Revision Technique: Why Did You Do That?

by Jami Gold on April 28, 2015

in Writing Stuff

A knight chess piece on a board with text: Can You Justify Your Writing Choices?

The other week, I talked about how to find the right editor for us: the right kind with the right strengths and the right style. At the end of that series, I pointed out how one of the most important considerations is that we trust our editor.

There’s a reason I emphasized that point over and over. And that reason ties in to how we draft, revise, and edit—whether we use paid professional help or not.

Sometimes the best way to improve our writing is to have to justify the choices we’ve made. Having to justify our choices ensures that everything on the page is intentional.

Being Intentional with Our Writing

Everything we write should be intentional—the words we use, the events we emphasize, the emotions we evoke, the themes we build, etc. But there are many ways our writing might not match our intentions.

We might discover that we have…:

  • Failed to Get Our Thoughts on the Page: Before we can accurately capture the story in our head, we have to know what we intend to convey.
  • Unintended Themes: Themes are created through several elements, which can conflict or create themes opposite from our intentions.
  • Unintended Subtext: Broken subtext can undermine our intended themes, premise, or characterizations.
  • Mismatched Emotions: Over- or under-playing characters’ emotions changes the reader’s impression of them, which might not match our intentions.
  • Mismatched Emphasis: Different writing techniques emphasize (or de-emphasize) story events, so we should match the writing style to the intended emphasis (i.e., showing requires more words, which then results in a stronger emphasis).

Do We Know Our Intentions?

It’s easy to receive feedback that conflicts. One beta reader might love something another reader hates. Or maybe one reader tells us to cut something that another beta reader thinks is important.

Or worse, we might get feedback that sounds good, but also receive other feedback that sounds good too. Yet neither of those options are quite the story we wanted to tell. Different doesn’t necessarily mean better.

In cases where feedback is confusing or doesn’t feel right, it’s important for us to know our intentions. Our intentions for a story, character, or scene can be the rudder steering us straight through the chaos of revisions and edits.

If we know what we intended, we only have to figure out which advice and feedback will help us get to where we want to go. And that’s a far better situation than following every piece of advice that “sounds good.”

The Difference Trust Makes

When We Don’t Have Trust…

When we receive feedback from beta readers, critique partners, or editors that we don’t trust, our default response to each suggestion might be “No, unless you give me a reason to listen.”

In other words, when we don’t trust that the person giving us feedback truly understands our goals for our story, it’s much easier to dismiss their feedback—no matter how good it is.

  • If they question why a character does abc, we might delete that comment and scoff: “It was right there on the previous page. You must have missed it.”
  • If they point out a potential problem with a story beat, we might ignore the comment and grumble: “They’re trying to change my story to something it’s not.”

Now, maybe we’re absolutely in the right. Maybe we have a reason for not trusting their feedback. *smile*

Or maybe, we’re far too quick at thinking our intentions made it onto the page, and in truth, we could have made something clearer. Yet our lack of trust in the feedback can prevent us from questioning ourselves.

When We Do Have Trust…

On the other hand, when we trust the person giving us feedback—when we trust that they get our story and our voice—our default response to every suggestion might be “Yes, unless I can come up with a reason to disagree.”

In other words, when we trust our editor (or beta reader or critique partner), we’re more likely to listen and take the time to justify our choices.

That justification often comes back to thinking about our intentions. Did we have a reason for writing abc that way? Did we mean to do xyz?

When we trust the person giving us feedback, if we can’t justify our decisions for writing it a certain way, we’re far more likely to take their suggestions. That means when we work with those who have earned our trust, we’ll be far less likely to be lazy with our revising and editing.

Using Trusted Feedback to Be More Intentional

No matter how much we try to be intentional when we draft stories, lazy writing will always sneak in:

  • We might use vague words like big, good, thing, etc. *raises hand*
  • We might shortchange a character’s motivation or emotional response.
  • We might hand-wave away a plot hole, etc.

We often need feedback from others to call us on those weaknesses in our writing. Their comments can keep our lazy-brain from getting away with less-than-stellar prose. However, we’re also more likely to listen to feedback if we trust the source.

When we trust the comments enough to spend the time seeing if we can justify the writing on the page, we’ll end up with stronger, more intentional writing. We’re more likely to dig deeper:

With feedback about a section where our character is unlikable:

  • Did we have a reason for including it, or was this just what popped into our head first?
  • Is that reason important, or should we cut this section?
  • Can we fulfill that reason and get rid of the unlikable bits at the same time?

With feedback about a plot hole:

  • Is this the way the story really needs to play out?
  • Can we come up with better motivations for our characters?
  • Would more or deeper stakes help?

With feedback about a cliché:

  • What are we trying to say here?
  • How can we write it fresher?
  • Or is it better to simply cut the line?

That’s hard work. It’s far easier to just say that something is “good enough.”

Forcing ourselves out of lazy-brain mode takes energy. Sometimes we might have the mental strength to take every comment and suggestion in feedback seriously, but sometimes we won’t.

In those cases, we might need a reason to take feedback seriously enough to put in the time and energy to revise and edit right. Trusting the feedback we’ve received can make that difference.

Are We Doomed If We Don’t Have a Trusted Feedback Source?

If we don’t have a source of trusted feedback, we can fake it. All we need to do is push ourselves to ensure that we have a justification for every issue we receive feedback on. Even if we think the answer is obvious, or even if we think the feedback is stupid, we can still push ourselves to take the time and make sure.

When our writing is at its best, every word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, scene, plot event, story beat, and subtextual cue will be intentional. But our lazy-brain can trick us into slapdash writing.

We often need a kick in the pants to force us to question our choices and make sure they match our intentions. Trusted feedback—where our default response is to assume they’re right unless we can justify our choices—or forcing ourselves to take untrusted feedback seriously, can be just the kick we need. *smile*

Do you catch yourself doing lazy-brain writing sometimes? Does feedback help you find those issues, or do you have other techniques for fixing them? Do you have a default assumption about feedback, from assuming it’s right to assuming it’s wrong? What flips that default response for you? Is it trust or something else?

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15 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins) April 28, 2015 at 6:31 am

Great post, Jami,

Glad you’re so right that trust is so key for any feedback, however valid, is trusting the source. I think that’s why this was so hard for me in the beginning.

Most writers I know write either picture books or YA novels (often paranormal like yours) and don’t get the nuances of books for kids under 13 but older than 5, and because I write animal stories that are not 100% naturalstic, this is compounded further.

That said, when I had beta-readers who at least get and respect what I write, even if they haven’t done it themselves, I’m so much more open to taking in and making use of much of their feedback.

My editor for “GABRIEL” gets the book, and most of her feedback I really agreed with, because anything she’s suggested so far takes what I had and helped me making better, that’s WAY different than as Jami said avove, about “different isn’t nesscaarily better.”

On that note, Jami, it’s because I love your blog so much that I’ll mention something I noticed reading your post about-

“Are Doomed If We Don’t Have a Trusted Feedback Source?”

This heading sounds like it’s missing a word. Did you mean-

“Are Writers Doomed If We Don’t Have a Trusted Feedback Source?”

Or maybe-

“Are You Doomed If We Don’t Have a Trusted Feedback Source?”

Depending on how much you can fit to keep in in one line-

“Am I Doomed If We Don’t Have a Trusted Feedback Source?”

I know you don’t overly fret about revising your posts (my posts tend to be more conversational, so I’m a tad more anal about it than you, or at least you project that ease with your proccess really darn well-LOL)

The only other thing I’d add is that SOMETIMES, our best bits of writing IS spontaneous or semi-spontaneous, if not in the first draft, in the drafts afterward.

Reply

Jami Gold April 28, 2015 at 9:24 am

Hi Taurean,

To be honest, when I was writing this post, I wasn’t sure if I was the only one who reacted differently when I trusted the source. It made sense that there’d be a different reaction, but I wasn’t sure just how “normal” my brain was. LOL! So I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s more open to feedback when I trust the source. 🙂

And LOL!–thank you for the edit! That one headline and paragraph were written after the rest. (I’d gone to bed and then thought of the “faking it” point.) A late addition happens from my bedside at least a third of the time. 😀 Anyway, I make those additions from the tablet instead of my desktop, and those changes are more susceptible to errors than the rest because the tablet keyboard is wonky. :/ Anyway, thank you! (Missing words are my nemesis. 😉 )

That’s a great point you made too! As a pantser, I live for spontaneous writing. Personally, I’d say that my muse is being intentional in that case, however. 😉 But as you alluded to, it’s not necessarily about being intentional AS we write it, but rather the process of later (by edits or read-throughs) making sure we have (good) reasons for what we spontaneously wrote earlier. Thanks for the great comment!

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Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins) April 28, 2015 at 1:29 pm

Right, I struggle with missing words, too. Sometimes I know I typed them but my keyboard didn’t pick it up, like how you think faster than you write by hand (I know lots of writers STILL write early drafts by hand, but my handwriting’s just not legible enough to do that).

Anyway, I know you’re a panster, but I thought it was key to point that out to writers who are plotters that it’s OKAY to deviate from the plan if what you ad-libbed works better.

I’m a semi-plotter so I’m kind of in the middle between your process and being a plotter, though I’m so NO the “Outline everything in treplicate detail” kind of plotter.

I’d never have finished “GABRIEL” if I were a pure plotter.

There are some things I can’t know until I actuall write them. It’s why I believe so strongly believe that writing ABOUT our books is just not 1-to-1 with wrting the ACTUAL BOOKS.

As vital a skill as blurbing our books is, it’s not the same, and I don’t want more plot-centric writers to feel broken and think their story’s more broken than it might actually be.

No one who beta-read my query letters for “Gabriel” had the same concerns as those who read part or all of the actual book,

I know some agents and editors say they see far more excellent query letters than the actual books that live up to what the query letter let on.

But I want writers at all levels to know ther reverse can be true.

Writing about your book isn’t easy, but that doesn’t mean the actual book you slaved months and/or years over is just as rough as your query letters might be.

That’s something I want all writers to know so they don’t torture themselves as I did, and still do sometimes.

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Jami Gold April 28, 2015 at 1:38 pm

Hi Taurean,

Exactly! My brain goes faster than my fingers or keyboard–especially on the tablet. 🙂

Very true–writing about our book is a far different skill than writing our book. Hence my issues with book blurbs. LOL! (Oh, I still have them. It’s just not as tear-inducing as they used to be. 😉 ) Thanks for sharing!

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Pam April 29, 2015 at 4:13 pm

Yes, Jami! You seem to blog about the subjects that I need the most! I am literally digging through crits right now deciding on what to take and how to take it. Great, great advice to push yourself at every phase of this. No matter how tired you are. No matter how many times you’ve edited. No matter if you have hundreds of pages remaining. Keep pushing.

My take away is to make every page the best it can be taking/or not taking crits advice. Regardless if it is the first page or page 149. Awesome!

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Jami Gold April 29, 2015 at 5:06 pm

Hi Pam,

I’m glad this resonated with you. 🙂 Good luck with your edits, and thanks for the comment!

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Diana Rising April 29, 2015 at 7:04 pm

I really enjoyed this post. I do some proofreading for people and it raised issues I should be paying more attention to. I feel it is important to respect authors more than anything and help them get their thoughts to the readers. Thanks for sharing this.

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Jami Gold April 29, 2015 at 7:23 pm

Hi Diana,

Wonderful! And good point–good editing at any level is about helping the author get their thoughts through to the reader better. 🙂 Thanks for sharing that insight!

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Glynis Jolly April 30, 2015 at 9:55 am

This post spoke volumes to me. I’m not ready for beta readers yet, but the questions you ask in this post that are intended for me to ask myself about, make me glad I read this before that stage. I have a writing buddy. Although in some ways we’re quite different with our writing, we do mesh well as readers, if that makes any sense. After reading this post, I will be sure to have my writing buddy read my manuscript before sending it out to any beta readers. Why? Because that way I’ll get most of the things that are wrong or need adjusting in some way taken care of to my satisfaction. This will help me not to be overly sensitive about what any of the beta reads tell me. This, in turn will allow me to really consider their comments and suggestions.

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Jami Gold April 30, 2015 at 10:03 am

Hi Glynis,

Yes! It’s really about the questions we ask (either internally or prompted by others) that get us to ensure we’re being intentional with our writing. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!

Reply

Julie August 3, 2015 at 12:37 pm

The one thing that invariably kicks me out of a story, and it’s why I pretty much stopped reading most supernatural romance or SF romance pretty much any romance set in a SF/F world is…the writer gypped out on the world-building.

I’m a long-time SF/F reader and believe me, if you set your dystopic world up after a major disease or disaster has blasted away a lot of humanity, you’d BETTER back that story element up in your story. A major published writer did that in her series, which I dumped after three books.

I’ve picked up books from John Scalzi’s guest writer program on his blog, and eagerly waited to read based on the writer’s enthusiasm for their Big Idea…but again…the execution, particularly in world-building, by romance writers were the main culprits.

I can take semi-wooden characters, characters that might act out of character, as long as it’s explained as part of the plot (hey-SF/F means that happens often!), jumpy sentences and grammar…

but not sucky world-building. It’s a pet peeve of mine. Patricia Briggs is decent at it– I just can’t stand the Alpha Male trope as far as I can throw it. I forget what you called it in another series of posts, but jeez. I can do without these Alpha Males.

Are overdone tropes done badly on this guy’s list? I’ll have to check that out.

Sorry to spew on about this particular thing that throws me out of a particular genre. Maybe I’m just not the audience for most books in that genre? I don’t know. Maybe more romance writers need to read more quality classic science fiction and fantasy that excels in world-building, even basic world-building (Ursula Le Guin comes to mind).

My problem is, because SF/F often relegates romance to the bottom of the plot to-do list (because most men/boys don’t want it? I don’t know) I grew used to *not* seeing it written well in the settings I like. And I’m not used to that genre’s tropes and cliches. Okay, some of them I know of, I haven’t been hiding under a romance genre rock!

I honestly don’t mean to offend anyone…it’s a build-up of frustration because I would LOVE not to be kicked out of a story, romance, erotica or what have you, because of this specific problem. 🙁

Reply

Jami Gold August 3, 2015 at 3:25 pm

Hi Julie,

You mean like inconsistent worldbuilding? Or weak worldbuilding? (Or both? 😉 )

Some paranormal/fantasy romances (especially from some publishers) suffer from the same problem as “wallpaper” historical romances. That’s where the paranormal or historical worldbuilding are just backdrop. I don’t read stories from some publishers because I know that’s what they look for in submissions, so I can understand your peeve. 🙂

And you won’t hear me defending the alpha-holes. LOL!

So maybe when you see a poorly done worldbuilding romance, pay attention to the publisher and see if you notice a pattern. That might help you avoid the worst for that problem in the future. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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