Let’s Talk about Stet, Baby

Or, revision in general, really, is what I want to hit on. Because no one really teaches us how to do it, and it’s the most important part of writing.

Because what is it, really? You’ve already “finished” your novel, so maybe revisions are just about moving commas around and changing some dialogue and maybe cutting a paragraph or line here and there. Yes. It’s those things. And it’s SO MUCH MORE.

Here’s the analogy I like to use: Your book is a house you built out of Legos. Your editor looks at it, and tells you there are some things missing or not working, and hands you over a whole new pile of Legos. Your job isn’t to stick the new bricks all over the outside of what you’ve already built. That’s not going to fix anything, really, and in most cases will make things worse. Your job is to completely take apart what you’ve built to incorporate the new stuff. Not all of it will fit, and some of what you’ve already got will have to go to make way for the new pieces, but in the end, the whole structure will be stronger and more aesthetically pleasing.

Often when I’m doing face to face critiques, I’ll tell a writer something that their manuscript needs and they will point to the printout and say “where should I put that?” as though I’ve told them their room needs and end table, to extend the house metaphor. And that’s when I know I’m dealing with someone who doesn’t fully grasp revision. I can’t tell you what to put where to fix things, because it’s not that easy. As the writer, you must consider the new pieces and think about shifting things around to make it work as a whole.

And you may have to do it 3 or 4 times before you submit your work to an agent. And then you might have to do it 2 or 3 times before your agent sends it out. And then you’ll have to do it 3 or 4 or 8 times with your editor. And all of that renovating is before the line editing, where you finally get to move commas and tweak dialogue (painting and floor waxing and choosing fixtures). And after that is copyediting (dusting and vacuuming and filling vases with fresh flowers before company comes over). And only then do you get to say “stet”.

After all, Rome, or houses, or Lego houses, weren’t built in a day.