To Revise or Not To Revise

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, today pondering a question that arose while working on one of the projects I mentioned in our last group post. When it comes to a new story or novel, there’s no question. You revise and revise and revise until you can’t find a single thing you want to change. But what if the project is a new edition of an older book, one written back when the author was still learning her craft? We all hope our writing improves with practice, so it seems only logical that a novel published in the 1990s won’t be as polished as one written today.

This issue didn’t really come up when I was preparing my books for young readers for reissue. I changed a few things, but overall there was little that screamed for a rewrite. It wasn’t until I started rereading the first couple of Face Down mysteries with the idea of creating a three volume e-book set, to include all the novels and short stories in “Lady Appleton’s world,” that I realized I had a problem.

Lady Appleton as illustrated for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine

For those who aren’t familiar with this ten-book series, the Face Down mysteries feature a sixteenth-century gentlewoman as the amateur detective. Her special skill is that she’s an expert on poisonous herbs.

At the time Face Down in the Marrow-Bone Pie, set in England in 1559, and Face Down upon an Herbal (1561) were published, I thought they were well edited. Now I have to wonder why on earth St. Martin’s let me get away with being so wordy! Some of my convoluted sentences actually made me groan out loud! As for descriptive passages, the rule to be specific—wooden bench, its back carved with figures of animals, as opposed to bench—is a good one, but it, too, can be carried too far.

There isn’t anything wrong with the plots, and with the exception of a couple of minor bloopers, easily corrected, the details of that era are all correct. I  wrote The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Renaissance England for Writer’s Digest Books while I was writing the Face Down series, so you can believe I was particular about getting those right! The problem is that when I wrote those books, I was trying so hard to capture the flavor of the language without making it sound like bad imitation Shakespeare, that I went a little crazy using ’tis and ’twas when it is and it was would have worked just as well. In trying to avoid -ly endings, not in use at the time, I inserted the proper Elizabethan word certes far too frequently. Don’t even get me started on why I decided to use the nouns armariola and an aumbrey when I could have said tilt-top writing desk and cabinet with drawers.

To make a long story shorter, instead of a simple proofreading prior to setting up the first volume of this e-book trilogy, this one to contain the first three novels plus five short stories (in chronological order by setting), I’ve ended up revising as I read through the text. The plots stay the same. The characters, too. But the end result is going to be much more readable and a bit faster paced.

Do I need to do this much revising? Maybe not, but now that I’ve started, I can’t seem to stop. I know I’m not alone among writers in taking the opportunity to improve a book before it is reissued. On the other hand, since the original versions will continue to be available as single title e-books, I may have gotten a bit carried away by the whole process.

What do you think, readers? If you wanted to read my Face Down mysteries, would you see any problem in having a choice between a 1990s edition and what amounts to a director’s cut?

If all goes well, The Face Down Collection, Volume One will be available by the end of this year.

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-four books traditionally published and has self published several children’s books and three works of nonfiction. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Her newest books are Murder, She Edited (the fourth book in the contemporary “Deadly Edits” series, written as Kaitlyn) and, as Kathy, I Kill People for a Living: A Collection of Essays by a Writer of Cozy Mysteries. She maintains websites at and A third, at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, is the gateway to over 2300 mini-biographies of sixteenth-century Englishwomen, now available in e-book format.


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10 Responses to To Revise or Not To Revise

  1. What useful comments, Kathy. Yes, you have to revise as it would just be too disturbing to you as a writer not to – although such a slippery slope for the size of your project! Interesting to read our earlier work, isn’t it? Though mine is minuscule compared to yours!

  2. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    I LOVE the Face Down series, and would read all the books in any incarnation, wordy or word-edited. Given the chance, I would still be editing my first book, tinkering with everything. It’s never the last word, is it?

    • kaitlynkathy says:

      I know what. you mean. On the other hand, I usually reach a point where I’m pretty happy with the way it reads.

  3. susanvaughan says:

    What Maggie said. I agree on changing the ’twas to it was, etc. I was advised that as long as you don’t change more than 20% of the book, you don’t have to call it a second edition and get another copyright. It seems you should be all set.

  4. kaitcarson says:

    Thank you for this post! I’m facing a similar dilemma with my first two books and have been lost in ditherland (Go to Disneyland, turn left ;). I’m limbering up my blue pencil and looking forward to seeing the results of yours.

  5. Theda says:

    This was a difficult question, I hope this helps from a reader perspective. I would consider whether it was a re-write or an edit. It sounds like you are doing an edit: language, sentence structure etc. If scenes were substantially changed then it would be difficult to choose between the two. But with an edit, I would choose the latter version as it would allow me to have all of my focus on characters and plot, and not on vocabulary and phrasing.

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