Friday, May 22, 2009

Thoughts on Revisions

Having just completed the fifth version of my current novel, a major overhaul that added some 15,000 words while cutting thousands, I thought I'd talk a bit about the process, and some of the lessons I think I've learned.

Remember that revisions are not the same as edits. To revise is to change the story (improving or correcting), while to edit is to prepare the work for publication, cleaning it up to fix grammar and spelling.

The Revision Process Scott Uses(TM)

1. Ignore your novel! That's right, set it aside for a month. I know that seems like forever; I know that having just finished a draft, especially the first draft, you're wanting to look over your handiwork and start polishing. Don't. Not yet. You need to leave it alone and forget as much as you can about the story. Why? You want to get some sort of critical distance, to be able to come back to it fresh, to have your next look at the novel be as much like that of a first-time reader as possible. Some people advise setting the book aside for a year while you write the first draft of your next book. Those people are likely insane, well-meaning as they may be. I don't have that sort of patience. So I suggest at least a month and no less.

It is perfectly acceptable to have other people read the book during this phase, but don't read their comments until you're ready to look at the book yourself.

2. Read it, don't revise it! I recommend actually printing the whole thing out, either as double-spaced ms or in any format you like. For early drafts of my book, I actually went through the trouble of having a copy printed up via, bound like a real book, so I could read it on the bus or at work, like it was any other novel I'd picked up. The idea is to approach it purely as a reader, to get a feel for your work as a story, not as a project you're working on. So just try to read it and not fuss with it at all. However, I recommend you make notes as you go along. Keep track of:

a) Things that you love
b) Things that you hate
c) Things that bore even you, the author
d) Things that make no sense
e) Things that are simply mistakes, like continuity errors
f) Whatever else strikes you as an issue

See if the story works. See if the plot works. See if your book holds your interest, getting you to turn the pages.

3. No line-editing! It's okay to fix spelling errors here and there, but revisions are the process of fixing the elements of the book, not the grammar. The first thing you want to deal with are the problems with plot, setting, character, pacing and theme. Sometimes those fixes will entail massive changes to your prose, and you waste time correcting grammatical mistakes in paragraphs you're going to delete later.

4. Fix one thing at a time! What's the worst problem your book has? Focus on that and make your repairs. Don't let yourself get lost in the revision process. Make a list, and refer to it. Look at the book as a whole, and take the long view of structure, texture, character and so on. Prioritize your layers of revision.

5. Keep moving! Don't get bogged down. Once you've fixed one problem, start over and fix the next one. Sometimes several problems and their solutions are intertwined and you'll have to work on multiple issues at the same time, but still you should concentrate on discrete tasks, and move on from one to the next.

6. Done? Time to read it again! The revision process, ironically enough, introduces errors while eliminating others. It's evil magic. But odds are, if you've made significant changes to plot or your prose, you'll have created orphaned sentences, accidentally deleted whole paragraphs you meant to keep, and renamed characters by mistake. This stuff happens. But now you get to do that line edit I wasn't allowing you to do earlier. I hate line edits. They make my eyes cross and my brain melt.

I would be very interested to hear if anyone else has a revisions method or formula they've had success with. (That's your cue to chime in.)


  1. Scott - I am revising now...I followed the advice that you gave me before. I stayed away for a month, then printed it out and read it. I made notes along the way, and caught some crazy stuff. I'm ready to make changes now, and I feel in control for the first time. GREAT advice!!

  2. I have yet to come anywhere near a revision process, but I LOVE this list of yours! I think #1 and #2 seem most important. I have a very bad habit of revising almost as I go along. I often threaten to yank the backspace button from my keyboard and tape a zapper in it's place. Oh well. Thanks for the suggestions!

  3. A month? I thought you told me two weeks. Whether by impatience or wisdom, I know not, but I claim my first draft an exception to your rule. It's too darn short for me to treat it the same as full novel! Right? Please say I'm right. Ha ha.

  4. I find a month is great to catch the line edits, but for a big picture review, more than three months of total detachment is better.

    I have the greatest difficulty with just making that first "re-read" without getting bogged down in a whole lot of distractions like name changes.

  5. *Chiming In*

    Well, Scott, I must say that I follow a very similar revision process as you do. I refer to the "one thing at a time" as Layer Revisions. I have to think in layers. I have to think of every item on that list that you speak of as separate layers. Line editing is usually a final layer that can make a big change or not much of a change at all, depending on the depth of how I line edit.

    Like Shorty, I revise just a little as I go along during the first draft. But that's to make sure it's actually coherent. My writing process of a first draft can be pretty messy.

    So far, with my first novel, I've stepped away from it for about 7 months now. But it's on a 5th draft, so it's good on the back burner at the moment. I think I've read through that book about 25 times now. Yeah, I need a break from it.

    Now... Monarch? Well, I'm in the sitting it out phase at the moment. *grumbles and gripes*

  6. I follow pretty much the same format with my revisions. The distance is very difficult, but I always set the manuscript aside after the initial write, and after each revision process. The distance really helps.

    Trying to be more green, I try not to print out the whole manuscript any longer. I just can't justify the waste of paper, and the death of trees. SIGH. I wasn't always this green.

    Still, with the comment ability in Word, I can make my 'love, hate, needs work, brilliant' notations next to the paragraphs and still save a tree or two.

    Thanks for the post.


    p.s. do you ever sleep?

  7. I follow the same process. While I'm waiting, I write my next book (I write category length novels, so I can write a first draft in 4-8 weeks.)

    Then I print out and read the entire book without making any changes. Next, I attack the big issues. This may take three rounds of revisions. Line edits come next. I read the entire book out loud, then I send chapters to critique partners. When I get the results, I revise again.

    So nice to see my method isn't madness!

  8. Justus: I quote from an email of 5/18. "You should let the first draft stew for at least a month"

    So, like, a month. Chill out.

    Scott: I know it's not 'green' to print out reams of paper, but I just cannot write/revise/edit on a computer. I hate reading on a computer, I hate writing at a keyboard and I hate Word(tm) and all other word processing programs. I like paper and pens.

  9. 5/14: "Even if your first draft is only 30k words, you should let it stew for a couple of weeks."

    Boom! Now you'll have to argue with me before you can help me. I joketh. But it's strange that I couldn't find the 5/18 e-mail you mentioned; I found three other e-mails for that day, and I even remember the phrase you quoted. Hmm, I don't likes it.

    Alright, I guess my story can wait a month. Oh, man. Grumble! Now I gots nothing to show for the AWC. They're all going to laugh at me.

  10. In his book ON WRITING, Stephen King also suggests shelving your manuscript for a while when you finish it.

    I printed a copy of my first draft with and read it on vacation. It was a cool feeling, holding a real book and knowing I wrote it. Then I would hit godawful passages and I struggled with the temptation to chuck it into the pool. But then I would read something that was well written and engaging, and it drew me back in, kind of like the one good shot out of 109 that keeps me playing golf.

    My problem with revisions is getting bogged down. I need to take your advice and keep moving...

  11. This is a great step-by-step process that I do in a very haphazard way. I'm going to try to be more organized about my revising. I love the idea of printing your book and reading it just like any other book.


  12. This is an awesome post, one I will have to link to it in my own blog. I can't say I have such a well organized process myself (who am I kidding, I have no process), so this is a good point to start from. Thanks for helping people like me see what others do to get through this stuff.

  13. Although Scott and Justus have cleverly disguised it as banter, I think a good point has been made between them. A month is a fairly arbitrary length of time. I really support taking a break from your work, but the length of that break depends on how long it takes your brain to let go of the work and forget about it. It's possible that it would only be a week, or it may take you a year before you can really see it. I also don't think the break needs to necessarily happen after an early draft. My goal in the beginning is to get all the emotion down that I can, as well as all those points of inspiration. My disorganized writing process doesn't always allow for that in my first draft, so I'll write a few drafts until I feel like I've gotten every down on paper. But, the break, at some point, is essential.

    Scott, While I also agree with your no line-editing rule, I admit that I can't do that myself. I actually have to line-edit first because typos will distract me from being able to read through the whole thing. So, even though I know large chunks of words will change, I take the time to go through and line edit rough drafts because that's the only way I can then read for content. There's this episode of X-files where it's revealed that Vampires get distracted by untied shoes, even when they're chasing after someone, but I'm rambling.

    Other Scott, I agree with you about wanting to be green. That's a problem for me, because I definitely edit better from a hard copy. I try to alternate now. I do as much as I can on the computer, but at some point I need to print it out.

    Lulu is a great idea. I've thought about it often, but then I tell myself my work isn't worth the effort. How self-destructive is that?

  14. Davin: The method I've given is, admittedly, a sort of Platonic ideal. I've spent hours (or days) fighting with a single stubborn sentence or word choice that caught my eye when I should've been working on straightening out a particular subplot. That's why I try to forbid myself from doing line edits while revising, because it was really hard to get back into the rhythm of the revisions. But still, I get distracted as easily as the next person.

    I agree that the length of the "cooling period" will vary from writer-to-writer and also from book-to-book. Each of us has to figure out what works for us. I break my own rules all the time, but I do think it's helpful to have a set of guiding principles; otherwise it's just sort of a random process without any set goals and not much in the way of real results.

    As Litgirl says, this approach is designed to give you control over the novel, a real direction in the next phases of the work. It's an opportunity to have moments of shining clarity. Who doesn't want that?

  15. Davin: I forgot to say that is great. It's easy to waste huge amounts of time laying out the book and designing the cover, but it's also something to do while letting the book cool between drafts. And, you know, you have a nicely bound copy of your masterpiece to read provacatively in public places. Not only that, you can't very well stop and do a line edit in a bound copy. You have no choice but to sit and read!

  16. "I've spent hours (or days) fighting with a single stubborn sentence or word choice that caught my eye when I should've been working on straightening out a particular subplot."

    Oh, don't I know about fighting with unruly sentences and words. Don't I? I do. Do you? Sorry, just needed to played with Davin's head a bit. Ha ha. By the way, ever noticed how often I type "ha ha"? Surprisingly, I am amused at least that often.

  17. Rick: I think the hardest thing to remember when revision, and what stops us from moving on with the process, is that we often forget to decide why it is that we're revising. We don't go in with a plan, with a solution in mind; we just know something doesn't work and so we start hacking away at the book.

    It's important to identify the reasons something doesn't work, and to decide how to fix it. A lot of my revision process is simply sitting and thinking about what doesn't work and how to fix the problem. I make notes and push ideas around, but I don't tackle the big problems until I have a big solution. Knowing what I'm going to do lets me know when I'm actually finished doing it, and that tells me when I can/should move on to the next item on my list. So, to keep moving, we have to know where we're headed.

  18. Scott:That's exactly the problem I had with Monarch. I didn't know what the big problem was. Now that I have thought about it for about 5 weeks now, I'm close to being able to sit down and start fixing things. Davin has helped out a lot, and so have my other beta readers. It's amazing what others see that we can't, although in the end, we have to figure it out on our own.

    I agree that the time spent waiting is different for everybody, and even each book, as you say.

    I often feel like I'm twiddling my thumbs and being unproductive, when in reality, I'm mulling it all over in my head and figuring things out that I couldn't see if the manuscript was right in front of me.

  19. Michelle: "mulling it all over in my head and figuring things out that I couldn't see if the manuscript was right in front of me" Yes! That's it exactly.

  20. I like your approach. I have wasted so much time doing line edits for entire chapters that I have since cut. I wish I had known more about revising in the beginning. I would have saved myself a lot of time.

  21. Wow--I love the exclamation points--they made me feel very excited!

  22. First, I'd like to say that I admire the way this blog takes an issue and goes deeper into it in the comments section.

    Revision Method?

    It seems that when I first started revising, say the first year, it felt like revision.

    Now, it feels more like an ultra marathon or a hike down the west coast. You just keep going, and going. It's okay to stop, but you just keep going. You wonder when you will get there, but after a while you hardly even care. All there is is the pain of the hike and the determination to continue on. After awhile the pain no longer matters. There's just the view and the people you meet along the way.

    You know that some day you will either get there or quit. Step by step, you continue on, and then one day a strange thing happens. People start walking with you. They listen, they cheer, and they lighten your spirit. They help you continue on, and you help them.

    I don't know if you can call that a revision process. It's become a way of life.

  23. Dave:That's an interesting analogy. It does feel like that, I agree. But I think that the more experience we get under our belt the more efficient and familiar we become with our writing and the revision process that works for us specifically. Not only do we become better at knowing what works and what doesn't, but we know when we've reached the point where we can hand our work over to an editor or an agent or a publisher.

    At least, this has been what I've seen with other experienced published writers and professors from college. I am still relatively new in this novel-writing world. That coast is stretching pretty far!

  24. I'm currently working on the first draft of my latest WIP, and I think your first step to put aside the completed first draft for a month makes sense. I'm definitely interested in trying a method different from the way I edited and revised my first novel.

    Great post.

  25. I've been revising a TON lately. What I finally broke down and decided I had to do was plot out the character motivations (especially the villians) and then make an outline. Then, I went back and realized I had to delete 2,000 word chunks (which wasn't as disheartening as I first thought it would be) and add whole new chapters, fix spaces of dialogue that didn't make sense after the chunks were deleted, and yada, yada.

    Right now, I'm sticking to that darn outline and keeping everything in it in mind while I add new stuff and rearrange other things. And now, lo and behold, I'm finally feeling good about my writing. I finally feel as though I'm heading in the right direction---a feeling I didn't have before. The more right something feels when and as I'm writing it, the less I'll have to revise later on.

    And ya know, I think that's the key...plot, plot, plot, do an outline, know the story and your characters completely, THEN begin writing. If it feels right, keep writing it. If you have a not-so-good feeling while you're writing it or it deters from your outline, chunk it.

    That's what I'm slowly learning, anyway.


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