Tag Archives: editing

Revision Plan B

Alright, deep breath, here goes.

The Problem with Revision.

I’ve been thinking about revision and how to handle it ever since I sent a short story to Critters.org and got 20+ critiques.  The results were very confusing–and actually quite overwhelming.  Each piece of advice contradicted the next. What one person loved another person hated. How could I sort through all these different editing opinions (unfortunately most of the comments fell into the “editing” rather than “alpha-reading” category) and find the solution to what I should do to make my story better?  I asked for help in how to sort through the pile of contradictions, and I got some good advice, but still what I should do remained unclear.

So, as I am wont to do, I kept my question in the back of my mind as I browsed authors’ websites the following months.  For example, Beth Revis wrote a fascinating series of posts on her revision process. I recommend the read, if you’re like me and curious about what others do.

The Question.

Gradually, my general, murky confusion about revision refined itself into a particular question:

I have met writers who are too arrogant and self-assured to take criticism, and their writing and their stories suffer for it. I don’t want to be so confident that I can’t listen to much-needed advice. I have also met writers who are tossed about by every wave, applying every passing comment until their story is barely cohesive or coherent and hardly unique. I don’t want to be like that, either.

How can I make my stories better? How do I decide which advice to follow and when? What in the world do I use as a yardstick to measure advice against?

Revision Plan B.

After much thought and consideration, I have come up with a plan–or a rule of thumb.

Assuming that I have a vision of how I want the story to go, then,

  • Any advice that resonates with and adds to my vision of the story, I will take. In other words, I’m only going to make changes that add to my vision of how I want the story to go.
  • Any advice that diminishes my vision, comes into conflict with it or detracts from it, I will ignore.

This plan still necessitates change and taking advice. I refuse to be stuck in my own ways, alone in my ruts.  However, it also means that I am free to say no, and now I have a reason for doing so that makes sense, rather than on the basis of an  arbitrary “I don’t think I should” feeling or simple stubbornness.

As M Williams said when I proposed this plan, “Some people’s advice is going to be motivated by a desire to help, but it’s going to be advice that wants to make the story into the kind of story they would want to tell, instead of the kind of story you want to tell! . . . [This plan] lets you look at advice and figure out which advice is useful and which advice takes your story away from where it’s supposed to go! It’s humble and learning-ready, but it still protects the integrity of the story you’re trying to tell.”

It also means I will carefully consider all advice before I dismiss it, and if there’s anything I’m unsure about, I can hold onto it for later reconsideration.  I’ve actually done this a lot.  Advice that at the time I dismissed because I was too close to the story, I have still held onto and have later adopted as time has gone on.  (There is hope for me yet?)  For example, in my current novel WIP, one of the character’s names was originally different, but I received some really strong advice that her name needed to be changed, and for good reason. There were too many other connotations associated with it. I hesitated, but decided not to change it at that time because I didn’t feel right about the decision. However, I held onto that piece of advice, and just last month I found a solution that would continue my vision of the story and also address the legitimate concern about her name.

A Caveat on Reactions.

During Lettermo last month, I ran my revision plan by Mary Robinette Kowal to see what she thought. She approved the plan then brought up an excellent point.  She wrote,

Generally, I react one of four ways.

  1. Doh! I can’t believe I did that. You are totally right.
  2. I see why you had that reaction. That isn’t how I’d fix it, but I know how to.
  3. I don’t understand. Can you clarify?
  4. Hell, no.

#4 is actually a variant on #3. In that, if a reader’s idea is so wildly different from mine, I might be communicating the wrong thing. It’s worth looking at that one again in case they are pointing at an actual problem but misidentifying it.

I mulled over this off and on for about a month, and here’s what I’ve come up with in how it relates to my revision plan.

When looking at writing advice, it’s important to try to piece together why the reader had the reaction they did.  If they’re a good alpha-reader, they should be articulating their reading experiences and giving just their reactions to the text without any advice. But the majority of the time, people tend to act as an editor when they give feedback, so it’s useful to try to dissect why they are saying what they are.  Perhaps what they are really communicating is that what you tried to get across was actually unclear, they didn’t understand a passage, or one or two sentences at the beginning of the chapter wasn’t enough to anchor an important idea they will need to understand xyz, and so on and so forth.


I’m about to do a revision stint on a few stories, so here goes nothing! I also wish everyone best of luck in their revisions.


Whether or not you can write or edit, everyone reading this–hopefully–can read. (I know, bad joke.)  Today I want to talk about what I have learned about the skills necessary for alpha- or beta-reading, and how to apply what you already know about reading, writing, and editing to being an alpha-reader.

But first, a few definitions.

A writer is one who writes. It is his job to tell a story the very best he can. An editor‘s job, then, is to turn that story into something acceptable to a wider audience. (These definitions are simplistic, but I’ve already covered the definitions of various roles here.)

An alpha-reader, also called a “first reader,” exists to help the writer know what it is she has written. Sounds odd, right?  But actually they are incredibly useful. Since the story happens entirely in the writer’s head, it is hard for the writer to tell how much of that story has actually made it to the page and what impact the words she has chosen to paint the story with will have on a reader.

The alpha-reader’s job, then, is to recreate their reading experience for the author.  They can do this in various ways, but the more detailed the description and summary of their various reactions (not just the negative ones and not just the positive ones), the more helpful they will be.

So, then, what  is a beta-reader? Beta-readers and gamma-readers are the next step.  If alpha-readers read the first draft a writer produces, beta-readers read the second draft with fresh eyes and gamma-readers read the third.  Each of these sets of readers gets to see the various drafts before the professional editor ever touches a page,  so the writer can make his writing the best he can before he begins submitting his work to the professional world.

Yes, you read that right. Alpha-readers are unpaid volunteers, but their task is crucial to the professional writing process.  Why are they unpaid? For the simple reason that writers are poor and can’t afford to pay everyone who helps them with their writing. However, many authors reward their volunteer readers with free copies of their published works, and of course, there is the joy of being involved and seeing a story before anyone else gets to.

Want to read books but can’t afford to do so? Become an alpha-reader.

Common Challenges.

Writers often have “Internal Editors” when they write: pesky little demons that sit on your shoulder and tell you everything that’s wrong about your writing.  There comes a point in a writer’s life, too, when they develop pesky little demons called “Internal Writers” that plague them when they read others’ books, babbling nonstop about how they would have written the book differently if its rough draft had first been in their hands.

Internal Editors are the bane of a writer’s “first draft” experience.  Internal Writers are the bane of a reader’s experience.  However, I have actually been able to squash most of my Internal Writer-demons by becoming an alpha-reader.

What A Writer Needs to Know.

When a writer requests the help of first readers, they are not looking to know what their readers would have written. They want to know the effect their book is having in its current form.  For example, a writer wants to know

  1. Clarity.  Do you understand what is going on? Can you picture the setting and the characters in your head? Can you see where everyone is in relationship to each other?  Was the fight scene confusing? Is my word choice obscure?
  2. Impact.  Was this part funny or did it fall flat?  Do you like these characters at this moment? Are you frustrated with them? Do you love them? Are you afraid? Is this intense? Are you bored? Do you wish you could stop reading? Do you feel like you’re there with the characters?  Was this part a tear-jerker or were you annoyed?  Was the ending satisfying or did I drop the ball?
  3. Believability.  How are my characters’ reactions? Does this feel plausible to you?  Is this the way you handle a gun in your experience?  Do I need to do further research about xyz?  Does my fight scene feel real? Does this fit together and make sense?
  4. Interest.  Does this fascinate you the way it fascinates me?  Are you hooked?  Is this too much detail or not enough?

Alpha-readers, especially alpha-readers who are also writers, will sometimes try to “fix” the book like an editor might do or “rewrite” it to suit their tastes. The problem with this is that unless you know what the writer is aiming for, you could do more damage than good–or simply waste everyone’s time tearing something apart that actually doesn’t need fixing.  So the less the alpha-reader tries to “fix” and the more time they spend recreating their experience and answering a writer’s unspoken questions, the more good they will do. This is the challenge. I am not perfect at it, but I’m getting better.


The way I do my alpha-reading is entirely “stream of conscious”.  If I have a thought or I feel something as I read, I record it. Let me see if I can pull something from the public domain to use as an example.

If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die.—

>>Wow, I wonder what happened to bring him here?  Though I get the sense this Duke fellow has a touch of the theatrics to put his heartache so dramatically.

Haha yes, I just used the first three lines in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as an example.  So you see–it does not matter how good or how poor the quality of the writing, alpha-reading is about recording your thoughts and your experience as you read.  I do it by quoting a few lines to anchor the writer so she knows what part I’m commenting on, and then giving my reactions by talking back to the text.

Then at the end of the chapter or section, I break to give a broader summary of the most striking points and thoughts I had.

Not everyone does it this way, but this is the way I’ve done it since I started giving feedback in writing instead of in person.  Still, if alpha-reading appeals to you and you want to give it a try, I’d encourage you to recreate your thoughts and feelings as detailed and as complete as possible. The more you leave out, the less the writer knows.  Also, don’t offer editing advice unless the writer asks for it.

Questions? Comments? Additions?