Revising Previously Published Work

Every author has that cringe-worthy first piece. That manuscript that, when looked upon years later, makes them scratch their heads in consternation and think, “Dear God! How did this ever get published?!” And usually, there’s nothing they can do about it. It marks their first victory in publishing with a pseudo-embarrassing reminder. But what if there was a chance to go back and fix those previously published works? A moment when, maybe, they aren’t printed in stone, and you can erase the flaws that haunt you? A publishing loop-hole, as it were.

I tried Googling this topic, and literally found one article, which wasn’t really so much an article as a discussion thread arguing over the merits of changing previously published novels. It was distinctly unhelpful, so I didn’t bother to save it. For every person that had a reason to do it, there were about six that disagreed, claiming it was akin to sacrilege.  So I moved on, looking for anything resembling helpful advice. I ended up posting my own thread on one of the literature sites I frequent, and finally got some interesting insight.

The general consensus is that no, you should never revise previously published work. Once it’s been published, leave it alone, because what can you really do with it at that point? Any attempt to republish would have to go up against the fact that it had been previously published, and most publishers aren’t looking for sloppy seconds. (Unless, of course, you’re self-publishing the second time around, in which case it returns to a philosophical debate rather than a practical one.)

But there was one exception to that rule: Re-branding.

I spoke about Author Branding previously, so I won’t go into detail about it here. Essentially, re-branding involves creating a new perception around your work, your name, and your Author Persona. But why would anyone ever want to do that? Creating an Author Brand is hard enough the first time! Why would you want to throw that all away and start over?

In my case, and probably a lot of other women out there, re-branding happens because of a name change. I was fortunate enough to accrue three publishing credits under my maiden name, and I will be forever grateful to Sam’s Dot Publishing for seeing potential in my work. But then I got married. Which pretty much negated those publishing credits and put me back at square one, trying to build a new brand under my new identity, and presenting me with a interesting conundrum. How could I tie my new brand to those previous works and save what little evidence of my awesomeness I had?

Eventually, I realized I had been given a rare opportunity to re-brand my previous works, which was instantly pounced on by my perfectionist side. If I was re-releasing them, what would be the harm in fixing them first?

Those first three stories aren’t horrific; they did, after all, pass the experienced eye of an editor. But they’re also not true representations of my ability now. Looking at that first story in particular, I can see all the places it comes up short. Which begged the question, why put this back out into the world if it doesn’t put my best foot forward? I could just let it fade away into obscurity, collecting dust in a drawer somewhere while the 5 people that read it completely forget about it.

But I don’t really want to do that. For one, self-publishing relies on being prolific and ignoring those three stories cripples my already bordering-on-pathetic offering of available products. Second, all three are precursors to larger bodies of work. And everyone loves extra content, right? That’s basically the whole reason Director’s Cut DVD’s exist and why they cost four times as much for the same movie. And three, they still represent my style and genre of choice, which makes them completely relevant additions to my backlist of available works.

Except that the quality isn’t up to par.

Now, I know what you’re thinking; there are lots of reasons why revising is a bad idea. And you’re right. Here are a few of the major negatives I came up with and how I justified my way out of them. 😉

Doesn’t revising previously released work ruin the integrity of the piece? You’re basically declaring that your first version was crap and everyone who read it wasted their time.

It does feel kind of wrong to essentially negate everything I’ve done before. But I don’t think it really ruins the integrity of the story. I’m not planning on doing a complete overhaul, just another layer of polish to bring the quality up to the level I am now. So if the story structure is the same, is it really that different?

Now, if I was planning on rewriting the entire thing from scratch, changing everything from character names to sequence of events, sure, this argument would definitely apply. At that point, it’s not so much a revision as a completely new piece based on a previous one.

What’s the point? If you’re spending time working on old stuff, then you aren’t creating anything new.

It’s true, if you’re working on old stuff, chances are, you aren’t working on anything new. There are only so many productive hours in a day, after all. But writers have a tendency to chase perfection like dogs chasing their tails. And it’s about as futile.

The hardest thing to learn as an author is when to let go. When to declare something done, finished, and untouchable. Revising published work goes against that. It says that it’s OK to linger in the past, tweaking and perfecting into eternity. And that’s a dangerous line to walk. Nothing will ever be perfect. You’ll continue to grow as an author, and with every progression, all your previous work will suck in comparison. But I still think it can be done if you put restrictions on it. For instance, I know this is my only chance to do this. Once I re-release them, that’s it. I’m not allowed to touch them again. If it weren’t for the fact I was in the process of re-branding myself, I wouldn’t have succumbed to the temptation at all. But for the sake of presenting my best work, I’m choosing to play with fire. I may get burned, but as Walter on The Finder would say, “I’mma risk it.”

They’re short stories, why even bother? The reader market for short stories is small, and you’ve already said they’re part of larger projects. Why not just write the full versions and forget about the shorties?

Honestly, the reason I’m not willing to just set them aside is simply because I don’t want to. (Picture that with a four year old’s petulant foot-stomp and crossed arms.) I spent nearly a year refining each of them, and I don’t want to throw away three years of my life. Plus, I’m a super slow writer, as evidenced by the fact I just admitted to spending a year on a short story. So writing the full version of each will likely take me eons. And really, what else am I going to do with them? There’s virtually no market for republication of short stories. At least this way, they’ll get to have a longer shelf-life and maybe reach more than the 5 people who read them the first time.

As you can tell, I’ve had quite the long argument with myself over this, at times feeling like I was battling a split personality. But the conclusion I’ve drawn is that, like everything surrounding writing, it really comes down to the individual author and what’s best for their career. In my case, I feel the pros outweigh the cons. I’ll get to erase all the little things that irritate me in each story and re-release them with a feeling of confidence instead of resignation. For now. I’m sure later on, I’ll wish I could fix them again. But by then, my brand will be established and that would be like diving head first into the flames of perfectionist hell. I’d probably never get out alive.

But what about you? What do you think of revising previously published work? If you were presented with the opportunity, would you do it?

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