No Guarantees for Revision
Sometimes I'll critique a manuscript and then get a complaint from the author that what I had
pointed out as something to change was something that they'd already changed because of a
previous critique by a group or a critique partner. There's a sense of anger underlying this, like if
you've changed it once, then it's fixed and you're never going to need to change it again. Or that
we critiquers are somehow jerking an author around, saying change this and change that when we
have no idea what we're doing.
Here's the sad truth about revision:
1. Just because you changed something doesn't mean it's now "right."
2. One critic may like the very thing another critic hates.
3. Revision isn't something that gives you a "guarantee" for a better book.
4. Sometimes, revision makes things worse instead of better.
If I point out something that is problematic or that I don't like in a book and you agree with my
point and try to fix it, that is your decision to make and also your revision to make. Don't blame a
critique for something that has gone wrong in your story. Ultimately, it is your decision as an
author to either accept a criticism or not to accept it. If you have doubts about whether a criticism
is right, for God's sake, DON'T change anything. No one can make you change your book if you
disagree with them. You're the author. Your name will be on the cover. Whatever is there is
yours, not someone else's.
Just because someone notices a problem (and even if they suggest a solution), it doesn't mean that
the first solution you try will be the right one. The tricky thing here is that sometimes the problem
a critique will point out isn't really the problem. It's a symptom of a much bigger problem.
Solving the small problem doesn't really fix anything. It might make it more obvious what the
bigger problem is, though. And that's a good thing, not a bad one, even if I acknowledge that it
might not feel very good.
You've heard that when you're in the midst of deep cleaning, it gets worse before it gets better?
Revision is a lot like that. It will feel and look like an unholy mess for a while. You have to take it
apart before you can put it back together again.
And sadly, there are no guarantees that you can fix it. Some novels (I know this all too well) turn
out to be unfixable. Their central concept is too deeply connected to a flaw for you to fix. You
just end up writing a whole new novel, and if you're going to do that, you might as well go all the
way and not try to salvage bits and pieces (my opinion, anyway).
This isn't welcome news to any author. No one wants to hear a book isn't working and isn't
going to work, especially after you've not only written a novel, but revised it multiple times. But
if you're going to ask me how to prevent this problem from happening: there's no way to do it
except not to write in the first place. That's the safe thing to do if you want to avoid not
"wasting" time on a project that turns out to be not fixable. The only way you know if something
is fixable or not is to try to fix it. You have to put that time in or you won't know.
Please take some heart in knowing that all the pros have books we couldn't fix, too. And that the
attempt at revision isn't ever really wasted. There are things you learn along the way that will
transfer to other books, not least of which is the sense of how frustrating revision can be, and that
you have to do it anyway. Accept it, and keep going until you're sure what the answer is.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison