There are countless reasons why writing and revising can be challenging. But if you find yourself hesitating to dive in or second-guessing your decisions, the real culprit might be fear.
One way fear intrudes is to tempt authors to save plot points for another story. This struggle often stems from a fear of running out of good ideas, particularly when planning a series. However, letting fear drive your decisions will never result in the strongest book. As I’ve mentioned in previous letters, my suggestion for combating this fear is to keep your focus on making the manuscript in front of you as strong as you can; don’t try to ration your ideas if the only reason for doing so is to save something for the future. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you need to incorporate every idea you have into a single story. But if you are holding information or scenes back, it should be because they don’t strengthen your story, not because you are letting fear take the wheel.
Revision fear can also take other forms. Authors can worry about breaking their book or making a mistake as they revise. To combat this fear, first try to acknowledge that you probably won’t love every change you make. Mistakes, false starts, and missed opportunities are all inextricable parts of the writing process; there’s no such thing as a perfect revision.
Second, ensure that you are saving every single version of your manuscript. Dropbox, Google Docs, and other backup services can automatically save different iterations; you can also save each version manually, such as by using a backup drive and Word’s “Save As” feature. You might label each draft with that day’s date, or you might keep separate files that include everything you’ve cut and different scene variations. This safety net can help you to give yourself permission to test out new ideas; if something doesn’t work, you’ll know you can always go back to a previous version. It’s also just a good idea to make a habit of backing up your work early and often—you don’t want to wait for a power outage or a computer failure to put a backup plan in place.
Fear can also lead authors to avoid a certain section of their book or a specific character. If you would rather revise almost anything except a particular scene, ask yourself why. You might be having this reaction because you know there is a problem and don’t feel ready to face it. Perhaps it’s because you don’t know the solution yet, or maybe it’s because this scene is one of your favorites and you really don’t want to change it.
If this is the case for you, my suggestion is to face the fear head-on. Reread the problematic section and try to pinpoint what is bothering you about it. You might find that what’s on the page doesn’t fully align with what you remembered, or you might start having ideas for how to rewrite it. If you’re still unsure about how to proceed, give yourself permission to deliberately set the scene aside and return to it later. This can allow you to keep making progress on other sections of your story, while your brain subconsciously works to solve the problematic area.
Another reason that authors might resist returning to a specific scene is because they find their mind wandering when they try to reread it. If this happens to you, try taking a break from your manuscript; stepping away from the story for a week or more can allow you to return with fresh eyes. However, if you only have this response about a certain section—maybe it feels repetitive or tedious—readers are likely to feel the same way. In this case, I’d encourage you to note these problem spots and start brainstorming solutions. This will allow you to try out new ideas and proactively seek feedback on them, rather than waiting for someone else to point out the issue or hoping that no one will notice.
Lastly, plan ahead for times when you start to doubt your story or lose motivation. Consider keeping a “feel good file” for your writing that you can turn to whenever you need a boost. This can be a Word document, email folder, notebook, or bulletin board where you save motivating statements, achievements, and compliments. You might copy praise from your writing group, beta readers, or critique partner; highlight how many days or words you’ve written over the past year; or write down what readers, agents, or editors have said about why they connected with your work.
Authors have also told me that they often skip over all of the praise in their editorial letters in order to focus on the revision work they need to do—please don’t do this! I can assure you that when editors praise you and your work, we don’t do so lightly. Remembering the existing strengths of your manuscript will provide a foundation for your revision, and can help to combat the inevitable doubts and insecurities that come with writing.
Your Editor Friend,
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