Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Writing Intentionally: "Revise Without Compromise"

Jael McHenry, writing on Writer Unboxed, address the question of whether revisions requested by agents and editors make the books more or less yours. She points out the difference between the two senses of the world, "compromise:" 1) to work together, and 2) to weaken the integrity of, and argues that working through revisions with agents and editors is all about compromise in the first sense and should never be about compromise in the second. It's a beautiful observation, marred only by my jealousy for not thinking of it first.

There's an important difference between trying to please people and finding ways to say what you're trying to say so that it's accessible to more people.

Some people think that as the source of expression, the artist is the sole guardian of the vision and any request for changes from another party will compromise that vision. Those people forget that writing for readers is a classic example of the old cliché about taking two to tango: you don't have "writing" unless the reader gets something they value out of your words.

But the notion of author as the source of pure expression is more deeply flawed. The words on the page are a lossy encoding of the author's ideas, so there's no such thing as a pure expression. Put in more contemporary terms, a writer is actually coding software that will run on non-deterministic wetware (i.e., brains). Real software developers have no qualms about debugging their code until it runs correctly. Why should authors complain when revision is essentially the same process.

Notice the key qualifier in the statement about debugging? Software developers strive to produce code that runs correctly. Revisions that clear away confusion and help the reader to better understand and appreciate the story are equivalent to debugging the code.

But here's where you, the author, need editorial help: because you know what you meant when you wrote it, it's hard to see where others might misinterpret what you wrote. That's why revisions are all about compromise, in the first sense. You want to work together to make it better.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

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