Revising: The Joy and the Hurt of It

Revising is fabulous. Revising is painful. Revising is thrilling. Revising is humbling. Revising is rewarding. Revising is challenging. All of this is true, but nothing is more than this: revising is what makes the work better.

I always knew writers revise and edit. And I knew there were these people in the publishing world called editors (who, in my mind, all looked like Katherine Hepburn for some reason), though I wasn’t quite sure what they did. I thought they sat around with red pens looking for typos. To my extreme relief, and to the benefit of my work, it turns out that editors (at least ones as fantastic as mine, Alvina Ling) are coaches, cheerleaders, story shapers, teachers, and yes, typo finders. Editors wear many hats, but the overall thing they do is make the manuscript better.

Now after all of that glowing praise, let me tell you my honest-to-goodness reaction the first time I saw Alvina’s editorial letter (an explanation of what needs work) and my electronic manuscript full of mark-ups (the modern red pen): I cried. As you read more of my entries, you will likely see that tears are my thing, but to classify them, these were a mix of feeling sorry for myself and abject terror. See, I’m not a precious writer. I do not believe that my words are so great, so untouchable that no one should dare tell me to change them. It’s that I felt sure I would fail. Looking at the hundreds of notes sprinkled through the manuscript, I thought, “If I could have written it better the first time, I would have! I can’t do it! Alvina will be sorry that she wanted to work with me.”

But as they say, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step,” so I made changes one at a time. Eventually, I whittled them down until I got to some of the tougher issues, like a character who wasn’t as likeable as I thought (Really? I liked her? But, oh, ah, yes, I see what you mean! She seems kind of cold. Change, change, change.) and gaping holes in the story I hadn’t realized were there.

And then I was done.


Rookie mistake. You don’t get it right the first time. And that’s not only okay, it’s expected.

So, we went back and forth, and while some might find this disheartening, I must say, for me (once I felt confident that Alvina wasn’t going to dump me like a washed up Homecoming Queen) it was fantastic. When I compare drafts, I see how much more depth there is to the story after the revisions and I know I could not have done it on my own.

Alvina’s eyes are not the only ones on the drafts. She has a variety of unsung heroes who checked my work along the way, including copyeditors (who caught so darned many boo-boos. Yikes!). Plus I have my friends who read my work, and my agent, Joan, who sees every draft first and who does therapy when I’m stuck or sad or confused about the process.

What has surprised me most in this process is what a communal effort creating a book is. I feel so lucky to be working with people who not only make my writing better, but who make me feel better while they’re doing it.



Filed under Agents, Editing and Revising, Editor, Writing

16 responses to “Revising: The Joy and the Hurt of It

  1. Little Brown editors are the best!


    • Cynthia Levinson

      Sez you! OK, that’s a little snarky, since LB turned down my debut book. I would have loved to publish with them. Fortunately for writers and kids, there are a lot of best publishers!


  2. J. Anderson Coats

    When my revision letter arrives, I’m going to reread this post a few times. I’m not given to tears but I am susceptible to freakout, and something tells me that a big dose is coming my way any day now in the form of an innocuous little missive.

    It’s good to hear from someone who’s on the other side of the revision-letter slog, especially the reminder that the book is all the better for it at the end.


    • The thing I left out was that there was so much that was supportive in the letter. More positive than not. It’s just that I’m prone to self-doubt and, well, tears. I’ve been impressed, actually, by the fact that in each communication, there’s a lot of reassurance. And in all, the excitement has completely outweighed everything else. I’ve been lucky to feel respected and validated. I feel lucky in general.


  3. This post about revision is great for us as writers and also for those of us who are teachers. Revision is many things…and you make clear the hope and the goal of revisiting our own (and others’) words. I hope that you’ll continue to share these stories when your book comes out. Who knows how many young writers you will inspire? Thank you, Michelle! A.


    • Cynthia Levinson

      Hi, Amy. How great that you’re sharing our experiences with your students. I remember the first time a writer at a conference I went to displayed a slide of her editor’s marginal comments. All us newbies gasped. Published writers nodded. Be sure to look for my Monday posting when it comes up. Your students will gasp!


  4. Cynthia Levinson

    You know how, say, fish don’t know they live in a water world (assuming they know anything) because it completely surrounds them, and, so, they can’t imagine an alternative (assuming they can imagine anything at all)? That’s how I’m feeling about revising. I’m totally immersed, maybe even submersed–to the extent that I don’t know how to write about it. Is there another world out there, where people eat, write new mss, go to the bathroom? OK, I’m exaggerating.

    The chapter I’m working on now–the one on which Kathy made hardly any comments, so I thought I could breeze through it in a day–has taken three days so far and counting. Here’s the apparently simple comment that carried a stealth bomb: “I wish we had more examples of this silent group of people who opposed segregation.” Sounding out silence is what’s taken the last three days ad counting.


  5. So great to read this and just in time. I got my my first revision notes from an editor this week and to say I was daunted and overwhelmed by the eight pages of notes was an understatement! Good luck on your revisions.


  6. Cynthia Levinson

    Kathy and I talked today about revisions on a possible second book. The good news is that the structure works. Now, all I have to do is change all the words inside the structure. It’s like the skeleton will hold the body up but the muscles and veins are in the wrong places. (Block that metaphor!)

    We talked very little about revisions on debut book. As I wrote yesterday, it’s hard to talk about. But, I told her that I’ve worked through four chapters. “I haven’t put them to bed but I’ve put them down for a nap.”


  7. Cynthia Levinson

    Heard at a panel of writers this evening: “In the revision process, you can’t be too tied to the word.”


  8. Pingback: Perspective, Vulnerability, and Action Figures (or things that aren’t just about Lynda, you know) | EMU's Debuts

  9. I had two bestselling books and five more on the market with major publishing houses like Random House and Harper/Collins (then Harper & Row), when I moved to Miami. Out of nowhere, a play sprung from my head and became a local sensation. Curiously enough it was a take-off of the lame talk shows of the afternoons, a parody that now mirrors the Jerry Springer shows. This led to a job as a Theater Critic at Miami New Times, a position I considered a cake walk, considering my resume.
    I wrote my first column for Tom F. and promptly got the unrecognizable version back over the computer. How could one cold man find so many things wrong with 750 words? And ask so many questions? I despised him. What did he know? I was a big city writer? This went on week after week. Each week he made me do at least five revisions. Gradually, they decreased. The column expanded to 1500 words. It became the talk of the town. And because of him, I never again doubted I could truly write.


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