You can only make revisions if you understand why they need to be made

When I was in my MFA program, people would sometimes turn in revised versions of work they’d submitted before. And it was frequently a bit dispiriting, because it was in many cases, perhaps even a majority of cases, not as good as what they’d turned in originally.

Before that, I hadn’t believed that it was possible to “over revise” a story and sand off the good stuff, because it had been my experience that revision always made the work better. In fact, I’m sometimes astonished by how much better things get in revision. You know how they say that novels are created in revision? It’s totally true. Enter Title Here is so much better now than it was when I first wrote it.

But this was not the case in my MFA program. In some cases I couldn’t understand why they’d bothered with the revision, because they hadn’t really changed anything: the words might be different, but the story was still largely the same. In other cases, they’d inserted things, in response to the workshop’s previous comments, that were utterly beside the point.

This was not their fault. Our workshop (and, I imagine, most workshops) was very bad at articulating some of its points. For instance, a frequent complaint was that protagonists “lacked interiority.” That meant that you felt distant from the protagonist. I, and my classmates, always interpreted this as a call to add in more markers of their state of mind and thoughts, but really this was not the problem at all. The problem was usually that the protagonist was poorly conceived and lacked any desires or focus. The problem wasn’t the words, it was the concept. And changing the issue would have required us to go back and really look deep into the protagonist and figure out who they were and what they wanted, and then changing the events of the story in order to better bring out that conflict. But we didn’t do that, of course. We just changed the words.

 

So what I’ve come to realize is that the purpose of criticism isn’t to get information about how to make a reader happy; no, the purpose is to come to a fuller understanding of the features of your own story. Usually the problem with a story is that I can’t see its problem. And once I can see the problem, I’m usually, with some effort, able to find the solution.