Tracking The Changes

by Zoë Sharp

Do you remember those Larson Far Side cartoons you could get – and probably still can, for that matter? The ones with the kid at the back of the classroom, holding up his hand and saying to the teacher, “Please sir, may I be excused? My brain is full.”

That’s me at the moment.

Or, more likely, that my brain is completely empty. It has all leached out of my ears like something from a Tarantino-directed episode of C.S.I.


I’ve been tackling rewrites.

I have a kind of love/hate relationship with rewrites. In some ways I love them because I know that what comes out of the other end of this process will be much better than the raw material that went in. Everything benefits from editing. I’m sure you will agree that there are currently a lot of books out there on the shelves that would have benefited from quite a bit more of it than they eventually received.

And in other ways, I hate rewrites because I’d much rather get something right the first time than have to go back and fiddle with it later. I rewrite while I’m still writing. I go back and sweat and worry and adjust and realign as I’m working on my first draft, with the aim that by the time I’ve finished, it shouldn’t need totally rewriting in order to make a reasonable book.

(Please note I said “shouldn’t,” rather than “doesn’t”, though.)

But, inevitably, when someone reads the book with a detailed and critical eye, they’re going to bring up points you missed, discover plot-holes you could lose a family car into, and ask questions you either forgot to answer, or have no clue what the answer should be even if you’d remembered.

I know there is no set method for writing a novel, no ultimate textbook. The best you can hope for is anecdotal evidence of things that might have worked for somebody else, somewhere else, at some other time.

 So, here’s some more, for what they might be worth!

When I received my rewrites for the next Charlie Fox novel, they arrived in the from of a two-page report of general points about the story. This, I’m told by my editor, is surprisingly short – some of the ones she does can run for page after page. She tells me the book is in remarkably good shape, with no structural problems – it’s just a case of expanding on certain elements and improving others.

I come away from the meeting feeling a teensy bit smug.

The rest of the comments, typos or other alterations arrive as a Track Changes document in Word. Confession time – I don’t write in Microsoft Word. I have it on my computer, and I know roughly how it works, but I’m still using Lotus Word Pro, and have been ever since I dragged myself into the latter half of the twentieth century and finally junked my old DOS-based word processing package.

And despite her encouraging remarks, when I open up the document I find she’s made 141 actual comments in the text, as well as numerous small corrections or alterations.


The smug feeling evaporates rapidly.

My first move is dictated by my workload in other directions. Shortly after getting the rewrites back, we leave for a week-long 1250-mile work trip that takes us from the East Midlands way up into the north of Scotland. Although I can manage to work on the laptop in the car, I’m finding that I suffer from car-sickness much more easily than I used to, and I’m now restricted to motorways only. (And when I’m in the passenger seat only!) Unfortunately, there are not many motorways in the far north of Scotland. (Did see a beautiful eagle, though, which if I’d had my eyes on a computer screen I would have missed, so every cloud…)

I take my summary of the book with me, which runs to 34 pages, broken down into chapters, with the time-break between each chapter clearly marked. I read through the comments whenever I have a spare moment on the trip, writing down the changes I need to make as notes alongside each chapter in the summary.

One of these changes involves inserting a definite timeline for events of the plot. I work this out carefully using the time-breaks I’ve recorded on the summary, and get Andy – whose mathematical abilities far outstrip my own – to check it. I have not forgotten that, left to my own devices, I managed to have a nine-day week in THIRD STRIKE. Fortunately, that error was caught in time by an eagle-eyed copyeditor.

By the time we get home, the summary is three-quarters covered in pencilled scrawl, and I think I’ve addressed all the points my editor has raised, even if it’s only to double-check my facts when it comes to kidnap negotiation techniques and assure her that they’re correct!

Now things get probably more awkward than they need to be. I sit at home with a flatscreen hooked up to my laptop, with the Track Changes document open in Word on one screen, and My Original open in Word Pro on the other. I toggle between the two, making alterations on the MO doc, and deleting the comments on the TC doc as I’ve dealt with them. I know, I know, there are probably hundreds of easier ways of doing this, but I need a certain amount of separation or my head implodes.

As a first pass, I correct minor errors and typos. That gets rid of all the red bits of underlining and about twenty comments. Then I start on the more serious changes, ticking them off the summary and deleting them from the TC doc as I go.

Where I’m thinking about making a change, but I’m not completely convinced about it, I leave myself a mark in the text I can search on later. For ease this is usually just an asterisk or a dollar sign. For instance, my editor suggested that a couple of the peripheral characters might be too unsympathetic and I should think about softening them up a little. As I came across areas of the narrative where there was the opportunity to do this, I left myself marks I could come back to. In the end, I decided to modify one character, but leave the other as moody as I’d originally envisaged him. I only put the rewrites in today, so time will tell if she feels this works or not!

As with any method (I assume) there’s still a fair amount of to-ing and fro-ing up and down the typescript, but I’ve found this more or less works for me.

Of course, if anyone has any better suggestions, I’m all ears…

This week’s Word of the Week is scrivener’s palsy, which, quite simply, is the olde worlde name for writer’s cramp.

I’m all over the place today (another long work trip – but lots of writing time in the car!) so please excuse me if I’m a little erratic at answering comments, but I’ll get there…

35 thoughts on “Tracking The Changes

  1. Jude Hardin

    I recently went through a similar experience with rewrites, only the report was three single-spaced pages along with the entire marked-up manuscript in hard copy. Not only did I have to work through a seemingly endless sea of editorial comments, I had to decipher her scrawl on the manuscript pages as well. My editor is a former physician (notorious for poor penmanship), making this no easy task! I have to say, though, the book is better for all the changes. And this is where people who self-publish miss out, Zoe. They only THINK their books are finished when they slap them on the Kindle site. I’ve learned in short order that there’s absolutely no substitute for a good editor.

  2. Brett Battles

    Zoë, your rewrite process is remarkably similar to mine in some ways, though I do work in Word so I cut that back-and-forth thing out. But when I get the notes from my editor, I do a series of passes. First, like you, the easy things. Then with each subsequent pass I tackle levels of notes that grow more and more involved.

    So, in other words, I have no suggestions for you. Sorry. Me thinks rewrites are never meant to be easy…hahaha.

  3. Louise Ure

    I feel your pain, Zoe, although I’m one of those folks who loves doing rewrites. I think it was Jan Burke who said "it’s easier to fix a bad page than a blank page." That’s me.

  4. alafair

    I find tremendous satisfaction in rewrites (sorry, don’t hit me, because I suspect that would reallyhurt). I will say, however, that the two-programs problem has me rethinking my recent switch from Microsoft Word. Good luck working through it.

  5. Jake Nantz

    I love getting this inside look at the process you guys each have to go through, because it lets us know what is coming for the rest of us once we get there! Thanks Zoe!

  6. toni mcgee causey

    My editor didn’t do the track changes thing, so I’d have everything either written on the page or as a note. Sometimes there are a depressingly large amount of notes. (sigh)

    But my system in almost identical — first pass through on the easy stuff, subsequent passes on the more complicated issues. Marking the text where I’m not sure, yet, what I want to do.

    There are occasions (rare) when I’d disagree with a note and we’d discuss that before I’d get too far into the rewrite process. Sometimes, I’d see her point and agree and then go ahead and do the note, and sometimes, she’d see why I wouldn’t want to and either be able to ask me the right question to help illuminate the issue, or she’d realize that she missed something in the text that already solved the issue.

    The idea of my books going out for sale without someone to edit them first would terrify me.

  7. Robert Gregory Browne

    Oh, god. I’m in the middle of a massive rewrite as we speak and often feel that I may have bitten off more than I can chew with this project. Why are we writers so quick to doubt ourselves?

  8. judy wirzberger

    It always amazes me how many roads and paths there are to the same place- publication. I’m positive that non-writer readers have no concept of the angst involved in reaching the destination. And, Zoe, whether it is the thought of missing an eagle, or the ear cocked to hear a baby cry, selcom is writing a singular focus for MOST. Lucky Michael Connelly who goes into a room with covered clocks and works his heart out.

    And Robert Gregory Browne – why do we doubt ourselves so easily? And so often. Not everyone could have been raised Catholic at St. Martin’s in East St. Louis, Illinois, where pride and vanity traveled the highways in the same rickety car.

    Thanks Zo-e is pronounced. Lots of candles to stick in the pumpkin.

  9. Jena Snyder

    One thing I do is customize "Comments" in Word to keep track of rewrite suggestions. Say I have comments from my agent, maybe a beta reader or two, and I also want to add my own notes.

    First thing I do is go to Preferences -> User Information and change my name and initials to my agent’s. Then I go through the MS and add my agent’s comments in the appropriate place. Say she wants me to give more detail on a character the first time he’s introduced. I double-click on his name, Insert Comment, and type it in. Ditto with my beta readers’ comments, and my own — first changing the name and initials, then typing in the comments. The comments are all color-coded and initialed, so it’s easy to keep track of who said what, and where I’m supposed to make a change.

    I also use Comments to make note of what evidence/motive/character flaw is revealed (or overlooked) along the way, and to add reminders to myself ("Insert big fight scene here" or "Add detail on blood spatter" or "have protag remember this conversation later in chapter 5").

    Yeah, I’m a geek. 🙂

  10. Allison Davis

    Looks like I should give my manuscript to Louise and Alafair to edit for me…I’m so bogged down now in the rewrite of the book that I want to throw it up against the wall. I have gotten to the point where I can’t decide on anything so I have left it alone for a few weeks. I stare at a page with a million options and none floating to the top. I glanced at the manuscript this morning and it beckoned me so perhaps I’ll dive in again tonight and try and break the log jam. The decisions just aren’t coming and I don’t feel that it’s at the point where I can hand it to someone and say "what do you think?" Several people did read the first few chapters and sympathized with my dilemna (which character goes first? Who is leading whom? Do I start with the murder and flash back or go in chron order?)…these are stupid things but too many of them make me crazy. I made initial decisions with the 325 pages so you’d think the rewrite wouldn’t be that hard but I started to question everything and it’s coming unraveled. I’m calling it writer’s funk. I’m going to the Giants game today and if they win, maybe that will help.

    Zoe, you’re on the easy side of it…I love the side by side revision and do it at work.

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jude

    I confess that (apart from the copyedits for the last book) I’ve had rewrites on all the previous books as hard copy comments scribbled on the t/s. Sometimes I can’t decipher my own handwriting, never mind anyone else’s…

    I’ve come across quite a few writers who refuse to make major changes in line with editorial comment, but years of writing non-fiction articles for magazines taught me not to be too precious about it.

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Brett

    I think, on reflection, even if I did work in Word, I’d still have two files open, because I find it easier to cope with reading the comments in one, and making the changes in another.

    Nothing is ever easy, grasshopper…

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    I’m the other way around, I think. I like to do all my false starts in pencil notes, then only start typing when I’ve a reasonable idea where I’m going. Once I’ve written something one way, I struggle to pick bits out and change it round.

    A personal failing, no doubt ;-]

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni

    If I disagree with a comment, I know I need a good reason for doing so. Yes, occasionally an editor inserts a query that you know you’ve answered elsewhere in the text, but it raises the question of was the explanation clear enough, or did they just miss it?

    But there is always the old ‘rule of thirds’ when it comes to editing – a third you take on board completely, a third you consider, and a third you reject out of hand. It’s just working out which third is which that’s the tricky bit…

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Rob

    I think we writers are so quick to doubt ourselves because we’re acutely aware that what we’re selling is smoke and mirrors. It’s the stuff out of our heads rather than some other, more tangible object. I never had the same doubts when I was writing non-fiction, because I was telling someone else’s story rather than my own.

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Judy

    Things that are worth having should not be easy to get. I always think that worrying constantly about what I write ensures that I’m always striving to produce my best work.

    It’s a nice theory…

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jena

    You’re obviously very au fait with technology. I still favour writing pencil notes on my summary pages, with initials to signify whose comments they are.

    Lo-tech should be my middle name ;-]

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison

    I feel for you! I’ve struggled in the past with trying to make changes to the whole t/s, and it’s just too unweildy. I end up too disheartened too quickly by the sheer size of the task. Hence the summary pages, which I complete as I go along, so by the time I’ve finished, a 340-page book is condensed down into a 34-page summary, with the gist of dialogue and action all broken down. It just seems to make it a lot easier to spot when I’m going awry as I write the book, and a lot easier to work out where changes need to go in the rewrites.

    Hope the Giants win/won, and that it helps your muse!

  19. Nancy Laughlin

    A fascinating look at the process, Zoe. I think I’d feel quite overwhelmed with all those change requests. I’d have to take it in stages too.
    I hope I get there one of these days and find out for myself.


  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Nancy

    It’s a little bit like eating an elephant – one bite at a time.

    I have to keep tackling it in very small doses, otherwise it would drive me entirely round the bend ;-]

    And keep the faith – so much of this business is luck, but the harder you work, the luckier you are.

  21. Allison Brennan

    Are we all in rewrite mode? I’m in the middle of revisions too! But I take it one page at a time. First, I talk to my editor on the phone. The last time? Two hours. Next, I read her revision letter, which is basically an outline of our phone conversation. Then, I skim all my editor’s notes in the manuscript. And after I let this all digest a day or two (sometimes I do research on some of the notes), I start on page one and go to page two and then three . . . I often cut whole scenes or chapters, write completely new ones, or move things around. But I can’t jump around. I deleted 19 pages last night. Nearly 4,000 words. But it had to be done. Now, I have 110 "perfect" (ha!) pages. I’m just reaching the end of the first act. The middle doesn’t need a lot of work, so I’m hoping I can get through the whole second act in just a couple days. The third act needs the most work. Probably because I turned the book in without a real ending . . .

  22. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison

    I would love to spend a couple of hours on the phone with my editor, but sadly I have an appallingly selective memory, which means I would only remember the bad points and none of the good, so it’s probably best that I get it all in writing ;-]

    I’m in awe of the amount of work you do, and the family responsibilities, and still manage a multi-book-a-year schedule.

    The pumpkin pic was the best one I could find to illustrate brains coming out of my ears without going all ‘forensic pathology’ on everyone!

  23. JT Ellison

    Zoë, I remember when I first signed with my agent, he had two pages of notes that he thought needed to be addresses in the manuscript before we took it out to sell. This was the one that didn’t sell, mind you, but it taught me how to do a revision from notes. I had to do it in the car too – we were heading to Seaside for a wedding and it took the whole six hour trip to talk out what I thought was the right thing to do, the first day of the trip to map that out in the manuscript, and the trip home to write up all the changes. So I FEEL for you, woman! Car trip edits aren’t the most fun. I’m glad you took a moment and saw that eagle. Reminds us why we do this, sometimes.

  24. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    Thank you for the kind thoughts! Actually, I find it quite nice working in the car – one reason I really don’t want email access on the move. It’s the one time I can forget about the Internet and just get on with writing, with no excuses to be surfing or getting up and wandering about. But that eagle was pretty cool, I must admit.

    Hope you’re recovering from the flooding OK!

  25. BCB

    Zoë, I can’t believe how timely this is. My daughter was unmercifully grilling politely and patiently asking me about the editing process last night. Never mind I haven’t been through it, she wanted details about what comes next. She was appalled that an agent or editor might DARE to ask me to change something. Um. I appreciate her blind faith in my mad writing skillz, but was trying to explain why input and change can be Very Good Things.

    She was still indignant. "But what if you had a dog and they said you had to kill the dog?!" I think this is where I gave up logic and just started laughing. "No, it’s an unwritten rule. No one EVER kills the dog. Plus, there is no dog in my story."

    Now I can just send her over here to read this terrific explanation of the value of editors. And, ah, suggest she skip the comments…

    I find it interesting that you and Toni both start with the small things and work yourselves up to the big ones. I’ve never considered where I might start when tackling revisions, other than the heavy drinking and sobbing, of course. [Kidding.] [Sort of.]

    But I’m with you on needing things in writing. A phone call with me would be wasted, as I don’t remember even half of what I hear. Good or bad. Well, that and the fact that I almost never answer the phone. But once I see something, I remember it.

    Thank you, great post. And congrats on finishing the re-writes!

  26. Zoë Sharp

    Hi BCB

    Thank you for the congrats, and I hope it helps. It’s interesting how different people respond to editorial criticism. When people ask to send me bits of book to give an opinion on (although what the hell they think I know about the business is sometimes beyond me!) I always tell them "Only send it if you REALLY want to know." I can spend hours agonising over the correct non-discouraging way of explaining why I feel something really doesn’t quite work, and get a tart, "Thank you for your comments" kind of deeply offended reply.

    As for killing the dog, I’d want a convincing argument as to why they felt the dog had to go, and I’d expect to have to present a convincing argument as to why I felt it really needed to stay.

    I’m grateful for any input that might improve the book before the critics wade in, that’s for sure ;-]

  27. Meg Chittenden

    Zoe, I feel your pain. I used to write in Word Perfect which I still prefer to Word. However, in order to please editors (I do like to please editors <g>) I would open up the whole manuscript in Word before sending it in. (Most of my editors have liked an accompanying floppy or CD.) This worked fine, and I would keep the Word copy on my computer so I could do any editorial changes. I don’t know if any of this would work for your program. Might be worth trying though. Nowadays I write manuscripts in Word, but I set them up first in Word Perfect, because setting it up there is easier.

  28. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Meg

    Sorry this is so late – been out of reach of the internet for a couple of days. I remember Word Perfect, although I never owned a copy. I still recall the old LocoScript with affection, even though it wouldn’t do hi-tech stuff like indent paragraphs… <sigh>


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