Monday, January 6, 2014

The Dreaded 8-Letter Word: Revision (And How to Do It)

This post was originally posted on Michael Pearce's blog on December 2, 2013. You can see the original post here.

With National Novel Writing Month behind us and that burst-of-life manuscript in-hand, many new writers ask themselves, “Now what?” What does one do with this novel now that it’s done?

It’s time to revise.

The art of revision is something I picked up bit by bit along the way, over the span of many novels. I learned a little here from books, a little there from conferences, a little more from writing groups, and a little everywhere from my undergraduate degree in English and editing.

What did I learn?

Revision isn’t easy. Even for an editor.

I used to revise my books all in one go—I’d read through my draft and fix everything at once: prose, characterization, plot holes, and so on. I wanted to get it done. And doing everything at once often made me lazy, made me put duct tape on problems that actually needed a new carburetor. Ultimately, my “finished” manuscripts were still wanting.

Revision takes time. And this is two-fold.

Time away from the book. Once that first draft is finished, put it down and walk away. Work on something else. Start chugging through your “to-read” list. Go on vacation. Basically, a first draft is like a bad fight with your boyfriend: once you two get some space, you can look at the problem(s) objectively. If you stay in the same room, the problem(s) will only escalate.

Time to make edits. You can’t revise everything in one pass. Be prepared to make multiple passes on your manuscript, with some cushion time between each one. Your first revision should focus on the big-picture things: plot holes, weak setting, character motivation, and the like. Focus on smaller things (a poorly-paced fight scene, for example) in the second pass. Save prose and proofreading for the end. There’s little more frustrating than editing your heart out on a chapter’s prose, only to have to scrap it later because it didn’t match Point A to Point B.

Revision is a social endeavor. No author can revise his book alone.

No matter how much space you and your manuscript take apart, there will always be mistakes you don’t
see, from awkward homonyms to misplaced technology (I have recently been guilty of both). Writers need critique partners. They need outside opinions. I personally have about nine or ten readers that I divide into two groups: the first is made of fellow writers who can help me nail the big problems with a book; the second is made of readers (and the occasional editor) who help me notice small discrepancies and poorly worded sentences.

If you’re worried about book/idea-stealing, then seek out readers from trusted friends or family. Or just do a poor man’s copyright and mail the manuscript to yourself beforehand (just don’t open it when it arrives). Though honestly, in most cases, the fear of having your ideas stolen are founded entirely in paranoia.

There’s nothing better than finishing a book . . . except when you actually finish it. Careful revising not only strengthens your story, it boosts your confidence. In the publishing world, writers must be their own salesman, and the better your product, the better your chances of success.


  1. Revision is tough but reaching the finish line is amazing.

  2. Revision, going through that manuscript at least a half dozen times before it gets into the hands of your editor. By the time a story is published, how many times has an author read it? At least enough times that when it comes out in print (or ebook) they're not tempted to read it again...especially when there's another writing project to finish.

  3. Great post on Revision. I usually do half a dozen passes. At least. There's just so much to be done, and you just can't do it all at once.

  4. Your comparison of stepping away from the first draft like a couple needing to step away from each after a bad fight is very on point. That first draft is typically wrung out after moments of epiphany, pondering one's sanity or lack thereof, pouring out of the soul...just a whole lot of everything. Time apart gives a chance for more clarity when visiting that first draft again, some good sight into how to address things from the glaring plot holes to the better word choices.

  5. This is GREAT advice....and I love the comparison of the rough draft to having a fight! It's so true, and it's also part of why CPs are so helpful (just like the girlfriends we turn to when we're furious with our partners!). We need perspective, badly. Thanks for all of the great tips!


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