A Guide to Revisions
Originally shared with M&D readers in 2017
Note: I wrote this post in 2017 as part of a Misfits & Daydreamers newsletter! You can read that original post here, or scroll down to read it all below!
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With the end of NaNoWriMo here, I thought it a good time to go over the basics of revisions. Some people (like me) LOVE to revise. Others, not so much.
For the not-so-muchers, I'm here to help you tackle revisions with a bit less panic and misery. And for the red-pen-lovers, I'm here to (maybe) make the process a bit easier.
The key is to stay organized.
I cannot emphasize this enough. THE KEY IS TO STAY ORGANIZED. Revisions can quickly get overwhelming, particularly if you are making large changes to a manuscript, and when your brain gets muddled...Well, productivity slows.
If you want to revise thoroughly and quickly, you need to be organized.
Also, one quick disclaimer: this is how I revise my stories. It might not work for you...like AT ALL. Or it might suit you just fine. Or there might be parts you like as well as parts you loathe. No matter what, I hope it helps you in some way, no matter how small.
2. Video Supplement
Also, before we get started, you can watch a video I made over the summer in which I rush-revised Sightwitch. I go through all the steps I am about to layout below, and you can see it all in action. But NOTE! This was me doing everything in 3 days, so I gloss over some steps...combine others...and general race through the process.
Normally, I don't do that. Also, if this is your first time revising a novel, I don't recommend you do it either. 😉
Watch the video here.
For many people, the hardest part of the process is figuring out what's broken (which is step 2!). I'm not going to lie -- this is a skill that takes both time to learn and a brutal sort of honesty with one's self.
Some people (ME!) think everything is broken. Other people think everything is great (how I wish I could be like them). The best way to be is, of course, somewhere in the middle. Able to spot what's not working in the manuscript, but also able to see what IS.
This is why you must first prepare. Are you actually educated enough on the craft of writing to be able to revise? It's okay if the answer is no! If this is your first book ever or your first attempt revising ever, you are going to learn SO much along the way!
But a little prep work to start will help a lot in the long run. Most importantly: developing that critical eye. This takes practice. It is a learned skill, for not only must you learn to spot what doesn't "feel right," but you must also learn to figure out WHY it doesn't feel right. What, exactly, is not working in the story?
The best way to learn is to practice. Critique for other writers, so you can build that critical eye. Have writers critique for you, so you can get better at seeing the mistakes you frequently make.
But Susan, you say, I am only just starting! How can I fix my book if I don't have anything for people to critique?
In that case, study the craft (via books, workshops, youtube videos, my website) so you know the language of storytelling -- from plot to character to deus ex machina. Then study more about storytelling, so you know how all these terms apply and fit together.
Next, Read lots of books (or graphic novels or short stories or whatever), and break them down. What didn't you like and why? What DID you like and why? Watch movies/TV, and break those stories down too. Basically, any story you encounter, analyze! The more you think about the pieces of story and how they interact, the better you will get at spotting problem areas in your own prose.
4. Take a Break
Alright. You're prepared. Or at least prepared enough to dive in. Now it's time for...
Take a break.
Wait, WHAT? Take a break? Sooz, I'm here to get stuff done!
I know, I know. Bear with me here.
The reason I urge you to take a break is because distance creates objectivity. The fresher your eyes are when you finally sit down to read your creation, the more likely you are to not only spot the problems, but to also spot the good stuff.
I know, it's really hard to do step away. And sometimes, thanks to deadlines, you can't! But if possible, I urge you to avoid looking at your manuscript for as long as you can. Three days, a week, a month -- the longer the better.
Then, when you finally do sit down to revise, you'll be that much more prepared to dive in.
5. Determine What You Have
This is, in my opinion, the most important part of revisions. How can you fix a book if you don't know what's broken?
Oh, there might be obvious things -- like you introduce a random new character on page 250 and now need to insert her in all scenes prior. But what about the not obvious stuff? The pacing, the wonky character arcs, the infodumps?
That stuff can only be discovered by reading the manuscript, start to finish. And while you read, taking notes on what's broken.
In fact, I urge you not to touch a word on the page until you have read the entire darn thing, start to finish, and analyzed what's wrong. I KNOW, IT IS SO HARD TO DO THAT. But why bother editing sentences when you might end up cutting a scene entirely? It's a waste of time.
As you read, take notes on EVERYTHING that isn't working. Even if you don't yet know why, just scribble it down.
I take notes in a notebook, but you can also use these worksheets if you really want to stay organized (or you're new to this and need that extra clarity!).
Pro Tip #1: I personally like to print my books. On a neurological level, it changes how you engage with the words. Printed, physical text is a vastly different use of the brain from screen engagement.
Additionally, printed manuscripts allow you to very easily rearrange pages, scenes, flip back to earlier stuff, etc.
AND, printed stuff has the bonus of just feeling super satisfying. This is your book, and you're touching it! And you WROTE it! And that is just so cool.
I have converted many of my writer buddies onto the printed-book-for-revisions approach, and none of them have looked back.
As I read the book, I separate the pages by scene and then paperclip those scenes together (see this in action in the video!). I alsomake scene notecards.
This is a HUGELY important part of the process, so I will repeat it. I MAKE SCENE NOTECARDS.
On these cards, I will write the scene # (i.e. its order in the story), whose POV it's in, a short title for the scene, and the scene's page numbers (like, p. 55-59). That's it. You can include more if you want -- a summary for the scene, a list of characters, etc. Whatever information is useful to you.
I then slide these little scene notecards into the paperclip along with the corresponding scene. The advantage of all this is that you can now quickly -- soooooo quickly -- flip through your manuscript at any point and find what you need.
Realized you forgot to change the character's eye color in that tea party scene? No prob. Flip back to through your paper-clipped scenes, scanning the notecards for the one calledTea Party, et voilá!
Pro Tip #2: The more advanced a writer you are, the less important I think it is for you to read the entire manuscript before you begin revisions. Personally, I have found that the more books I write, the less I have to completely gut a manuscript and rewrite. Are the first drafts good? NO. But they also aren't completely broken.
I usually end a first draft with a pretty clear sense of what's wrong, what scenes are getting cut/ rearranged/rewritten, and what big fixes needs doing in revisions. That said, I STILL take time away before diving in (fresh eyes!!). And I STILL create a master list of what I have, as well. It keeps me organized, and organization is key!
But for beginners, I really, REALLY urge you read the entire manuscript before you touch a thing.
6. Get Organized
Yay! You've reached the end of reading your MS, all the scenes are divided + notecards made, and hopefully you're pleasantly surprised by how much isn't broken.
Or, if you're like me, you're probably like, OH CRAP I AM HORRIBLE WHY DID I THINK I COULD WRITE THIS IS A MESS I HATE EVERYTHING. 😭😭😭😭😭
Now it's time to...
How sick are you of that word? ORGANIZED!!! Organiiiiiized!
Ahem. Basically, I look at all the notes I gathered in step 3 and arrange them by TYPE of problem (plot, character, setting, pacing) and then by SCALE (macro, micro).
I do it this way so that I can quickly see where problems overlap.
For example, let's say a character feels off in scenes 6, 12, and 17. This means there's probably a larger scale problem with their arc.
Or maybe an emotional beat in scene 12 feels way too soon and an emotional beat in scene 27 feels like a step backward. But oh, look, I've also got some story events that CAUSE those emotional beats. I'm not actually dealing with a wonky character arc so much as I am a PLOT problem. If I rearrange events, then the beats will feel more natural.
This step can take a long time! It requires not only recognizing there was a problem (step 3) but now translating that problem into whhat exactly isn't working?
Be patient. Take it slowly. Think lots and lots and lots.
7. Build Your Plan of Attack
This is my favorite part of it all because I'm not actually having to revise yet. Instead, it's just that delicious sense of POTENTIAL.
Essentially, I take my organized notes and I make a plan -- I literally write on my whiteboard (or in my notebook), Plan of Attack.
It's a very empowering moment. I suggest you try it. 😉
After that, I look at my organized story problems, and I start to find solutions.
Oh, the plot events are out of order? That's not a hard solution. You just rearrange scenes! And if you took the time to separate scenes with paperclips, it's even EASIER to do!
Hmmm, the character is feeling aimless and isn't driving the action? Woof. That's a harder fix. I will likely need a lot of brainstorming time to find a solution for that one. (Hint: It's probably because her desire isn't desperate enough.)
One by one, I work through my list o' problems, and one by one, I craft a master list of problems + solutions. And THAT is my Plan of Attack.
This list is your lifeline moving forward, and you are going to refer to this sucker a lot.
8. Apply Your Plan of Attack to the Notecards
I know you're sick of prep by now and just want to get on with the revising already, but I promise: when you're halfway through and losing track of all the crud that needs fixing, you'll be so glad you did all this pre-revision set up. Because instead of having to wade back through to get your bearings, you'll just look at your handy-dandy Plan of Attack checklist and go, "Yup! We're on track, and fixing the backstory is next on the list!"
They way that I get organized in this phase is to take my scene notecards and write on them what needs fixing in each scene.
I list everything. If a character has a weak arc and appears in this scene, I'll write, Fix X's arc. If I'm trying to cure an infodump by spreading out information, I'll write, Good place for Y info here? Or if I know that this scene is way too slow, I'll write, TIGHTEN!
Sometimes, I'll fill a notecard with all these notes. Other times, a scene is actually really solid, and I won't write a thing on its card.
**Pro Tip #3: If you really want to get organized, you can use different color pens for each type of problem. I like blue ink for plot problems, red for character, green for world building + setting, and orange for pacing.
I am sure some of you are thinking: this is so scientific, BARF. I am an artist, and all these steps and plans do not jive with my style.
Cool. I'm not going to argue with you! Do what works best for you...but...you could at least try this method once. Maybe...? I promise it's still supremely creative AND your muse has free reign. You're just doing a lot of the brainstorming and daydreaming up front. Then, when you dive into revise, it's a fast, methodical, bam-bam-bam kind of process.
FINALLY. The part you've all been waiting for. The part where you actually get to fix stuff.
There are two ways to go about this.
Option #1 involves fixing the story scene by scene. Option #2 involves fixing the story problem by problem.
There are pros and cons to each, so let's break them down.
Option #1: Fixing the story scene by scene. In this case, you will move from the beginning of your story to the end, addressing each scene as you reach it.
Starting with scene 1, you'll take your notecard with its checklist of what to fix, and you'll write those fixes directly onto the page of your printed manuscript.
If I am dealing with a large revision or rewrite, then this is the approach I will take. It allows me to keep track of what I just changed and move forward accordingly.
When I've fixed a problem on my notecard, I strike it through (SO SATISFYING!), and when I'm done with the whole card and scene, I move to scene #2.
Unfortunately, with this method, I tend to reach a point (somewhere in the muddy middle) where I lose track of things. I start to over-fix problems, like hitting character beats too often or repeating key backstory. Why? Because I revised early scenes a while back, and they've already faded from memory.
But that's okay, since you'll see in step 8, this can all be rectified. 😏
Option #2: Fixing the story problem by problem. In this case, you will jump around from scene to scene, addressing each problem in one fell swoop.
To follow this method, you need to be comfortable working out of order. That said, it is great for when you are NOT working with a big overhaul of story. This is for the "smaller" overhauls.
Why? First off, it allows you to keep track of everything you change very easily. You're fixing a character arc all at once, so there's no losing track of what you've already inserted/removed/tweaked.
Second off, you can quickly bypass scenes that don't need much changing.
So how does it work? Well, color-coding on your notecards will come in handy! But first take out your Master Plan of Attack. Look at the first BIG CHANGE, and then go through your notecards and find the scenes that have that change listed. Now pull out only those scenes of the manuscript.
Fix the problem. Mark it off your notecards and master list, and move on to the next big change.
Bam, bam, ba-bam!
10. Layer Back Through As Needed
No matter which method you end up using, you want to ALWAYS move from Big -----> Small. Macro problems are your first fix (plot, character, setting) and then you scale down to micro problems (pacing, word choice, flow).
This is where layering comes in. Frequently, I will do multiple revisions, working through the book and shrinking my focus each time.
Revision Round 1 will be the most intense, and I'll fix plot, character, and world. This frequently takes the most time, and it leads to the largest, most intense changes.
It also isn't polished at the end. So in Revision Round 2, I sharpen my gaze to the scene-level things like pacing and story circling. I'll also smooth out all the changes I made in Round 1, ensuring it's all moving at an acceptable rate and connecting well together.
My last layer-through, Revision Round 3, is for mixing up my word choice (we all have crutch words and phrases we use again and again!), tightening prose, and making it all as readable as possible.
This entire time, I work on the same printed manuscript! Yes, it can get messy and I frequently have to add in blank pages of printer paper to write on, but it saves me time in step 9.
11. Type In Changes
This is the most tedious, least fun part of the process. And it can take a LOT longer than you might expect. (It always takes me at least a full day or two longer than I think it will.)
That said, it's also a great chance to do one final edit. You can polish the prose you're typing in, cut things that now seem stupid, rearrange stuff for a better flow, etc.
Additionally, though this part makes my wrists ache and seems endless, it's actually not THAT bad. You'll have saved so much time by being organized and thorough in earlier steps -- plus, the previous steps are SO FUN to me -- that this is just a tiny blip in the grand scheme of it all.
A few tips to make this part easier:
Use one of these things to hold up your pages. It'll make your neck happy since you won't constantly be looking up and down.
Make sure you've got an ergonomic set up. I invested in an ergonomic mouse, and WOW it helped my wrist pain so much.
If a scene is massively gutted, it is faster to just TYPE THE WHOLE THING ANEW instead of trying to cut, insert, rearrange, etc. (I know from experience!)
Take breaks often. Walk, stretch, inhale big. It's easy (at least for me) to fall into an 8-hour stint of just type-type-type. Then I end the day feeling physically awful. So do as I say, not as I do.
Tackle this step in chunks. Unless you're just under a CRAZY deadline, there's no reason to get it all done in a few days! Space it out over a week, and in the non-typing times have fun brainstorming another project or just watching some Netflix. You've earned it. 😊
And there you have it. That is my rough and dirty guide to revising your novel (or any story!).
I hope it helps you get started, and feel free to answer this newsletter with any questions you might have!
Also, if you want to really, really, really learn how to revise and take a major deep dive into craft, I urge you to check out Holly Lisle's How to Revise Your Novel. It's expensive, but SO worth it. Back when I was an aspiring author, I learned more from that course than anything else I studied. Hands down. (And for the record, I'm not an affiliate or anything! I recommend it because I truly loved it.)
Thank you for reading, friends! And GOOD LUCK WITH YOUR REVISIONS!! You can do it! 💪
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