By Joanna Campbell Slan, @joannaslan
Part of the Writer’s Life Series
JH: As the saying goes, “No writing is ever wasted.” That’s especially true when we learn from our past work and improve with every book. Please help me welcome Joanna Campbell Slan to the lecture hall today, with reasons how re-editing our older work can benefit us.
Joanna Campbell Slan is the national and Amazon bestselling author of nearly 40 books. She’s been shortlisted for the Agatha Award and won the Daphne du Maurier Award of Excellence. Joanna has taught writing on the college level and to corporate executives. Learn more about her work at
Take it away Joanna…
If you’re like me, and you’re lucky enough to get your rights back, you might wonder, “Should I re-edit my work? Or let it go?” There’s a lot you can learn by revisiting your older work. Of course, going over old ground is tiresome. There are days when I feel like I’m not moving ahead. At first I doubted my decision. All that aside, I’ve learned powerful lessons from revisiting the books I wrote nearly ten years ago.
Lesson One: Writing More Equals Writing Better
Revisiting my work has proven to me that the more I write, the better I get. In a subjective business like writing, progress is difficult to measure. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers proposed that it takes 10,000 hours of work to master a skill. I haven’t counted the hours, but I can tell I’m racking them up. Re-editing my work gives me the chance to put those new skills to good use by improving my original efforts.
Lesson Two: Forget about Perfection
Looking back on my old work reminds me that I used to get paralyzed by worrying about mistakes. Instead of diving into my projects, I spent countless hours doing research before I even typed a word. Of course, some of that fact-gathering was necessary and definitely improved the final result. However, many hours were wasted. No matter how much research you do, you don’t know what you don’t know. Things will definitely slip through the cracks.
For example, in Death of a Schoolgirl, I wrote about a mockingbird singing in England. There are no mockingbirds in England! It never occurred to me to look that up because I lived in England for a year, and I could have sworn I heard mockingbirds. Despite that error, and one other goof where I got confused about the number of wheels on a certain model of carriage, the book went on to win the Daphne du Maurier Award of Excellence.
Today, I do minimal research at the start of a project and keep a list of questions as I go along. At night, after I’ve put in a day of writing, I read books that pertain to my subject matter. By forgoing the intense upfront research, I save time. Re-editing my word has been a powerful reminder not to get paralyzed by fear of making a mistake.
Lesson Three: Inventory is Important for Intellectual Property, Too
Over the years, I have written short stories and novellas for blogs and magazines. This year, I decided to re-edit all those short pieces and gather them in an omnibus. What a shock! I’d written 42 stories for a total of 233,289 words.
Since I’d written many of these in installments, tracking down the pieces took months. I had no idea that I’d produced enough for four full-length books in my Kiki Lowenstein Mystery Series. Because I’d written these over the years as the need occurred, I never bothered to take inventory. That might seem silly, but it’s true. Originally, the pieces were written as promotional material only. I never considered them part of my intellectual capital.
If you, too, are a prolific writer, I urge you to take a lesson from my mistake. Get your property in order. Inventory what you have. Re-edit and re-package it so that it will do you the most good. This fall I’ll be re-releasing all these stories as the Kiki Lowenstein Omnibus. Because of the large size of the work, it will appear in total as an omnibus, singularly as individual stories, and divided into four volumes. In other words, I’ll have 47 newly revised products for my readers to buy.
Lesson Four: A Bible is a Necessary Evil
When I began writing, I never dreamed I would lose track of the details about my characters. Sure, I took loose notes, some of which were handwritten, but nothing was extensive. Re-editing my work (14 books and 42 short stories/novellas in one series alone) has shown me how careless I have been. Most glaringly, two characters changed their names willy-nilly. I alone am responsible for this mess, because I changed publishers in the midst of the madness.
Once upon a time, I thought a “bible” (a list of characters, places, and other details that documents aspects of a series) was useful, although not necessary. After spending an entire summer working to mesh my books and my short stories, I feel differently. If I was starting again, I’d take better notes. I’d use spread sheets. I’d build timelines. Re-editing taught me that creating a series bible is worth every minute of my time.