What I learnt, as a writer, about writing, from A S Byatt's Possession
The 500th Postiversary Competition: win a writer's retreat and other prizes

Time to revise, but how will I know if I'm making it better, not worse?

Everyone knows about the terror of the blank page that you've just written Chapter One at the top of. Some writers spend weeks approaching it, dabbing a couple of words on, and deleting them. Others research for a decade in order to avoid getting to the blank page moment at all. And one of the chief reasons that the crazy/shitty first draft principle works for so many people is that suddenly the cost of failure isn't so high: this was only a crazy first draft, after all. Anything goes to get words on the page; we'll turn them into the right words later.

But what if you're fine with starting, and with finishing that draft, but are terrified of revising? Some feel uneasily that their punctuation/grammar/spelling aren't up to scratch, but that's relatively easy to learn - and you may not be nearly as bad as you think. Others just don't know where to start eating this elephant: some suggestions here. But what if what worries you is revising the bigger and more intangible things? What if you're terrified you won't know if you're making it worse, not better? For some, that fear can be paralysing. First, here are some thoughts about how to keep in touch with the shore as you launch out into the unknown.

  • Do it on a new copy of the file (but you know that one).
  • Don't fiddle: know what you're doing to your book today, and stick to it.
  • Go through, on hard-copy (or screen with comment balloons), just reading, and making notes about what needs changes, not actually stopping to do them. That way you can read fast, more like a reader, and hold on to a sense of the bigger picture. You're less likely to lose sight of the baby while scooping out the bathwater, or change something because you've forgotten it's like that because in Chapter 17... Then put it all into practice on the new copy .
  • Use Track Changes, so you can review everything before you commit to it. It depends what program you've got, but I set it to have deleted stuff in balloons, not inline, and new stuff in something reasonably unobtrusive like dark green. Then I can read the new version reasonably fluently and naturally, but still tell the difference between new stuff and old stuff. And if you're using Scrivener (my new writerly Best Friend) or MSWord, you can search by text colour if you want to find only the new things.
  • If it's all a disaster, you can always just go back to the original version. If you might want to preserve a few bits of the new stuff (or track changes reminds you too painfully of the day job) you could just do everything on the new copy without track changes, merge the two documents, and pick your way through accepting and rejecting each difference.

But the other side of dealing with this kind of fear is accepting that whatever happens in revising happens. No novel is ever, totally perfect: they're just too big. What you need to do for one reason means it won't quite be perfect in some other way, and it can never be all things to all readers. You have to forgive the novel for not being things it can never be; and for the answer to the question "When do I stop?", click here.

Another face of this business of letting go of the outcome is to understand that revising, too, is partly a matter of trusting your instincts. In the first draft you're inside a bubble of your organic sense of what the novel is - the characters and their situations and conflicts, the settings, the themes and ideas, all in their magical, cloudy reality - and you write within that bubble.

In revising (whether you do it after every sentence, or only when you've free-written the whole book) you have to step outside that bubble and train your editor's searchlight and telescope on it. You have to bring in feedback and general advice, and worry about your particular weaknesses and patches of tone-deafness or simple technical ignorance. Which matter, of course, but when people are afraid of "editing out the freshness" - and it certainly can happen - I think it's because they don't find it easy to bring that cool, technical eye to the writing, while keeping in touch with with the bubble.

One of the best summations of what an editor is doing for your book - whether it's someone else, or a workshop, or yourself - is that it's helping the book "to become the book you thought you'd already written." And so you need to hold on to your instinctive, sense of the bubble that you hope you've written, even when you revise: you sometimes need to close the notes and the checklist and the writing text-book, forget it all, and trust that everything editorial/critical you've absorbed just will emerge in your head and on the page, when the text in front of you needs it.

That way, not to sound too mystical about it, the text is driving the process from inside and taking what it needs from outside, rather than outside stuff imposing its will on the text. And that's why it's likely to all work better if, when you've realised the book needs to be very different, you resign yourself to going back and re-building it from scratch. It's not just because you've tweaked the hell out of and it's still not working so you've got to try something else. It's because by starting, mentally, from scratch, you're allowing the bubble to reconstitute itself and come alive for you. You're going back to thinking, "What is this book really, really trying to be?"