revision and sunk cost fallacies

Last week I sent my agent a revision of a book of mine, and I’m really happy with it. I think it’s a good revision that did a lot of exciting things to this book that made its core more itself rather than radically altering it. I think one of the hardest things for new writers is that revision gets really, really hard to tell from sunk cost fallacies. And the advice you get depends on the direction of characteristic error the person giving the advice tends to have.

On the one side, you have the infinite comma fiddling. Sometimes a draft really does need to be put to bed. There is a virtue in doneness, good enough is better than never seeing the light of day, and all that jazz. Will you learn more from changing the adjective on page forty-seven or from writing an entirely new story? And will you improve your odds of getting it out there in front of an audience from changing that adjective or from having two manuscripts that might appeal to people from slightly different angles?

On the other: there are many editorial passes involved in an unpublished manuscript. No, many. No: many. And usually there should be. Usually for a novelist who has not published a novel before there is a darn good reason for each editorial pass. Unwillingness to do the work to get the manuscript into shape means standing in your own way. And there will always be a newer, brighter, shinier idea, and nobody actually cares how shiny your ideas are, because authors don’t write ideas, they write books.

My first thought on how to sort whether a revision was a good revision or a bad revision was whether you had a good reason for doing it. But I’m not sure that’s a good way to figure it out, because some of the good reasons involve waving your hands excitedly and making swoopy noises, and some of the bad reasons can sound very erudite. (But that’s not a clear indication, because you can fool yourself with swoopy noises and make total sense with erudition, too.) I think that assuming that most books need at least one or two revision passes is a good start, and if you don’t need those you’re a rarity and an outlier.

And…I think if you find that you’re doing large numbers of big revisions, over and over again on the same book, my best rule of thumb is if you have a smart reader who has read this specific book, can you describe what you’re doing and why? And does that smart reader say, “Oh yeah, that sounds much better?” Or do they at least say, “Okay, well, that makes some sense?” Obviously you don’t want one smart reader to be in sole control of your fate. But if you’ve done a couple of revisions and you decide you need to do one more–but you can’t really describe it so that a smart reader who has read your book and generally liked it things that you are improving things or at least prooooobably not making them worse–that’s a pretty big danger sign, and worth at least thinking about.

Literally everyone I talked to about this revision said, “Oh yeah! That sounds much better!” So either I’m on a really solid good track…or I’m getting really good at describing revisions now….

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