[process] Revising versus editing

No, this is not the post I promised a while back. Not yet. Think of this as a pre-post.

Last night over dinner, calendula_witch and I were comparing notes on current writing projects. “I’ll fix that on revision” is one of our favorite phrases in those conversations. I mentioned that I’d been thinking about making a blog post on the difference between revision and editing. That unfolded into a curious conversation wherein the more granular our discussion became, the more confused I became. That in turn eventually forced me to fall back on three basic concepts, none of which I am very satisfied with.

1) There is often a difference of scale between revision and editing, but that is not the distinguishing feature between the two.

2) There’s a reason we don’t call all those nice people at the publishing houses “Revisers”.1

3) I am sorely tempted by the Potter Stewart test, viz. “I know it when I see it”, which is a bad sign for the clarity of my own thinking.

So let me turn this around and throw the question open. What do you think the difference is between revision and editing? I’m quite curious how this looks to other folks.


1. Granted that editing as done by acquisitions editors, copy editors, production editors, managing editors, etc., is a different-but-related beast from editing done by an author laboring away in their digital garret.

8 thoughts on “[process] Revising versus editing

  1. John Stevens says:

    For me, revision is literally “seeing again.” It is conceptual and aesthetic, deep-structural and organizational. If I am seeing the story differently, reworking a character’s background, or cutting an entire section and writing a new one, what I am doing is changing my vision for the work.

    Editing is more technical. It is grammar, syntax, spelling, research checks, etc. It is also checking for processual problems in the flow of the words, the progression of scenes, and so on. What it alters is the reception of the text, rather than its ideas or content.

    I think there is some cross-over between these; you could be changing a character’s action and at the same time makes their intentions clearer with word choice. I guess that the difference is this:

    “He shot the king.” Revised might be “He arranged to have the king killed.” Edited might be “He shot the king with a crossbow.”

    I think that editors both edit and revise, which may lead to some confusion as well.

  2. The way I see it, editing is what you do with the page in front of you. If it’s printed, you pull out the red pen and start marking up. If it’s on screen, you never go back more than a page or two.

    Revision, to me, is re-vision. Start with blank paper and start, from scratch, a new vision of your work. The original is still there; you may, in fact, be copying the text almost directly. However, in doing this you are required to read over your material in “reading” order (which may be different from your writing order). Also, the process of rewriting everything may trigger something in your mind, the “why did I miss that the first time around”, which will be missed if you only have an editor view.

  3. Jonathan says:

    John seems to have captured my thoughts completely. Damn you, John, stay out of my head!

    I do find revising and editing intertwined. I can’t seem to do one while at least thinking about the other. Editing often accentuates concepts and aesthetics, structure and organization. I’ve always got an eye out for the technical stuff, especially when reading aloud or listening to a recording.

    What revision means also depends where I am in the process. Early on, revision usually consists of a good bit of rewriting, discarding chunks of the story, and exploring new avenues. Later on it seems to be more along the lines of teasing out pacing, style, voice and setting, as well as fine tuning the mechanical stuff.

    After writing this, I can see how the mind muddles it all. But it’s a fun exercise in understanding what we inherently do as writers.

  4. Hey, this is a start and I appreciate it b/c you’ve got me thinking 🙂

    Revising is an opportunity to re-imagine. For ex. in first draft you might have had the character as a clueless 21-year-old who loves shoe shopping, but on revising she’s turned into a mythical creature with a unique set of problems and cool attributes.

    Editing is more craft/technical. It takes what’s written and makes it tighter, clearer and more compelling. It may turn the car into a corvette, but it doesn’t turn the corvette into a spaceship.

  5. Yes, to both of those! To me, revision is also “Re Vision,” a process of re-seeing or seeing anew. It is take a step back and see the larger whole for what I would like it to be. While revision for me is a matter of scale (mostly large), it isn’t always. For example, sometimes revision is line-by-line, because once I understand the “vision” some of the words have to change to accomplish that vision.

    Editing is the work that’s done once the proper vision is in place, to make sure the message is clear, clean and proper 🙂

  6. Alex C. says:

    I see editing/revision as sculpting a human body. Editing is adjusting the angle of the nose, the height of the ears, the size of the hands, etc. Revision is stripping away the skin and muscle, dismantling the bones, and rearranging them in a new way.

    How’s that for a goofy writer analogy?

  7. I think, using the KISS principle, Alex has got it in a tee. I know it is a generalisation, but conceptually, Revision is the act of restructuring, or looking for opportunity for restructuring, while editing is perfecting.

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