Revising a Book Manuscript

by Dianne Van Dien

Sometimes when I’m working on a writing project, an idea will pop into my head while I’m washing the dishes or out for a walk—and often the idea arises with seemingly perfect wording. But by the time I dry my hands or get back to the house and pick up a pen at my desk, the words have fled. The idea remains but those perfect words have slipped into oblivion. Even when I’m at the keyboard my thoughts will race ahead of my fingers, and once again those “perfect” words fail to make it to the page. My sentences are subpar. I think—if only I could type 100 words per minute like Isaac Asimov, maybe this wouldn’t happen! Then I must remind myself not to despair, because I can come back to these words. Maybe not today, but at a future time or over numerous sessions, I can make my sentences better.

“Writing is rewriting” may be a cliché but it holds true even for extremely accomplished writers. Tracy Kidder, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Mountains Beyond Mountains, says “I’m resigned to writing a book over and over again. I’ve written all my books many times over, sometimes as many as twelve times.” (Tracy Kidder, 2007.“Field Notes to Full Draft” in Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, editors.)

With revisions as such an essential part of good writing, of course my survey to University of Utah Press authors had to include some questions about the revision process.

Do you revise in small sections as you go or wait until you’ve finished a chapter or large section before you start editing?

dark sky with stars in the background and an outline of an arch rock formation

Frederick H. Swanson, Wonders of Sand and Stone

“I worked as a publications editor for thirty years and editing skills are central to my writing. I can crank out a draft of a chapter in a few weeks, but I return to it again and again, often producing six, seven, or eight versions before moving on to the next, following a rough chronological order.”

three koi fish, white, orange, and yellow orange, in a dark pond

Joanne Jacobson, Every Last Breath

“I draft and re-draft as I go: each day I re-read what I’ve already written in a section and revise before I start to write anything new. But I also return after the larger patterns in each chapter and section begin to emerge; when I start to see how things might be fitting together.”

Close up of tan or blonde fur

Donald K. Grayson, Giant Sloths and Sabertooth Cats

“I pretty much write the entire thing before I go back and start revising. That’s not to say I don’t linger over a sentence, a paragraph, or even a punctuation mark, but the real process of any revising I might want to do doesn’t start until the whole thing is done. That helps guarantee continuity throughout the whole.”

Cover image for Feed My Sheep. Purple cover with a portrait of Alberta Henry.

Colleen Whitley, Feed My Sheep

“I do revise in small sections, but certainly not getting them perfect. At the end, I do one full revision, looking for things like duplication, grammatical errors, etc.”

black background with portrait image of Sir Francis Drake

Melissa Darby, Thunder Go North

“I revised bits as I found new information. I had a friend review each chapter and he sent me editorial suggestions that I used for revisions.”

Revising a book can go far beyond wordsmithing. Changes can also be substantive, meaning an author changes the book’s organization and framework or even ideas and concepts. While some University of Utah Press authors said they made no changes or only small tweaks to these, others had the opposite experience.

Did your vision for the book change after you got started? In small or large ways?

Image of frank J. Cannon with background image of capitol building.

Val Holley, Frank J. Cannon

“Yes, principally because of useful comments and suggestions made by the outside readers of the draft manuscript. By allowing me to see inside the mind of a reader, they convinced me that less was more. I realized that not every last factoid had to be in the book. The final version was streamlined.”

Close up photo of a Prairie Dog standing upright in a grassy background

Theodore Manno, The Utah Prairie Dog

“The vision for the book changed profoundly during the years after I first conceptualized a book-length manuscript on Utah prairie dogs. At first, I intended to write a short book focused mostly around Elaine Bond’s photographs with prose about the natural history of prairie dogs only. Eventually, it became clear that a longer manuscript addressing conservation and how our research group lived among prairie dogs was in order.”

abandoned wooden homestead with old photos of pioneers man and woman on bottom left and to men in hats on the right with drinks at their table.

Jerry Spangler, Last Chance Byway

“Oh boy, it depends. If you have all your source material at your fingertips, changes will be minor, additions here and subtractions there. But if you are still coming up with new information, then you can find yourself going down a lot of unanticipated rabbit holes.”

watercolor image of fox in grass and an outline of an island coast in the background

Corrine Laverty, North America’s Galapagos

“Yes! It changed in HUGE ways. I originally envisioned the book as more or less a travelogue, or an account of where the people went and what they found. A couple of years into my project, I attended a writing workshop where you could optionally hire an editor to read fifty pages and then provide a written critique and an hour-long oral discussion. The editor told me that I had to find the larger story if the book was to succeed. I knew that larger story was the peopling of America, but I had NO background in archaeology and was scared to attempt that leap. Still, his suggestion prompted me to figure it out and thus the book became something more.”

“I attended archaeological conferences on the Channel Islands and met archaeologists doing work on them. I read Google Scholar articles by the dozens. I asked questions, more and more questions of the archaeologists I met. But to truly move forward, I realized that I needed the guidance of a professional archaeologist who could read what I wrote and make sure that I was on track. I asked around and was sent to an emeritus professor of archaeology who spent his career studying the islands’ archaeological history. He agreed to help me and, with his support, I plunged into and began writing the bigger story whilst using the “who went where and what did they find” original spine of the book as the road map for this other, very important story. When “my” scientists had not gone to the places that modern scientists have excavated and studied, I figured out ways to include the modern story within the framework of the pre-WWII expedition that was at the core of the book.”

Cover image for Stories FInd You, Places Know. Aerial view of flat, green landscape with some lakes.

Holly Cusack-McVeigh, Stories Find You, Places Know

“Yes, it did change in small ways. I found the reviewers comments and suggestions incredibly helpful. With fresh eyes, they were able to see my material in ways that I was not. I accepted most but not all suggestions for revisions.”

Cover image for A Modest Homestead. People standing in front of an adobe house.

Laurie Bryant, A Modest Homestead

“Yes, very much so. My original idea was simply to catalog the existing adobe buildings in Salt Lake, but details about the builders, alterations to the buildings over time, locations of adjacent things like railroad tracks, canals, farms, and such kept adding human interest to the stories. It became a book about how people made a home where the only readily available building material was mud. And how they organized their lives around making it into everything they needed.”

Cover image for Utah's Air Quality Issues. A car tailpipe spewing smoke.

Hal Crimmel, Utah’s Air Quality Issues

“Yes—much of what I thought I knew wasn’t entirely true, and I also learned so many new things, such as the increased amount of rural air pollution we are seeing, or the increase in summer air pollution in the Wasatch Back and our mountains, for instance. I also shifted somewhat from outrage to a more measured approach, realizing that the book needed to be balanced to be effective.”

Cover for Hikmet Loe Spiral Jetty

Hikmet Sidney Loe, The Spiral Jetty Encyclo

“Yes! Very much so. I initially wrote a seven-chapter book on Spiral Jetty, which wasn’t sustainable. It was the first anonymous reader, a Smithson scholar, who suggested I collapse the chapters into encyclopedic entries. It took me months to really embrace that idea, then two years to rewrite content.”

“Drafting is hard…. Revision is the marathon.”

We’ll end this post with some final thoughts on revisions from Jennifer Sinor.

Cover image for Ordinary Trauma. An image of a small wave on a tumultuous wave.

Jennifer Sinor, Ordinary Trauma

“I tell my students that what separates a writer who succeeds from one who does not is revision alone. We like to think—we try and convince ourselves—that our early drafts are done. Young writers in particular believe this because they have never actually been asked to deeply revise. Drafting is hard, no doubt—that initial effort to nail down an idea that is urgent but unformed can feel like pulling a stone from a mud-bottomed lake. Revision, though, is the marathon. You have to be in it for the long haul. You have to know, on a deep level, that whatever work you set down and then delete later is work that had to happen in order for you to find your final form. You have to be willing to let whole entire chapters go. Entire concepts. Beginnings. Endings. Anything. Those lines were necessary to get you to the next place, but you must be willing to burn them in the end.”

This article is part of a series called “What Does It Take to Make a Book?”

See previous posts:

On Writing Schedules, Routines, and Daily Goals

How Do Writers Make Time to Write?

Books Take Time

What Does it Take to Make a Book?

Dianne Van Dien began working for the University of Utah Press (UUP) in 2010 as a graduate fellow while earning a MS in Environmental Humanities. Later she shifted to her current role as UUP’s freelance marketing associate. She lives in rural Missouri, from where she also writes and edits for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

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