When should I revise something?

I recently read a critically acclaimed (and quite good) novel that was horribly overwritten. I could’ve gone through with a red pen and cut twenty thousand words of internal rumination without seriously harming the plot or character development of the book. To be honest I felt a little sorry for the author. Because the book did rather well in its current form, they’re unlikely to alter their style, and they will forever after be hampered by this unnecessary wordiness.

Of course that’s only a matter of opinion on my part. And it’s very likely that the author is aware of this criticism of their work. Perhaps they even at this point agree with it. Now, at three years remove from finishing my first book, I can see all the issues with it, and when I happen to pick it up I almost immediately note things about the book that I would like to change.

People put rather a lot of faith in editors to catch these sorts of mistakes. They say, “Didn’t this book get edited?” or “I hear nobody bothers to edit anymore.” But the truth is that there’s a limit to what an editor can do. At bottom, an editor is nothing more than a very sophisticated reader who (hopefully) has a keen understanding of what makes books succeed or fail in the marketplace. Many errors, particularly errors of style, have zero effect on how a novel performs, and thus editors are somewhat disincentivized to comment upon them.

Moreover an editor isn’t necessarily right. When it comes to your novel, you’re the only person who really knows how it ought to go. Perhaps you strongly believe that pages upon pages of internal rumination are a critical element of your style, and that to elide any of it would ruin your book. And you might be right, but you might also be wrong.

Obviously, it’s all subjective, but I am of the opinion that it’s possible to make improvements to a book that will, for the sophisticated reader, turn it into a more beautiful and satisfying work of art. However, a book is also a statement of values; in its form, it tries to say something beautiful and unique. Each great book teaches its readers how to appreciate it. So it’s possible that the choices I most disagree, because they conform the least to my own vision of a good book, are actually the best parts of the book.

I don’t know how an author decides whether something is essential or not. I think…in my own work, I’ve noticed the difference between times when I’m trying to ‘get away’ with something and times when I’m in control. I’ve a story circulating now that relies on a very subtle and persistent sense of unease that a reader ought to feel from the beginning to the end. I’ve no idea whether editors get it, but I am certain that it’s in there, and that it’s working as it’s supposed to. But I’ve also written stories where I’ve ended things on an uncanny note just as a sort of, “Well, let’s see if this works” gambit, and in those I’ve just felt like for whatever reason I wasn’t in control.

As I’ve advanced as a writer I’ve learned to distrust that out of control feeling. Generally whenever I’m uneasy about something in a book, I’ve found it profitable to go back and rethink it. But I still make plenty of mistakes. I just abandoned the book I’ve been writing for adults–a book I was pretty excited about–because I realized it had gotten away from my true interests. It’d be nice to skip right to the end and just write the final draft first, but that’s a thing much easier said than done.