by Linda Rodriguez
I’m teaching a class on revising the novel at the moment, and as so often happens, the students, serious aspiring writers who have come out of critique groups, have had to struggle with my demands that they stop fixing typos and grammatical/style errors and focus on the larger structural problems of their manuscripts. After a couple of lessons and exercises, though, they’re finding out how helpful this approach is and are finally seeing how to fix some persistent problems that all the line edits in the world wouldn’t touch.
This is one of the problems I have with critique groups. (Blasphemy, I know!) In theory, I’m all for them. I think that the more commentary from serious readers unfamiliar with the novel that a writer can find, the more it’s likely to help her or him. I always encourage new writers to try to find a writers group to give them feedback on their work. In reality, however, I find that, all too often, critique groups focus on line edits and typos/grammatical errors because it’s easy to find them and easy to fix them, and the commenter can get a quick rush of satisfaction from doing just that. When the book’s in the wrong genre or the timeline’s completely off or the pacing absolutely drags or the scenes contain no conflict or there are too many/too few characters or the book is in the wrong point of view or a subplot has taken over the narrative or when any number of substantial structural issues such as these are problematic, polishing the language is a doomed endeavor.
I want my students to begin with these large, integrated changes that weave throughout the entire book. Many improvements that might have been made in line edits would simply disappear as chapters and scenes are shifted around or deleted. These kinds of big structural changes are the changes that make or break a book. To work on the style of your sentences while ignoring these necessary corrections to the narrative structure is to practice your violin while your city burns around you.
I usually suggest they start with the largest, most elaborate changes first—changing genres, changing timeline, changing setting, changing POV, changing length and complexity. They will most often make such fundamental changes one pass through the book at a time, though occasionally one or two of these broad changes can be combined. I like to think of revision as being accomplished in layers, the broadest and most fundamental first, then more large and important structural matters, moving up with each layer to less sweeping changes that focus less on the book as a whole and more on a chapter or scene or, eventually, a paragraph or sentence.
In revising a novel, it’s important to diagnose and fix major structural problems before any further revision can take place. I think of revision as if I were building a house. You have to begin with the foundation and the wooden support skeleton, then the roof, and then put in windows and doors, etc., etc. Only at the end, do you paint the walls, hang drapes, and plant flowers in front. Line edits are your paint, drapes, and flowers. Without them, your house has no curb appeal, but without the structural work first, it will collapse in the first strong wind.