Editing vs. Revising

In English, we often use the terms editing and revising interchangeably. However, when it comes to working on a manuscript, they are not the same. While there are different kinds of edits, most editors are actually pointing out things that the author should consider revising. Editing is polishing up. Revising is deep cleaning.

I’m going to run with that analogy for a moment.

I have two small children. They have a talent for destruction. I generally don’t worry too much about the mess they make with their toys while they are actively playing. But when playtime is over, it’s time to put everything back where it belongs. While they do that, I generally do small, everyday household tasks like unloading the dishwasher, swapping a load of laundry, dusting off the dark wood bookshelf that hindsight says was a terrible idea. That’s editing. Picking up stray toys off the floor and giving things a quick polish.

Two days a week my boys go to preschool. On these days, among 5,000 other things, I generally try to do the bigger cleaning tasks. Scrubbing the toilets. Steaming the mystery stain out of the carpet at the foot of one of their beds. Cleaning out the ears of our large dog–who does not enjoy this process and so participates rather unwillingly–so that his head won’t smell like bacteria and death. This is revising. There is some major dirt that needs to be attacked. It takes time. It can be grueling, and when you’re finished you should feel both a sense of accomplishment and the dread of knowing that this isn’t the last time you’ll have to endure it.

Manuscripts will always need both editing and revising, but they are not the same thing. If you mostly correct typos and fix sentence structure and you’re done in three hours, you were editing. If you spend time beefing up a character arc, reinforcing the themes of your story, making sure the threads of plot and subplots weave together to make a discernible picture, and cutting out unnecessary elements, that’s revising and you probably won’t finish in a single day.

Revising is done largely on your own, while it’s often helpful to have someone else help you edit–like little boys who help pick up toys and sometimes wipe down baseboards, but who cannot yet be trusted with a steam cleaner! And someone who edits your manuscript might also point out something that needs to be revised, so don’t assume that you’re finished after round one.

This week, I was cleaning up our house because my in-laws are coming for a weekend visit. My husband is out of town and won’t return until about two hours before his parents arrive. If you’re wondering, yes, that does have something to do with why my usual Thursday blog post is about 14 hours late. Anyway, before the boys left for school, I had them clean up all their toys and put them away so I could sweep, mop, and vacuum without any obstructions. Then the boys came home from school and toys once again covered the floor. They picked some of them up before bed and the rest they’ll clean first thing in the morning. That’s a lot like what editing and revising can be. A lot of us edit as we go, so we have a pretty clean workspace for revisions. Then we revise our butts off. And then we need to edit again. After that, new people show up, CPs or in-laws, and suddenly we see other things that need to be cleaned! I’m sorry I overworked the analogy, but you get the idea.

All manuscripts need both editing and revising, but they are not the same.