Revising your book is like unravelling a scarf

A friend once told me that revising a published book into a second edition is like pulling a thread in a knitted scarf. Think Dr Who, Tom Baker era. Before you know it, you’ve got a pile of wool and no scarf. Quite right, too. A properly written book is an integrated whole. Mess with one part and you unbalance things, so you end up messing with the lot.

Wright_New Zealand Illustrated coverI knew that when I started revising my best-selling Illustrated History of New Zealand, originally published in 2004, and which was published in a new edition by David Bateman Ltd last week.

How new? Totally. It’s that scarf issue. I finished actually writing the first edition in 2003. Things have happened since – but more than that, time gives perspectives not obvious in the immediate wake of events. So the 1980-2003 period needed re-casting. That doesn’t mean my earlier argument was wrong – for it was not, in terms of what I knew and understood in 2002-03. But new perspectives arrive with time, and there is value in exploring those.

That meant a complete re-write of the last section from the perspective of 2012, then revising other chapters to integrate them into that argument. Then there was the chapter on New Zealand’s prehistory. Discoveries in the past decade have added depth. All that was on top of the fact that in the interim, among other things, I’d written books on the New Zealand Wars, the psychology of military heroism, colonial socio-economic idealism, and technical papers such as one I penned on the economic impact of the Great Depression – which prompted me to refine the relevant parts of my general history.

The Christ Church Cathedral - icon of a city for nearly 150 years and the raison d;'etre for its founding in 1850. Now a ruin, due to be demolished.
The Christ Church Cathedral, post-quake in 2013 (this is correct – the city is Christchurch, the cathedral Christ Church).

All that was before I got to styling. Authors should never stop refining their craft. I also wanted to re-tone the whole into something chattier, reflecting changing tastes. That meant an editing pass purely for style, on top of everything else.

The photos had to be updated for recent events, and I was able to use some of my own (similar to the one here). But new copyright restrictions meant I couldn’t re-use all the photos I’d sourced from archives in 2003. So the historical selection got revised too. And, of course, the physical production by the publisher was 100% new – totally new page design, totally new look and feel.

The upshot is that this edition is virtually a new book. It was a lot of work. But it was worth it, and I was pleased with the way it finished up. I hope you will be too. It’s available in all good New Zealand bookstores, and for direct international purchase from the Bateman online bookstore. An e-book is coming.

Before then, though – a look at some of the text and pages. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


8 thoughts on “Revising your book is like unravelling a scarf

  1. Great post, Matthew! I’ve just done much the same thing on my end. I have a mystery series that begins with a book that was written in 1993. When I went on Kindleboards to complain about the poor reviews this book often gets and how it was by far the weakest in the series and unfortunately the introduction to the series, Hugh Howie and Russell Brand both said to me, in essence: “Use what you’ve learned in the past 20 years and rewrite it to make it your strongest book in the series.” And that’s what I did. And like your unraveling scarf, I quickly realized I couldn’t do it in bits and pieces. I had to start from the beginning and write it all new. It was an incredible experience because I was able to make it so much better (and fresher, obviously). I’m grateful that being an indie author allowed me the flexibility to do it and that advice from other authors was easily available in order to point me in the right direction. (Why in the world didn’t I think to rewrite it myself?) In any case, while it was SO much work, I cannot remember feeling more satisfied at the finish of a project.

    1. Yeah, it’s amazing how much you can find to improve on re-visiting – and what a LOT of hard work it is. But the improvements count. I guess it’s why musicians re-make albums (Rick Wakeman has just re-done ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’, 40 years after the original). Writing indie certainly gives more flexibility to re-visit than otherwise. For me, the process of re-publishing this one, via trad means, was fairly extended – started back in 2011.. About half the intervening period was taken up with rights negotiations and paperwork. But it’s definitely paid off.

      All the best for the success of your own re-launched book! And it is, very much, like writing a new one…possibly better…

  2. Wow, you’ve quite literally described one of my nightmares! I’m amazed you struggled through, both in sanity and total dedication to the improvement of the tome. There was no, “Oh it’ll be fine” BS, but true “I am the author hear me roar” conviction. Congrats!

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