a novel, my early readers and I call it “being mimmed.”)
  • Changed the focus of the entire book by changing what the main character wants. I’ve done this one more than once. This usually results in eliminating more than half the chapters, inserting new ones, and rewriting the ones that remain.
  • Changed the rules under which my world operated.
  • Pulled out a tightly-woven subplot to make it the focus of a separate book.
  • Eliminated an entire setting, creating new bridges from Point B to C and Point D to E.  (The real challenge here was working in the material I wanted to keep.)
  • Discovered that an existing plot hole revealed more of interest than the current plot line. Reconstructed the whole thing.
  • Changed the relationship between major characters.

And what did I gain from all this?

  • Confidence. I’m no longer afraid of any change request. I know I can do it.
  • Loyalty to a story above any set of words. If I can make the story better, I’ll cut my favorite scene in the book. It will make room for one I love even more.
  • Material for future narratives.  The beloved bits I eliminate become polished material for later writing.
  • Skill and flexibility. Not only can I make the changes, I have energy to play, to see which version I like best.
  • A wicked sense of humor about my characters and the changes they go through.

What’s the biggest revision you’ve ever undertaken?  What did you learn from it?


Posted by on December 7, 2011 in Revising, writing craft


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26 responses to “The Craft of Writing: Revision by Johanna Harness

  1. JC Rosen

    December 7, 2011 at 12:58 AM

    I love the two photos you chose to show the difference between editing and revising. How appropriate! I edit with ease, running through the manuscript and purging passive verbs, use of “that” and general rearrangement of even chapters to make the pace work. The easy stuff, the general overview.

    My biggest revision lies ahead.I’m convinced i have to at least edit Book 3 in my series before I can revise Book 1. I learn the most about the ancient, basic world building in Book 3. I know Book 1’s revision is going to be a challenge. It will set the tone for the series as well as tell its own stories. I both look forward to it and dread it.

    Thanks for this, Johanna. Great piece, especially your sharing what you’ve done and learned.

    Take care,

    • johannaharness

      December 7, 2011 at 5:35 AM

      Looking forward to it and dreading it–I know that feeling well. Sometimes when my writing really scares me, I have to step back and realize I’m doing my best work.

  2. ramblingsfromtheleft

    December 7, 2011 at 3:14 AM

    Oh Johannah, we are twins for sure. Every facet and detail of this post could have been mine! Yes, yes and yes again. It is so worth it to stick by a story you know in the end is worth the work. It is harder to undertake, like living in the house when they gut the kitchen … but in the long haul … it is so great to see the finished results. The last time I did this, I ended with a story I will be proud to sent out. Now, if I can get over the query/synopsis revise, rewrite, edit and revise … I might just get the job completed 🙂

    • johannaharness

      December 7, 2011 at 5:37 AM

      Yes! It is such a good feeling to get to the other side of a revision like this. I don’t think there’s any better reward than being proud of your work.

  3. Zehra Cranmer (@ZehraCranmer)

    December 7, 2011 at 5:00 AM

    It’s helpful to be able to visualise the difference between edit & revision and OH the pain, I’m going through revisions right now, I thought I was simply losing my mind, but it turns out, it’s just revisions. Onwards!

    • johannaharness

      December 7, 2011 at 5:39 AM

      You’re not losing your mind, Zehra! That’s just what revising feels like. It is so difficult.

  4. Molly

    December 7, 2011 at 5:01 AM

    I love this, thank you.

    It reminds me that the story is bigger than individual words, decisions or approaches and that it is hugely rewarding to be courageous and keep pushing for the best and most authentic and most damn interesting way to tell it, however much it hurts. If you’ve found a story worth telling, you won’t give up on it 🙂

    Inspiring and terrifying in equal measure!


    • johannaharness

      December 7, 2011 at 5:40 AM

      The great thing about taking on the terrifying revisions is that they’re not so terrifying in the future. Of course, you’ll just keep finding new ways to terrify yourself. That’s what we do when we keep growing.

  5. Patsy

    December 7, 2011 at 7:00 AM

    Very interesting post! A scary word “revise.” I always worry that my revised version isn’t quite as good as the original.

    • johannaharness

      December 7, 2011 at 7:28 AM

      I understand that. I think the key, always, is knowing why we’re revising. If we know what we’re trying to achieve, we have a better way to measure our success. If we don’t like it as much, we can always go back.

  6. Sophie Pembroke

    December 7, 2011 at 7:02 AM

    I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve done revisions that have changed setting from urban to rural, with all the implications to every aspect of the story that suggests. I’ve had a contemporary romance gain magic. I’ve added in a whole new world that didn’t exist in earlier drafts to a YA paranorman. I’ve changed antagonists to best friends, added geriatric romances, completely rethought motivations and backstory…

    But every single time, I’ve ended up with a better book. That’s why revising is worth it.

    • johannaharness

      December 7, 2011 at 7:38 AM

      Ooh. I love those revision examples. You are a brave writer!

      I can feel the depth of the stories you tell. Wonderful.

  7. Liz Fredericks

    December 7, 2011 at 8:08 AM

    I keep discovering extended nuance (and a steeper incline) to my learning curve on writing. I hadn’t considered the difference between editing and revision so thank you! You have such skill with words – having a story choose you and claiming the lack of skill to do it justice? I can’t imagine this, but know that you’ve honed that skill through some very long hours at the keyboard. As intimidating at this is, it’s also inspiring. So, my biggest revision? I’m on the last few chapters of switching the gender of one of my primary characters from male to female. This wasn’t so tough – she’s endearing as a too tough for her own good kind of gal, but revising the other lead from female to male – argh.

    • johannaharness

      December 7, 2011 at 5:05 PM

      I love the thought of you changing your leads from male to female and female to male. What a challenge!

  8. stephanieberget

    December 7, 2011 at 12:21 PM

    Thanks, Johanna, for a very enlightening blog. I have been pulling my hair out and banging my forehead against the desk. I’m better now. It’s just revision. I hadn’t given a lot of thought about the difference between editing and revision. You’ve made it clear.

    • johannaharness

      December 7, 2011 at 5:07 PM

      Yes. It’s just revision. It’s a normal part of the process. The forehead dents will go away. Eventually.

  9. Kenneth Mark Hoover

    December 7, 2011 at 1:02 PM

    Excellent advice. They are not the same at all and I’m glad you took the time to point that out for new and established writers alike. Thanks! 🙂

    • johannaharness

      December 7, 2011 at 5:09 PM

      Thanks, Kenneth. I do think making the distinction helps us to be more realistic about our expectations. Some of this work takes a long time, but it is well worth the effort.

  10. Clarissa Southwick

    December 7, 2011 at 2:37 PM

    Thanks for this post, Johanna. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who’s spent lots of time on revisions. It sometimes seems like a waste of time, but I always learn something in the process.

    • johannaharness

      December 7, 2011 at 5:10 PM

      You’re not the only one. I don’t think I’ve ever felt the revisions were a waste of time, but they sure can take a long time. That part can be frustrating.

  11. Mary Vine

    December 7, 2011 at 3:39 PM

    I thought it was ALL editing, so thanks for the vocabulary lesson. Biggest revision? Before my second book (A Place to Land) was published, I had to make about six revisions. It was about the wolf coming back to NE Oregon from Idaho and it was just before Fish and Wildlife actually admitted that the wolf was there. So, she wanted me to change from just before the wolf came, to the wolf is already there. And, she wanted me to change the heroine’s occupation. What I learned? Like you said, “Confidence. I’m no longer afraid of any change request. I know I can do it.”

    • johannaharness

      December 7, 2011 at 5:12 PM

      Yes! The confidence is such a big thing. I loved hearing about your revision!

  12. Helen

    December 7, 2011 at 5:12 PM

    My biggest revision was definitely taking everything after the first 25k of the novel and binning it. I brought my antagonist in after that, directly interacting with everyone. Everything plot-wise changed after that 25k. I also changed things in the 25k by the time I’d finished, but that was mostly editing.

    It took me over a year to gain the necessary skills to pull it off along the way, though. I’m no longer scared by the prospect of binning huge swathes of text now and making that one decision that will change everything.

  13. John Ross Barnes

    December 8, 2011 at 2:18 PM

    Wow. This is both inspiring and daunting. I’m not so arrogant as to think if you can do it, I can do it, but if you can talk positively about it, I can try it(some more). I’m not sure if I’m more excited or more frightened.

    Thanks for this great insight, Johanna (and for the great illustration)

  14. Kathy Shell (Gray Nomad)

    December 9, 2011 at 7:27 AM

    Gosh I have done all those things you called revisions in the process of editing my first novel, which I am determined will be as good as i can get it.

    I simply ask the work in progress, ‘what does it need?’ and do what is required. Some chapters have been an easy edit, others a tough revision, I still love every aspect of it – always knew the draft of the novel was just that, the quick part, the rest is what makes the good novel.

    An interesting explanation of the difference between revision and editing. My nnext go though will only be an edit.


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