story revision

How to revise the early drafts of your novel

Nobody wants to scale the stony gray wall of revision. Nobody. Not even those crazy Spartan racers. (You go, Spartans.) A novel revision stares you down with the same inscrutable gaze of a blinking cursor on a blank page. How on earth should you begin? You start rereading your manuscript. Something’s misfiring; you can hear it, but darned if you know what it is. Meanwhile, you fiddle with the dialogue in this scene and you add more description in that one—and suddenly it’s been weeks with no significant headway on your revision.

Revising the early drafts of your novel has nothing to do with skimming through the manuscript looking for random creepy-crawlies to squash. Don’t waste time scrabbling through it to count how many times you used a form of to be. What you need is a methodical strategy for uncovering deeper issues.

Let’s talk about how to tackle revising your story using a strategy that helps you methodically spot and repair weak spots.

Lower the heat to a simmer

The number one obstacle to effective self-revision is insufficient time away from your manuscript. The adrenaline rush of completing your first draft whips you into a frenzy. You’ve crossed the finish line! You’re ready for editing! Your book could be on the shelf in just weeks!

Slow down there, bucko.

As pumped as you may be to push to publication, the very first thing you should do with a finished manuscript is put it away. Don’t look at it for weeks—months, if you can stand it. Let it simmer while you take time away from the page and regain perspective. Go ahead, watch some movies and read some books. Get outside. Recharge your creative batteries.

If you’re itching to maintain some forward momentum, this is a good time to search for the right editor. You’d be smart to get on the schedule sooner rather than later; good editors book up quickly. Besides, once you get into revisions, nothing keeps you on track like an editing deadline.

But first, you owe it to your book to get away from it long enough that you can return with a completely fresh eye. You’ll need that perspective to spot where your story jumps the track and where it needs further development. And that’s where these self-critique checklists come in.

The value of task-specific revision passes

The first priority of early revisions is to strengthen your story. Most inexperienced authors get stuck in a Möbius loop of trivial edits. They dig up lists of weak words and phrases to avoid and spend hours needlessly tweaking perfectly serviceable sentences—perfectly serviceable, that is, except that they don’t actually drive or deepen the plot.

Effective revision is a methodical, step-by-step process. You’ll make multiple passes—so many, in fact, that you’ll find yourself rolling your eyes at authors who can tell you which draft they’re currently working on. Revision is a process, not a number.

Making each pass with a specific goal in mind helps you work efficiently and effectively. Separate passes are your friend. They’ll help you stay focused through thousands of words you’ve read over and over again.

Use a story revision checklist

Effective revision tackles a manuscript piece by piece: plot, conflict, dialogue, point of view, and so on. You’ll eventually look at spelling and grammar too—but first, it’s time for the heavy lifting of plot, character development, and conflict.

The best way to stay on task during revision is to follow a checklist.

While it’s helpful to knock the rust off by tackling a few simple fixes, don’t start fiddling with small bits before you’ve repaired larger issues. Tackle plot-level issues first. Don’t start deleting, rewriting, and adding scenes until you’ve resolved plot issues and you know where you’re headed. Move from the plot level to the chapter and scene level before you start polishing things like dialogue.

Oh, and before you get started, make sure you have version control under your thumb.

How to tell if something’s wrong

So when you’re reading along early in your revision process, how can you tell if something’s not working?

How to fix specific issues

If I had to recommend a single resource to help with both storytelling and writing issues, it would be Beth Hill’s The Magic of Fiction. This book is a worthwhile investment for your author’s reference shelf.

These articles can also help you tackle many common revision tasks.

After story revision

When you can’t bear to look at your manuscript one more time, broaden your scope. Critiques and workshopping help you spot issues you couldn’t see from your own perspective.

It’s all very well to ask a few trusted friends or family members to read your book—those are your alpha readers, your very first outside eyes on your pages. But it takes peer review to give you the impartial feedback to help you spot where the creative ideas in your head don’t quite match the story you’ve put on the page. Here’s how to find a critique partner or group.

Revision begins before your manuscript ever goes to the editor, and it picks up between every step of the publication process. The more chances you take for a fresh look at your book, the more chances you’ll get to improve it. Take every shot at editing and revision you can. This is the editing and revision process many of my clients follow. Adapt it to fit your own budget and needs.

This article was originally published in 2016.

Lisa Poisso, Editor and Book Coach

Understanding how stories work changes everything. I’ll show you how to back up your creative instincts so your ideas hit home. It’s time to accelerate your journey from aspiring writer to emerging author. 

Ready to get serious about your book? Apply to work with me.

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