Novel vs. Dissertation, Round 2 (Revision bonus!)

I’m doing “Camp” NaNoWriMo this month, working hard on revisions to my 2013 NaNo project Ghosts of the Old City. The first full draft of that novel was completed in 2014 the weekend before I started my first full-time teaching job. Since then, I’ve drafted two other novels—Spires of Trayan (my 2015 NaNo project, a sequel to Ghosts that wants another 20-30,000 words and some research) and The Space Between Notes (my 2016 NaNo project, which is a thin sci-fi novel or fat novella that only wants another 7-10,000 words). I’ve made several stabs at revising Ghosts, enough to have a few colors of ink on the manuscript that I printed out way back when.

By now, “finishing” the novel is in the ballpark of how long it took me to finish my dissertation…although I wasn’t drafting a sequel dissertation while ostensibly finishing the first, nor was I branching out into dissertating on, say, literature. This month is the first time I’ve really dug into making changes (rather than just suggesting them to myself in margins or identifying problems). It’s gotten me thinking about the how revising a novel is and isn’t like revising a dissertation. (For a comparison of NaNoWriMo versus writing a dissertation, see my old post here.)


While dissertations are contributions to scholarship and (in a tiny way) to human knowledge, the audience for the document itself boils down to your advisor and committee. Turning the dissertation into a proper monograph is a different step, with different needs, than figuring out which references you need to include to help ensure that Dr. ______ signs off on it. Dr. X expects to see a careful, critical-theory heavy definition of “new music.” Professor Y wants more engagement with existing research. Dr. Z wants your footnotes to do some specific thing, and will throw a small but enthusiastic fit if you don’t.

(There is always a Dr. Z. Sometimes I wonder if professors draw straws to decide who will play that part.)

The revision process for the dissertation becomes, depending on how involved committee members are, a process of juggling occasionally competing needs, a delicate attempt to balance what you want to say with how you need to say it to get some more letters after your name. You pick your battles. For my master’s thesis, my advisor wielded a mechanical pencil of doom, marking all sorts of things. Some of them, I thought, were actually good. Good enough that I’d leave them alone and only change them if she marked them a second time. (I never attempted to go for a third.)

With the novel? Well, the audience at this stage in the process is me. I am writing a story I would like to read. I’m beholden to myself and myself alone. I can pick as many battles as I want, and feel responsible to pick all of the ones I can find. Once the draft goes to beta readers (in a month or so—drop me a line if you’re interested), the calculus will change. It will change again when agents or editors get involved.

Right now, though, revisions are thoroughly in the “author knows best” stage, which is certainly more fun than trying to suss out what a committee wants.

Staggered Starts

Dissertations are not novels, and they’re not, as mentioned earlier, scholarly monographs. Even with a plan for the whole thing, dissertations tend to be written one chapter at a time. This alters the revision process and hockets it with drafting. I was revising my first chapter while I was drafting my third (and revising it again when I was finishing my seventh). Finish a chapter, send it to the advisor, get feedback, use revision as a break from drafting (and vice versa). This process results in a dissertation that is much closer to being “finished,” usually, at the end of the drafting process than a novel is.

The NaNo process amplifies this difference: the whole point is to shut off your inner editor and get words onto the page. Most people, if they have a better idea for a scene they’ve already written, either take some notes or re-write it. Nothing gets sorted until later. When you do get around to sorting it, there’s invariably material you never want to see again. You do rewrites, but you’re rarely trying to alternate between drafting and revising. I didn’t really start making headway on my revisions for Ghosts until I read through the whole draft several times and went to work right at the beginning, a very un-NaNo process. No staggered starts.

Digging in the Guts

I tell my students that the purpose of revision is to help a piece be its best self. I also tell them that this means getting rid of parts that aren’t working. (High school seniors who freak out about needing to write a 5-8 page paper really freak out when you suggest that the paper would be better if they cut out a page and a half in the middle.)

With Ghosts, I threw away big chunks of text even before the first complete draft was finished. Of the 52000 I wrote during November of 2013, I threw out something like 10,000 almost immediately. They didn’t fit the way the story had grown. And now? I am still digging out the most “NaNo-y” passages and replacing them. I understand so much better what the story is, who the characters are, what needs to happen. There’s a lot of work I’m still doing to make the novel its best self, even before I get to the stage where other people start poking it in my blind spots.

The dissertation didn’t require throwing so much writing away, though there were equally painful cuts involving interesting research that proved to be tangential. I would have loved to follow up on some of the new music/pop crossover that appeared around the edges of my research, but that would have taken me out of my carefully-determined (and painstakingly-justified) timeframe, as well as away from my thesis. It would have changed the dissertation’s self.

I did change a few things substantially in the dissertation, particularly in the early chapters as I refined my argument and its scope. That’s probably the closest confluence of novel-revising and dissertation-revising: the writing and revising both refine your understanding of what the text’s “best self” is. Digging around in the guts of the work is about discovery as much as it is about doctoring. And it’s just as visceral as it sounds. There is a story you want to tell, and you evaluate whether you’re telling it, whether the story you think you’re telling is the story you are actually telling. Sometimes, the story your draft really tells is more interesting than the one you had in your head. Sometimes, the story your draft tells is just kinda dumb. Reconciling either can be messy and painful, but making things better often is.


Revisionary: Three Thoughts on Fixing What’s Broken

I’m not sure if it’s my favorite (favourite?) distinction between British English and American English, but I spent a good chunk of my first term at school in Wales being alternately charmed and confused by “review” and “revise.” Revising, there, is something you do to prepare for an exam. (At the end of the second year, my cohort and I concocted ornate revision schedules that we nearly managed to follow.) Review is used much more often in the context of “a formal review.” You know, the kind of thing you might revise for.

What’s important to either usage of either word is that they involve seeing again, looking intensely. When you look again, the goal is not to see the surface of the story (the writing you’ve already done), but the story underneath. See what the underlying principles are. See where the story has gotten away from its best self. Those are the spots you need to go back to, to make the story match the vision. (It’s just as true, incidentally, of nonfiction and academic writing, even if they don’t have “stories” in the same way.)

I posted about editing not too long ago. I described it as selection, keeping the best bits and weeding out the worst. Editing is also, though, a reaction. As writers or editors, when we go to edit a work, we are reacting to what’s on the page. Revising (in the American sense) is an active process, one in which we make the good better and the replace the bad. We push and pull and coax the story toward the vision we have for it.

That vision can change. We refine it when we share our writing with our favorite co-conspirators or hand it to an editor. When we look again, we might see things that were in our blind spots for the last go-round. Whatever changes, though, there are a few things that help (me) with the revision process:

1. Have a Plan

Even if you are an inveterate pantser when you write, having a plan makes revision smoother. Some fixes are simple enough to handle intuitively. Most, though, require a bit of forethought (which is not easy to do while you’re writing). What other parts of the story does a particular scene touch? More importantly, why are we changing what’s there? What do we have in our mind’s eye or ear that we’re pulling the story toward? How are you going to get there? Change in voice? Altering a character’s actions? If we’re replacing a bad section, how do we avoid making the new one bad? The more you have figured out about the problem before you go mucking around in your story’s guts, the more likely you are to have the right tools on hand. Plus, you’ll be less likely to leave a spanner in there that will necessitate more work later.

2. Keep Your Eyes Fresh

This is vital for editing, too, and one of the best reasons to have somebody who is not you look your work over. When I get into a story, it’s hard to hold on to the big picture and the small picture at the same time. It is also particularly hard to kill your darlings when they’re cozy at home. Work environments matter. Mess with them. If you’re sticking to soft copy, try opening your document in a different program. Print it to .pdf and read it without being able to change things. Personally, I love having hard copy to scribble on, even if it’s not always practical. Do what you can to disrupt the habits of your eyes. You’ll notice more—not just bad things, either.

3. Remember That it is Your Work
(in both senses of ‘work’)

The story you’re revising is yours. If it gets out into the world, it will have your name on it, no matter how awesome your editors or workshoppers were. If you’re self-publishing, you get to make the final decisions. Even if you’re not self-publishing, you don’t have to do everything your interlocutors suggest. I’ve mentioned before that I had an excellent advisor for my master’s thesis in music history. She taught me an enormous amount about making academic writing good writing. That didn’t stop us from disagreeing, though. I’d get drafts back marked to pieces in mechanical pencil. Some (many) of her suggestions or corrections were good ones. There were others that I didn’t agree with. I left them in the subsequent drafts. If they came back marked a second time, I’d think harder about changing things. That didn’t happen very often. It would have been a much worse document without my advisor’s input, but it was still my name on it.

Revising is also your work to do. Your editors point out problems. They might suggest fixes, but they won’t make them. As the writer, it’s your responsibility to fix what’s broken. Revision is work. It is often a grind that forces you to fight your own bad habits. Revision can be a painfully unfun slog. It’s just as much part of being a writer, though, as zooming through that ecstatic first draft or smiling at the fact you’ve changed nothing into something. When you get to the end and you’ve polished everything to gleaming? It’s worth it.

So go forth and work with fresh eyes. Know that I’ll be trying to do the same over here.