The magic happens in revision.
Finishing a draft of a novel is like finishing your last training run for a marathon. Its a a huge accomplishment! You’ve dedicated months, (or maybe even years!) to show up daily, put in the work, and make the choice every agonizing day to get it done. It can feel like you’ve crossed the finish line.
The only problem?
You haven’t actually finished the race yet. Your story isn’t finished. It needs to be revised.
The idea of revision can evoke a lot of different emotions in writers, but regardless of your feelings toward it, you need to do it. (At least if you plan on sharing the story with anyone ever.) And after writing every gut wrenching word of a first draft, it can feel like torture to go back and face the music.
But you did all the training, now it’s time to show up and toe the starting line.
Revision is your race.
I’m currently in the middle of revisions for a YA contemporary novel that I hope to query in a few months. For me, revision is both a blessing and a curse. The promise of revision is what gets me through tough days of drafting, when my writing is trash and I don’t know what I’m doing, because I know that I will be revising later and will fix it. That takes the pressure off of drafting.
But revision is also a challenge because you need to take off your writer hat and put on your reader hat. This is very difficult to do, at least for me because it can feel like every scene and every word is important and precious. The fact is, it’s not. There are a lot of useless words, and possibly useless scenes that don’t move your story forward, but you spent a lot of time on them and it can be hard to let them go.
I’m not an expert on revision, but let me share a least some of the tips I’ve learned along that way, that can help you as you begin revising. These steps are in a specific order on purpose. Complete them in order and take your time!
1. Set it Aside
Recommended by just about every writer and editor, you need to take a break from the manuscript and get some distance. Stephen King recommends 6 weeks, but I honestly need longer. Seriously, it can take me 2 months to finish a first draft and 6-8 months before I look at it again. (You don’t have to wait that long, nor should you. That’s just me.) The point is to take a break from it, get some distance so that when you ready to circle back to it, you can view your work with fresh eyes.
2. Read it Through
(Deep breath, and here we go.) You need to read your manuscript (without editing) once through. Preferably in one sitting. The point of this is not to start editing and revising, but to get reacquainted with your story and your characters. Will you see glaring mistakes and plot holes? Yes. But don’t start revising yet. Just read it through and get a sense of this book that you’ve written and maybe even forgotten certain details about.
3. Focus on Structure First
Once you’ve read through the draft, it time to start looking at the big picture. This might be the hardest and longest step of the process because it is in this step you address all the structure issues. Things like, plot, character development, conflict, and voice. Don’t worry about specific scenes or even things like punctuation (yet). Just focus on getting the structure of the story to a place where it makes sense, and hits all the parts of a well written story. Do you start in the right place? Does you character have clear goals and motivations? Are the stakes high enough, but also realistic to the story? Does the character transform? These are things to address as you work through the structure of the book.
4. Get Feedback
Once the big picture issues are dealt with and resolved, it’s time to bring in some feedback.
You might be thinking: Wait– what? It’s not done! I haven’t fix all the bad writing yet!
Hear me out.
Getting feedback now, before you start on all the scenes and grammar issues and work and rework every chapter, I want you to get a second (and third and fourth, etc.) opinion. Why? Because why waste all the time revising a scene you end up cutting because it doesn’t further your plot in any way? Getting feedback from a group of trusted readers can help you figure out if you’re ready to move on to lower level revisions or if you need to go back to the big picture of your story and revise the structure again. I wouldn’t recommend an editor at this point, (unless you’re a published author already working with an editor) but I do recommend a critique partner, a writing mentor, or some well-read friends.
5. Make it Pretty
If, after feedback, you feel you story structure is solid, now is the time to make it pretty. Fix all the lagging scenes or weak writing. Find all those pesky adverbs and replace them with more active and clear vocabulary. Fix the pacing of different scenes as you need to. Go ahead and clean up the grammar mistakes as you see them. Delete the useless words. This is where you make your writing sparkle.
6. Final Touches and More Feedback
Once you tackled all the lower level revisions, this is where you might hire editor or share again with your critique partner(s). One more final time to get an unbiased opinion on your writing and apply that feedback to make you story even better. Once you have that, make any necessary changes and clean up and further grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes. Once all that is finished, you have yourself a final draft ready to publish, submit, or query.
Currently, I’m finishing up step number three and will be sending it to a handful of readers who have agreed to give me feedback on the structure and big elements of the story. Once I have their feedback, I’ll use it to either continue on to number 5, or go back and work on the structure some more.
Revision can feel like a massive, insurmountable race, but don’t get discouraged. You’ve done the legwork and training in preparation for this. Just put one foot in front of the other, step after step and you will get there.
I want to add one more reminder here: you are not on a timetable. It doesn’t matter if revision takes you a couple of a months or a couple of years. So banish the feeling of rush you may have to finish this and get it out into the world. Patience is a huge part of writing, so take a deep breath and slow down. Do the work and get it right.
What are your favorite revision tips? Let me know in the comments!