THE WRITING LIFE: Optimizing Revision

All published writers are alike; every unpublished writer is unpublished in her own way.

Or maybe not. Most unpublished writers — assuming they actively want to find a readership for their work — are unpublished for one of a few reasons.

First, there are writers who are truly bad. I don’t believe in objective taste, so what I really mean is there are writers who are truly clueless. They have no idea how far off they are from the kind of writing that gets published, and so they probably never will be.

Then, there are writers who are good — you could call it a talent for writing, or you could say they have a talent for emulating writing that meets our current standards for “good” — who just haven’t put in the time yet. They’re in a pre-published state, but if they continue to work (reading, making connections, finding their markets) they’ll eventually be published.

Then there is the broad middle — writers who are pretty good, or almost good, but stuck. Often, they are willing to work — they take classes, they seek out mentors, they profess a desire to edit their manuscripts into publishable shape. The problem is, they’re doing the wrong kind of work. They’ve heard stories about some famous writer, like Robert Lowell, tinkering with his poems even after they were published in books, changing a word or a line break or a comma, and they think that’s what revision is. That is not what revision is, and this is why their work is not getting appreciably better.

An Analogy from the Seedy World of Marketing

My day job is in content marketing (and it’s doubly/meta seedy, because the product in question is marketing software). I recently had an epiphany about revision based on an excellent, if somewhat sensationalist marketing presentation that my boss did called “Everything You Know About Conversion Rate Optimization Is Wrong.”

First, let me explain what conversion rate optimization is. If you have some kind of transactional website, like an e-commerce site to sell small-press novels, or a SaaS platform where you try to get people to sign up for a free trial of your software, the page where those transactions happen (or don’t) is called a landing page. And since your success as a business more or less depends on how many people you can get to “convert” on that landing page (i.e., buy the book or sign up for the free trial), businesses usually attempt to optimize their conversion rates through various tests. A high conversion rate translates to a high percentage of your site’s visitors converting into a customer or lead.

A lot of the “best practices” and received wisdom around conversion rate optimization have to do with tests that are designed to hack your potential customer’s psychology. Some of these tests involve visual elements on the page, such as the shape, color, size, or location of the button your visitor needs to click to complete the conversion process. Others involve copy, like the main heading on the page or the “call to action” (the words on the button, such as “Add to Cart” or “Start My Free Trial”). Is longer or shorter better? Do exclamation points help? What if you put a big yellow arrow on the page, pointing to the button? Et cetera, et cetera. The idea is that you can eke a few more conversions out of the same number of visitors with these tricks that make your page more persuasive or frictionless.

My boss’s presentation drew from data and tests to make a case that this whole approach to conversion rate optimization is wrong-headed. Basically, he said, stop futzing around with the button color — you can only make small incremental gains that way, and many of those apparent gains are illusory anyway (due to statistical insignificance, for example). If you really want to improve your conversion rate, you need to make radical changes. For example, change the offer: Maybe it’s not that people aren’t buying the book because your button is the wrong shade of green, but because nobody wants that book.

This isn’t to say that it’s not worth testing the button color. You can mess around with that level of testing once you know for sure that people actually want what you’re peddling.

Everything You Know About Revision Is Wrong

So here’s my theory: Revision works the same way. For the same reason that most businesses fail slowly — by focusing on small details instead of the big picture — most writers can’t get their work better than a certain level of passable mediocrity because they’re optimizing the small stuff before they hit on a project that’s worth optimizing. They approach revision through tinkering and line edits, trying to improve the poem with different enjambment on line 3 or changing “blue” to “cerulean.” But those small edits can only make a poem or a novel or a memoir 1–5% better. A radical revision that completely rethinks the form or concept or scope or flow could make it twice as good.

Of course, this theory doesn’t apply only to unpublished writers. Any writer has the chance to make any project dramatically better through a complete re-envisioning of the project. George Saunders was reportedly stuck on the story “Sea Oak” for a long time until he decided to change the whole ending and make the aunt come back as a zombie. Maggie Nelson wasn’t happy with Bluets until she decided to abandon the form of poetry completely and write it as a series of numbered paragraphs.

Remember, though, that any revision is a kind of test. Completely redesigning your landing page could very well tank your results, and the same is true of revision. This is why I always recommend doing revisions in a new file — don’t kill your first-version darling, just tuck it away where it can be recovered. Revisions, like theories, are only worthwhile if they can fail.

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