Revision is an integral part of the writing process.
Consider this quote from a recent special edition of Time magazine entitled The 100 Most Influential People Who Never Lived:
Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly failed, miserably, at its debut on Feb. 17, 1904, only to be hailed as a triumph on May 28, 1904, after the Italian composer gave it a major overhaul and staged a new version. Puccini finally stopped tinkering with the piece after five versions, and it’s the final one that remains one of the most performed operas in the world.
There is no shame in revision. Even the masters have to revise.
But not all revisions are equal. Before sending out your manuscript, you likely will have put it through multiple revisions:
- Your self-guided revisions, based on your own instincts about what your story needs.
- A revision (or two or three) based on the advice of critique partners and/or beta readers.
- If you have representation, there may be a revision (or two or three) based on your agent’s feedback.
Eventually, of course, the day comes when your story is in the best shape you can put it in, and you send it out. Depending on where you are in your writing life, you may be submitting it to agents if you are seeking representation, or your agent may be sending it out to editors at various publishing houses. If you write short stories, you may be sending one out to literary magazines for consideration.
Once your story is out for review, you will receive one of three responses—a pass, an offer, or…a request to revise and resubmit. It’s this type of revision—the revision by request—that I want to focus on in this post.
A revision done by request is, in my opinion, different from a revision based on your personal ideas about how to improve the manuscript, or even a revision undertaken based on feedback from friends or even your agent. When you are asked to revise and resubmit, you will almost certainly feel that the stakes are higher. You will feel a new sense of pressure. It may feel like the best thing—or perhaps the worst thing—that has ever happened to you, (or perhaps both at the same time.) Yet requests to revise and resubmit are common enough that I thought they deserved their own list of Dos and Don’ts. These are my personal thoughts. Feel free to add to them (or argue with them) in the comments.
- Ask yourself if the revision is one you definitely want to take on. This may seem like crazy advice when the request comes from your dream agent or editor, but you want to make sure that the people you work with on your story get your story. A request to revise and resubmit will most likely ask for specific changes. If the request asks for changes that seem to conflict with the core of your story, you may find the best plan of action is to respectfully decline.
- If you decide to take on the revision request, decide what you are willing to change and what you feel you cannot compromise. For example, you may be willing to enlarge the role of a particular character, but you may not be willing to age your protagonist by two years. This is your story, and ultimately, it has to remain your story.
- Once you agree to revise and resubmit, get as much information as possible. If the request came by email, ask for a phone call. Take as many notes as possible. Ask questions. You don’t want to throw hours of hard work into a revision and end up missing the mark because you didn’t truly understand what you were being asked to do in the first place.
- Focus on clarifying, rather than changing. If the request asks you to add dimension to a secondary character the reader feels is flat, find ways to reveal more about that character, rather than rewriting the character from top to bottom. By clarifying rather than changing aspects of the story, you ensure the story stays true to your vision.
In the end, remember that a request to revise and resubmit doesn’t guarantee that you will receive an offer, and it doesn’t guarantee you will receive a pass. It shouldn’t be approached as a test. Instead, try to approach it as an opportunity to learn more about your story and how well your working style meshes with the style of the person who requested the revision.
How do you feel about revising by request? Do you agree with the above advice, or do you have your own approach? Please share your thoughts in the comments!