A monthly column written by an Authorlink contributing editor.

We welcome your questions, comments and input to this page.

ASK THE EDITOR The Difference Between Polishing and Rewriting

By Susan Malone

January, 2000

We have a HUGE misconception in the writing world about what constitutes revision. Many confuse copy editing and polish with rewrite.

Such is not remotely the case.

And while both copy editing and polish have their places in the tangled web of writing, revision is a MUCH deeper process.

Once you’ve written a first draft, what you really have is a big blob. From there you must first dissect the book with a dispassionate eye—not an easy thing when your ego and hopes and dreams vie for the spotlight. But it must be done. True editing and revision delve deeply into the essential elements—characterization, plotting and pacing, organization and structure, flow, voice and tone, literary devices, etc. Often, you’ll need to rewrite whole scenes, write additional ones, add depth and shading to characters that was missing in the beginning (and indeed, about which you might not have even known when you started), and ax-out superfluous scenes entirely. True editing works in theory—taking apart a book, piece by piece, analyzing what works and what doesn’t, and figuring out how it all should fit back together. True revision is the action part of the sequence; the actual DOING of all of that.

I advise my writers to get on paper that first draft, and then take time away from it; let the cream rise to the surface, so to speak. Wait a while and then go back over it. In the beginning (and indeed, through several books), you need help with this. So many elements go into the mix. First, you must learn what these are. Then, you must learn how to apply them. And as long as you write, you must be conscious of not becoming kennel blind—the inability to see the faults close to home.

For some reason, we developed the idea that writing was this pristine endeavor needing only the artistic inspiration, and that writers should (or even could) handle everything themselves, i.e., without outside eyes, critique, or editors. Hogwash. Do visual artists work in a vacuum? Or do they study under more-advanced artists? A painter would be considered arrogant at best for doing the former, and we all know from whence arrogance derives.

Take a look around at the proliferation of books that aren’t edited/revised. Writers with whom I work often point out the glaring errors in well-known authors’ novels. Yes. How does so and so get by with it? How do they get the huge advances for such tripe?

The answer is complex, and reflects poorly on publishing as a whole these days. Once a writer becomes famous (e.g., has a following large enough to ensure high sales numbers) his or her books no longer get that stringent edit. Publishers and editors get a little nervous (and hell, the entire world of publishing in NY is rather nervous right now) about touching said famous author’s works (God knows, he/she may react and find another house, contracts notwithstanding), and he’s already got a large following; she’ll sell x hundred thousand books anyway; let the manuscript go as is.

And boy, does the book suffer.

The publishing establishment also seems to believe that a population now weaned on television, rather than literary classics, won’t know the quality difference in reading, say, a Robert Flynn versus a . . . well, pick a popular author.

Oh, but many of us do.

And not just writers (the harshest critics). But Joe and Josephine on the street do too. Put a well-crafted book in old Joe’s hands, and he’s immediately taken aback, amazed at the poetry in the prose, the richness of character, the depth and intricacies of plot. Where, he asks, has this writer been all of Joe’s life? (I know this, because it commonly occurs as I tout good authors and books.)

Yeah, we’re talking talent—that illusive commodity at the root of more than one writers’-conference war. But even take-your-breath-away talent doesn’t translate well in the raw, and more than one gem has been missed because it was buried under a boatload of rubbish.

Which brings us back to revision—the bane AND blessing of all writers. It is difficult. It is time-consuming as all get out. It can make you loony as a rutabaga under a full moon. It is mandatory. You owe it to yourself, your book, and your audience to fashion the very best work that you possibly can. Otherwise, give your creative impulses some crafts and hobbies and leave serious writing to the professionals.

Susan M. Malone is a Contributing Editor to Authorlink.com, a multi-published author, and owner of a successful editorial service. SEVEN books she’s edited have been published or sold within the last two years. Her own newest nonfiction, FIVE KEYS FOR UNDERSTANDING MEN, co-authored with Gary L. Malone, MD, is out now. Check out her listing under Editorial Services, and email her at aaasuz@aol.com