Writers on Revision: Hope Edelman

In 1 on January 18, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Today Make a Scene launches its “Writers on Revisions” series, which will go on for several weeks. I admit that this is a self-serving project. I’m embarking on a novel revision, and rather than jumping off into that terrifying place alone, I wanted to bolster my process with words of advice from published authors and editors. But as an editor, I also know that writers can’t hear enough about revision. So, jump in, and share your revision stories!

Today I give you the wondrous Hope Edelman, author of The Possibility of Everything and Motherless Daughters.


How do you approach revision?  

 I typically edit as I go, perfecting each chapter as I write it, until I’ve done this about four or five times and the pages are ready to show to the women in my writing group. There are seven of us who’ve been together for several years, and I show them almost everything I write. Based on their comments, I revise again and then send the file to my editor. As I write subsequent chapters I’m always going back and tinkering with earlier ones as material moves around. So for this reason, chapters in the first half of a book probably get worked on eleven or twelve times total, which the last few chapters are revised maybe only seven or eight.

 What is the most difficult aspect of revision for you?

 Allowing myself to write a sloppy first draft.  I’m such a perfectionist, I always want to make a chapter as perfect as I can before moving on to the next one.

What aspect of revision do you embrace or even look forward to?

Watching a book or chapter unfold in the way it can only when it’s been worked on multiple times, over a long period of time. I often write under deadline but when I’m able to set aside pages and go back to them weeks or even months later, I can see them with a new set of eyes and new ideas, and the revisions I do then make the pages much stronger.

How many drafts does it take to reach a finished book?

I envy writers who can actually write a whole first draft, trash most of it, and create a second draft full of new material. Unfortunately, I get wedded to my early drafts and subsequent drafts don’t go through a major transformation. I think more in terms of revising chapters than revising a whole book. Ten revisions per chapter is probably my average. (See above)

I read an interview in which you opted to keep out a lot of information from your memoir The Possibility of Everything. How did you decide what to keep out–or more specifically, how do you shape your narrative arc of a book from the not-so-orderly mess of real life?

 Oh boy, those are big questions! I hope I can do them justice here. I’m not sure I can pinpoint exactly how I sense what to put in and what to leave out, other than the obvious answer that I leave out anything that my husband or children think is damaging or upsetting to them. Beyond that, I think about pacing, characterization, and striking the right balance between narration and reflection. I digress by nature, so I have to be careful not to get too far into passages of reflection, which often start losing the reader. In my most recent book, I could have put many more details and anecdotes into the back story of the first three chapters, but I was acutely aware that I had to get us out of California and on our way to Central America before the first third of the book was over. So I was only able to put in the most critical details of the four months before our departure, and every single one of them had to be there for a reason. Anything that felt superfluous, I cut.  

As for shaping a narrative arc out of the messy material of real life, I don’t really know how I do that. I think in terms of stories, and can often see them literally rising out of the stuff of real life and taking form even as the events unfold. This last book revealed itself to me that way not long after we returned to California, with a perfect beginning, middle and end. Other times I sense there’s a story but only discover its meaning and message once I’ve started writing.  Instead of just knowing the story line, I have to create it from the material of ordinary life.

Thinking in these terms , writing creative nonfiction is the perfect profession for a control freak, isn’t it? Because you get to impose a sense of order on the chaos of everyday life. And, if you’re lucky, you get to inspire or help some people in the process.

What advice do you have for the aspiring writer about revising one’s work?

Know that generating new material accounts for about 20 percent of a writer’s time, and revision account for about 80. When I was writing my last book, every time I met someone new who’d ask, “What do you do?” instead of saying “I’m a writer” I was tempted to say, “I’m a rewriter,” which felt far more accurate. But I suspect writers are the only ones who’d get that joke.


Hope Edelman is the author of five nonfiction books, including the bestsellers Motherless Daughters and Motherless Mothers. She lives in Topanga Canyon, California with her husband and their two daughters. You can read more about her at and more about The Possibility of Everything, Belize, and the characters in the book at

  1. She makes so many important points, especially the 20-80 ratio of writing to rewriting. Writing is hard, rewriting is sometimes even harder, but usually a lot more satisfying. I’m linking to this from my blog today. Thanks for posting.

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