Revision is one of those things that is hard to teach writers. I mean, what can you tell someone who is facing revision? “Hey, that thing you did? Just do it better!” Of course, there is often guidance in the form of critiques and editorial notes, but that guidance is historically difficult to assess. Even the old nugget of “if eight people agree on a problem you should accept it” is fraught with danger when you may have evolved your writing to a point where it requires different readers than the group identifying those problems.
So how do you approach various pieces of feedback and what do they mean to you as reviser? Well, let’s start with the big picture--writing philosophy, style, and authorial intent.
Consider your writing style
Different types of writing require different types of critiques, and one of the most frustrating things for young writers is when there is a stylistic mismatch with a critique partner or editor. Let’s look at description. If Cormac McCarthy were to submit a chapter from The Road to an SF critique group, it would not surprise me if he received comments like, “Suffers from white room syndrome” or “I don’t have enough sense of past. The worldbuilding needs work.” Of course, those are actually entirely legitimate comments, but they are also the type of comment that a stylist like McCarthy would ignore, and he would be absolutely right in doing so.
So know your style. If the way you are writing a piece renders specific comments irrelevant, and you know this based on your firm grasp of style and your own writing, then your revision process will be much easier. If you consistently receive unhelpful comments or recommendations that seem out-of-sync with your own writing philosophy then you need to find a new market to submit to or new people to critique your work.
However, and this is important, if you don’t have a firm grasp on your own style and writing, the revision process can be a valuable process for discovering that. Make changes and see the result. You may not see the benefit in the “right” way of doing things and decide that, in the big picture, your authorial vision has defined itself as something that requires a different audience. Conversely, if you see that the changes make your writing better, then you are also a step closer to having a firmer grasp on your own writing in another direction.
You can’t fix what you don’t know is (or isn’t) broken
This is often closely related to the above and relevant when a young writer is discovering his or her writing style and vision. In this case, the feedback is couched in general or stylistic terms, things like “This doesn’t have enough plot to be a story” or “the story is great, but the prose is too spare.” When receiving comments like this, the writer’s job is difficult: To assess whether something is actually broken or whether he or she is actually finding their own voice and that voice is out-of-sync with the critique comments. Our instincts as writers is to often embrace the latter, even if the former has relevance.
This type of tough assessment can also manifest itself in more specific structural ways. You as a writer make specific structural decisions, and the editor wants to change them. This is my biggest personal weakness in revision--when an editor says, “move this paragraph” or “cut this section” and I know that I had a very specific reason for putting it right there. Can’t he or she see the purpose? To change it means the editor simply isn’t paying attention! Maybe.
This scenario is directly relevant to a common writing maxim: “Kill your darlings.” Writers often take this to mean getting rid of unimportant characters that you love or causing characters harm to increase the tension, but for the reviser, “kill your darlings” means one thing: Don’t become so invested in your structure, narrative, or prose that you simply can’t bring yourself to change something that is broken. What you are writing is so great that you can’t delete it, move it, or change it. Maybe.
In this case it’s not that you don’t know it’s broken, it’s that you are so enamored with it that you refuse to accept that it is broken. I’ll address a way to approach this in a later section at greater length. So let’s return to my first point, which is when you are developing your authorial style and vision and are given advice that seems to attack the foundation you are building.
This can be very frustrating for a writer who is feeling his or her way. The reason is simple: Revision requires a certain level of authorial intent: You try to do something. You fail. You fix where you failed. But if you are kind of finding your way, your authorial intent is more fluid.
Let’s look at writers who like to investigate imagery and feelings in their writing using evocative imagery and scenes to deliver a mood or feeling. If you have created this beautiful image of a clockwork butterfly, and you have created a kind of series of vignettes around it, and you love it and you send it to critique partners and the overwhelming response is, “It’s beautiful, but I didn’t understand it. I have a feeling that the butterfly is supposed to mean something, but I don’t know what that is.” What then?
Well, if you as the writer don’t know what the butterfly means then you are at an impasse. By definition this isn’t a mistake, since your intent was not to apply meaning to the butterfly. Yet this is problematic for many, if not all, readers. There are really only two, extremely difficult, ways to manage this type of revision feedback: Rewrite the piece with more authorial intent and metaphorical clarity or accept that your writing is just not for this group of readers. You are creating a prose poem or mood piece for readers that are not used to either.
The important point here is that the revision choice is helping you define your writing style and vision. If it makes you uncomfortable to hear readers say, “I don’t understand what you wrote” then perhaps you need to focus your revision on clarity, and if you don’t know what your clockwork butterfly means, your revision has the potential of wonderful self-discovery. You can do what Stephen King has described as finding the theme after you wrote the piece. In a sense you go back and fit the metaphor of the butterfly to the story instead of building a story around the metaphor. This can require a massive amount of revision, however, so it can seem overwhelming and rather depressing at times, but such is the price of finding your voice.
The converse of this is that you rather like what you’ve done. You have created an imagistic piece where clarity isn’t remotely a goal. You want images to evoke emotions and metaphors that cannot only mean multiple things but those things can even contradict each other. In this case, the editorial comments are not an example of something that is broken but an example of your vision as a writer evolving to a place where you need to find new markets and critique partners to match it.
Blind spots and more on authorial intent
Revision requires you to recognize a gap between what you intended and what you achieved. Closing that gap is pretty much the definition of revision. But if you recognized that gap initially, you wouldn’t have made the mistake, so I call these gaps “blind spots.” Blind spots are different than grammatical ignorance or oversight (such as using a colon wrong). Blind spots are things like weaving in a sub-plot that powers an entire character arc but that actually doesn’t exist on the page--only in your head.
My biggest personal blind spot is not being clear enough in outlining character motivation. Critique partners will often say, “I don’t understand why that happened” or “I don’t know why she did that.” Thus one of the first things I do in revision is go through and make sure all the pieces of the narrative are clearly communicated. It’s so basic, but it is something I miss all the time.
This can sometimes be frustrating for writers who write by by inspiration or without an outline. For someone who writes like this, it is sometimes difficult to look at specific parts of the narrative and objectively assess whether your are achieving what you intended or not because you wrote it by instinct and inspiration. Specific intent or building blocks just don’t exist. Many writers who write this way use a broader criteria when revising—did the piece work or not?
This kind of writing by instinct and then revising by overall effect can certainly work, but there is a danger in that you are also open to broad problems. I wrote an entire novel without any planning, and when I finally sat down to revise I realized that I had to cut 40,000 words that were great at the time I wrote them but ultimately derailed the novel.
Let’s talk specifics
Okay, I’ve outlined higher level concerns when you are approaching revision, but what about specifics? What kind of things should a writer do when approaching editorial notes? What do you do when a critique partner says, “this didn’t work for me?” or, that bane of my own existence, “I didn’t get that.”
“I didn’t understand it” and lack of understanding
First of all, I’ve already covered that if you are the type of writer that wants a reader to embrace the unclear and undefined in your writing, then “I didn’t understand that” comments indicate that you are getting feedback from the wrong market or the wrong critique partner. But if you are concerned that the readers see a metaphor as meaning a specific thing or a narrative element to be seen as ambiguous rather than confusing, then criticism that something is confusing should be taken seriously.
These comments are sometimes general in nature and appear less than helpful. But even general comments about a lack of understanding are helpful. The essence of "I don't get it" or “I didn’t understand this part” is that you have confused the reader. This is a bad thing and why this comment is incredibly helpful. This confusion can run the gamut of "I didn't understand your metaphor" or "I don't see the story here. It's just a bunch of weird images" or even "that is so thoroughly confusing I don't even know what happened there."
There are two ways to respond to this criticism:
You can assess that your story is clear and that there isn't anything confusing in it. In which case a reader who says "I didn't get it" is either just lazy or missing some cultural anchor. (e.g. Stories where knowledge of a fairy tale is critical for understanding the story. If you don't know the fairy tale you won’t "get" the story. In this case the author can say, "Ah, I expected some people wouldn't get the cultural reference, but this story is not for them.") As to lazy readers, well, they are just lazy and didn't work to understand subtlety (of course it isn't always easy to know when you are facing lazy readers and when you are facing confusing text, so choose your critique partners wisely and take an extra hard look when examining your work.)
Or you can say, "I thought that this metaphor was very clear" or "How could they not see that this is what was going on? Dang. Clearly I have to explain this better." In this case, you realize that what you saw clearly in your head didn't make it to the page, so you have to rewrite it to make it clearer (A good example is when half the people got what you were doing but the other half didn't. This is a pretty good indication that whatever the author was trying to do was just a smidgin unclear. Or, if you like, half the readers are lazy. Your mileage may vary.)
And that leads me to the final piece of this puzzle: Often you'll have a perfectly acceptable story that nearly everyone says they don't get or that they don't understand but there are a few lonely commentators who mention what you were going for and that they love it. What do you do then? Certainly a few people got it, so you were clear enough for some readers. But also nearly everyone else didn’t get it. Is 90% confusion acceptable? Is it realistic to assess that 90% of your critique partners are lazy readers?]What do you do? That, my writer friends, is up to you, but just knowing that you wrote something that confuses most readers is an important piece of knowledge, and that is why the criticism of "I don't get it" is so valuable.
Use a sandbox
If you’re like me, you’ll sometimes see an editorial comment that seems to make no sense. You’ll roll your eyes and wonder why the editor even bothered to buy the story if they are recommending such a wrong-headed edit.
Put that thinking aside. Open up the document, and make the change.
Sure, maybe it was a poor recommendation, but—and here is the important thing—until you actually put it on the page and work with it, you’ll never know. Sometimes (and you may be shocked how often this turns out to be true) just making the change and playing around with it will illustrate that it actually was a good idea.
Sometimes the immediate recommendation isn’t correct, but the overall idea is on the mark. One time I was recommended to move a paragraph before the previous paragraph. I looked at it, and it made no sense to me. The narrative transition from paragraph to paragraph was disrupted and made no sense. My goal of moving from a wide angle to a close angle would be reversed for no good reason, and the actual paragraphs would read horribly with the change. But you know what? I did it, and looked at what it did to the story.
The amazing thing is that the immediate idea (moving the paragraph one slot earlier) actually didn’t make sense, but the idea of doing it turned out to be really strong. What it required me to do was to rewrite an entire page worth of prose rather than just move a paragraph, but in the end the story was much stronger.
And making the story stronger is the end goal.
So play around with editorial recommendations. Open a new document and see how it works. Make the changes and then change some sentences. Adjust paragraph transitions. Hey, if it doesn’t work you can always just go back to the original document and reject the recommendation.
There’s also a psychological benefit to doing this. Accepting the editorial ideas that you initially disagree with puts you in a very strong revision mindset, one where you are forcing yourself to question everything. You are looking at different ideas, playing with them, trying them out, and finding the best one. Even if every single example ends with you going back to your original prose (and I doubt this will be the case. I have yet to see a set of editorial revisions which didn’t reverse at least one of my immediate objections), you will still be establishing the right mindset for revising your own prose and narrative moving forward.
There are no small changes
As you start to play in a revision sandbox something will start to become clear: There is no such thing as a small change, excluding grammatical and spelling edits, of course. Anytime an editor makes a “simple” recommendation like “move this paragraph earlier” or even “expand this sentence so readers get a clearer view of the environment” there will be a domino effect of changes.
Earlier I mentioned how an editor recommended I move a paragraph before the previous paragraph and how doing so forced me to rewrite an entire page of prose. Why does this happen? The simple answer is that prose is all interconnected. Words lead to words. Sentences lead to other sentences, and paragraphs lead to paragraphs. Once you get to the paragraph level, you’ll start dealing with transitional elements. The final sentence and thoughts in a paragraph will flow into the next paragraph. Moving that paragraph means you need to rewrite all of those transitions. A decent rule of thumb is that moving one paragraph means you need to rewrite four paragraphs.
Note that these don’t have to be substantial rewrites, but you’ll still have to go through and fix continuity, transitions, and the overall flow of prose from paragraph to paragraph.
This is true of sentences, too. There is generally a reason you write your sentences the way you do. There is a rhythm to the “sound” they make in your brain as you read. Even if you don’t consciously shape it, it is there none-the-less. You add a comma in a spot because it “sounds right.” You use short sentences for specific reasons. This extends to the paragraph level. You place different sentence structures together for an overall effect or sound.
So when an editor asks you to make a small change, such as splitting a complex sentence into two simple ones, they are asking you to change the whole rhythm of the paragraph. It is common for writers to rewrite entire paragraphs when a single sentence change is required. You should find yourself doing the same thing on a regular basis.
My impression is that editors sometimes have a different metronome in their head than the writer, and those are the times a writer will see all kinds of sentence change requests that don’t have any meaning or language impact. In these cases, I think it is entirely appropriate for a writer to reject the changes en masse. The editor wants to write the story his or her way, not the writer’s way. You don’t have to ever agree to that.
Still, some of those changes are made for legitimate reasons, and in those instances just be prepared to put in some real work. And that leads me to an important point:
It is rarely a good idea to just click “accept change” in Microsoft Word tracked changes when going through specific editorial notes and leave it at that (I outline a larger scale exception below). The reason is related to all of the above: It is rare that an editorial sentence-level change won’t have an impact on the rest of the paragraph. It is up to you to go through, revise, and make it all work.
By the way, if I haven’t mentioned it yet: Revision is hard work.
Accept all changes
Recently in revising a 9,000 word story down to 5,000 words I was looking at an enormous number of edits. To his credit, the editor had dedicated a significant amount of time and energy at going over the story. This is important when you are basically cutting half the narrative. Continuity is affected. Emotional milestones need to be treated with a bit less subtlety. Other things need to be examined.
I looked at the mass of changes and had an epiphany. What if I just “accepted all” and then went through and did my own close edit? I would put hours into my own edit, tweaking, fixing, and revising, but I would do it blind, with no knowledge of what the editor had changed.
The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. Fundamentally, it resonated with me for one simple reason: If I couldn’t recognize an edit or revision by the editor, and I ended up keeping it, then it was a worthy change. If I saw something that looked awkward or I wanted to change, I’d just change it. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if I was revising something the editor added or I had written originally.
There are some important caveats here: I wouldn’t do this with an editor that a writer is working with for the first time. There is a chance that all of the editors changes are destructive, and all this does is waste a lot of your time going back and fixing things. I also wouldn’t do this with an editor where you had poor revision experiences with in the past, for the same reason.
But, that said, this can be a powerful technique for adding some objectivity to your revision. When you don’t know which change is yours and which is the editor’s, you look at the document with a whole new perspective. That’s a very good thing.
I should note that this method of revision can go hand-in-hand with the sandbox method. Accept all of the editor’s changes. Go through and do your own revisions with track changes on, and then compare what you changed to both your original document and the editor’s notes. This can provide a powerful objective view into how you look at your own writing and revision process.
Narrative revision: sometimes it really is just like solving a puzzle
There are times when you are faced with an editorial change that presents you with a challenge. This challenge doesn’t require you to do anything more than solve a specific problem. However, it is undeniably an important part of the revision process.
Think of an editorial note that says something like, “You need to introduce the Mary character earlier. Otherwise the readers won’t have time to establish enough sympathy for her.” Now consider that this is a mystery, and Mary is one of the prime suspects, but if you introduce her earlier, you also have to introduce her as a suspect, but for various plot reasons you need to have Steve introduced as the first suspect, but with this change Steve is now introduced after Mary.
Solving this type of problem is the essence of narrative revision.
At this point, you can get out your corkboard, soak in the tub, or go for a long drive, because the revision job you have in front of you has nothing to do with typing on a keyboard and everything to do with moving pieces of the plot around. It is not simple; it is often very frustrating, but it can also be incredibly fun.
This can happen at the paragraph level, too. In a story I wrote for The End is Nigh anthology, the editors and I agreed to cut a significant amount of backstory. What was on page five was now page one. In introducing the main characters I had to use a single paragraph to do what I had just spent pages to do. After doing nothing more than cutting backstory the new unrevised first paragraph was this:
Lynn and I are sitting on our couch holding hands and staring at the TV screen. Both our phones are ringing, but we don’t answer them. An astronomer with an Eastern European accent whose name I ignore is answering questions. He speaks quietly and over-enunciates his words. He took over for Gabriel Meyer, the astronomer who discovered the asteroid and for whom it has been named. Meyer announced the news, but then broke down in tears and had to be helped off the stage.
There are some good pieces here. We get a sense of the tension. We are teased that it has something to do with an asteroid, and it is probably very bad news. However, the story isn’t so much about this event so much as the relationship between the two main characters, and this paragraph tells us little more than they are holding hands.
Who is speaking? Is it a woman or a man? What is the relationship between the speaker and Lynn? This all made sense with a backstory but now was just confusing. For example, without a clue to the narrator’s gender, the fact they are holding hands would lead a large number of readers to assume that the speaker is male, which is wrong.
Now I didn’t have to address everything. In fact, the existing parts about the astronomer and the tension with the asteroid could be revealed in the following paragraphs, but what I did need to answer, in one paragraph, was that the these are two women. They are engaged. They are watching something important enough that it captures their attention. That’s the narrative puzzle I needed to solve.
Here is the first paragraph in the final story:
I walk through the front door and pause to slide off my heels when Jocelyn yells from the living room, “It’s already started!” I keep my shoes on and rush to join her. As I sit down and focus on the news conference she takes my hand. She strokes my engagement ring, but her eyes don’t leave the TV.
I struggled very hard to find a way to reveal that the narrator was a woman in a natural way when it is her first person account. John Joseph Adams recommended having Jocelyn stroke the narrator’s engagement ring to illustrate their engagement and that the narrator is a woman, but my instincts told me that it was too subtle. (Remember my earlier comments about my blind spot? I’ve learned my lesson). I considered having Jocelyn just say her name, but every variation of that dialog sounded false and forced. By now you should get the idea: I’m putting a puzzle together within a paragraph.
I thought about this for a long time and finally settled on the idea that she would be wearing high heel shoes and after a day at work want to get out of them the moment she was in the front door. I actually expect at least some women to think, “That’s not realistic. No one takes off her heels at the front door. They do it on the couch or a chair or in their bedroom.” Yes, that is how closely I think about solving these issues at the paragraph level. In the end, I counted on the idea that at least some Western families have a tradition of removing their shoes at the front door.
The urgency was easy to include, as was the important nature of the telecast. But while I was putting these pieces together, a small thing happened: I had kept John Joseph Adams’ detail of Lynn stroking the protagonist’s engagement ring to reinforce that this is a lesbian couple who are getting married, but in so doing the act became more than just an illustration of them being engaged. With this unknown and tense thing they are watching, the moment is a glimpse of the closeness of their relationship. They have a tender relationship.
And this is ultimately one of the nice things about all revision: As you fix things, you will see other opportunities for improvement arise. Even something as dry as finding out how to convey to the reader the gender of the protagonist in the first paragraph can lead to deeper emotion and even more lyrical prose. Let’s look at this in a bit more depth.
The myth of taking off the writer’s hat when wearing the editor’s hat
In his Paris Review interview, Ray Bradbury recounted how he would take Thomas Wolfe paragraphs and paste them into his own stories. He would examine Eudora Welty’s prose to see how she selected all the individual pieces and would put them together. What Bradbuy was doing was revising his own work through the lens of other writers he admired, so much so that he would even cut and paste.
Bradbury is a wonderful prose stylist, and in reading his own words on writing you get the feeling that there is a kind of masterful hand at work in how he put his words together. Each word had a purpose, a meaning. As he said of Welty: “She has the remarkable ability to give you atmosphere, character, and motion in a single line. In one line! You must study these things to be a good writer.”
What does this have to do with revision? Well, I want to disabuse you of the possible thought that close and methodical revision will strip the emotion and lyricism away from your writing. That workmanlike editing and revising uses a non-creative part of your brain and thus will hurt the power of your prose or narrative.
It’s not true.
To say so is to say that poets that focus on the effect of every single syllable as they craft a poem are not using the creative parts of their mind and removing romanticism or lyricism from their work. Bradbury wasn’t gifted with beautiful prose. He worked at it, and he worked at it by examining his words, his sentences, and his paragraphs.
Let’s look at this at the practical level. One of the core elements (among many) of beautiful prose is the use of metaphor and simile. One of the things you can do in revision is replace clichéd and weak metaphors with something richer and more powerful. When you write “the two ships had passed each other in the night” in your first draft, you have a prime opportunity to improve your prose by taking that cliché and turning it into something more poetic and powerful.
This methodical and analytical examination of your prose will make it better, more lyrical, more creative. If you don’t trust me, trust Ray Bradbury.
The challenge of the critique
One of the more difficult challenges for young writers is handling critiques. The difficulty isn’t in the psychological blows from criticism (although that can be difficult), but in both assessing and integrating the advice. A young writer will face critiques that are too vague, contradictory with other critiques, and even sometimes patently absurd. How do you handle it all?
Well, one of the best ways is to make sure you are well read. If you have a rich history of reading a variety of masters of prose and narrative, the advice you receive will immediately have a touchstone. This is particularly good at discarding poor advice. It is easier to discard criticism that you are head-hopping when you know that F. Scott Fitzgerald head hopped all through his seminal short story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” and that Ernest Hemingway head hopped all the time. In this case, the critique isn’t telling you did anything wrong. It’s telling you that you’re doing something unfashionable or, more to the point, something that is perhaps too textually daring for the particular genre.
By the way, this doesn’t mean that just because F. Scott Fitzgerald did it means that criticisms of you doing it are wrong, but what you need is a criticism of execution not concept. So if one person writes, “Fix your POV as you are head hopping,” you can safely ignore it. But if someone writes, “The use of muliple point-of-view is distancing me from the emotional connection with the protagonist, and this story seems to be about him, not all these other people.” then you know that your head hopping may not be a good idea. Okay, back to reading:
The single best advice I ever got on writing was to read widely and weirdly. There is something to be learned in reading Henry James, Anton Chekov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Wole Soyinka, Thomas Beckett, and countless others. Read bizarro, mystery, and romance novels. Find out what makes the voice of Jim Thompson’s writing so compelling. Learn how Edgar Rice Burroughs can dare the reader to forget the narrator’s existence within a few pages and actually succeed in doing so.
When you understand the variety of tools and how others use them, the criticisms of your own work are given an understandable context. If you are consistently told that your characters are cold or emotionless, you can consider the emotional and powerful characters you’ve read. Are you doing that? How are you not doing that?
Remember the previous comments about Ray Bradbury? All I’m doing is packaging his comments into specific advice: Read widely and weirdly.
It isn’t easy. Nothing in writing is easy. But it is a start, and it at least gives you a grounding in understanding the criticisms you must consider when revising.
On breaking the rules
One of the things you will face constantly in revision while going over editorial or critique notes is the concept that you are breaking a rule, and that this is bad. However, breaking a rule is not always bad. In fact, breaking a rule may actually the best way to achieve the effect you are looking for.
But, you may ask, when do I know if I’m correctly or incorrectly breaking a rule? There’s a simple answer to that question: If you don’t know whether you are correctly breaking a rule, don’t break the rule. Breaking a grammatical or prose rule is something that requires intent, even if it is after-the-fact.
For example, I was once critiquing a story that included multiple points-of-view when the characters went into a shared consciousness. I loved that. This is how you break a “rule” for a specific effect. The only trouble was that this point-of-view change was inconsistently applied. When I discussed it with the author, he didn’t even realize he was switching points-of-view in those scenes. However, after-the-fact, he readily saw that it made sense to use it that way.
This can lead to dangerous self-justification, so you need to be careful. Connecting multiple points-of-view and shared consciousness makes sense. Justifying passive voice in a gun fight because the protagonist has a knife and everyone else has guns does not. However, if he was tied up and helpless, then I could see you making that argument.
And this leads me to the essence of breaking the rules: form follows function. You break a rule because it achieves something that not breaking the rule couldn’t do. It has a specific function. It is not a good revision strategy to look at an editorial comment about a rule you broke and dismiss it by saying, “I don’t know why I broke the rule, but it felt right.” Look, your instincts may be correct a lot of the time, but they won’t be right all of the time, and that’s where revision comes in. Rather than just say “It felt right,” why don’t you examine the rule you broke and whether it achieved anything more effectively than not breaking the rule. Because, in the end, the rules are there for a reason, and they are more often than not helpful.
Rules that aren’t rules
Several rules that you’ll face in critiques are not truly based on any objective criteria of improving your writing but are closer to fashionable choices. I already mentioned multiple points-of-view and “head hopping.” There are legitimate reasons to use things like present tense, head hopping, minimal description, and second person. Now you can certainly misuse these things, but these should never be considered de facto reasons to criticize a text.
In fact I would argue that doing so is actually destructive to good writing because these are all tools in the prose toolbox. Passive voice, multiple point-of-view, second person, exposition, and many other things are tools that serve a function. Limiting a writer to the tools that he or she can use when writing is a good way to take away the rich potential of the final piece. How sad would it be if writers all used third person past tense?
I remember talking to James D. MacDonald at the Viable Paradise writers workshop about the early chapters of my novel. He mentioned the passive voice I used in the third chapter, and I replied, “Well, I wanted to slow things down because there is non-stop action in chapters one and two, and it starts again in chapter four.” We discussed this for a long time, and the essence of this conversation wasn’t “Don’t use passive voice.” The essence was “Is passive voice the best tool for the job?”
It is perhaps revealing that the conclusion we made was that a mixture made more sense. The passive voice slowed things down too much, and that by doing a few other things I could have a much stronger transitional chapter.
In this instance I was sitting across from Jim and we had a healthy conversation about the pros and cons. A more typical editorial or critique comment says something like “Avoid passive voice.” The generic comment “avoid passive voice” certainly doesn’t seem to indicate that the person making the comment understood the use of the tool or has a specific comment on a failure to execute. In this case, you as reviser can do a few things: Ask for clarity from the person. Perhaps lead the witness by saying, “I used passive voice to achieve this effect. Did that not work?” Another thing you can do is use the comment as a call for a sanity check. You know what you were trying to do, but is it working as well as you hoped?
Revision is different from line edits, where you are fixing grammar and spelling mistakes. Revision is about something much bigger: Closing the gap between what you are trying to achieve on the page and the story and what you actually did achieve. While this sounds simple, it is actually quite difficult and requires a lot of attention and work. Even identifying the extent of the gap where you fell short is a challenge.
Editors and critique partners are the primary method for identifying those shortcomings, but the feedback from these sources can be difficult to parse—conflicting guidance, general advice that has no specific application, and attempts to rewrite your prose rather than improve it are all par for the course. In the end, it is up to you to take all the comments and synthesize them into a better work. Good luck.