As an editor, I’ve seen manuscripts in varying states, from almost perfect first drafts (L. M. Bryski’s Book of Birds) that only needed light revisions and proofreading, to garbage fires of already-published works that should be completely rewritten (after a great deal of soul-searching and sensitivity training).
When I wrote my first novel in 2006, a romantic suspense entitled Perfect Words, I had no concept of revisions. I queried a greatly-flawed first draft and didn’t listen to my friends’ feedback about its plotholes. It wasn’t until I started writing again in 2014 I began to research and learned that “great novels are not written, but re-written” (I don’t recall who said that).
All writers need to sit down knowing that your first draft is merely a skeleton, not an entire body. When you complete that first draft, I recommend setting it aside for a few weeks and working on something else. If you’re still in the zone and don’t want to put it aside, that’s OK as well, but accept that it means you’ll have to go through this step twice:
This seems obvious, but let me clarify: Read through the entire manuscript all at once. As writers, yes, we’ve read our manuscript a million times! But those reads are generally piecemeal, and so that we can continue writing, so it’s never a complete read-through. I recommend putting it aside, because you’re less likely to get bored or gloss over details.
Many others recommend going through strictly as a reader, not a writer or an editor, but I personally would not be able to do that. I recommend as you reread, pick at any typos you find, repetitive words or phrases, inconsistencies, etc. This makes a cleaner draft for your alpha and beta readers.
But it’s probably not time for an editor yet.
After you reread your first draft, you may feel the need to revise it a bit. Remember to reread again (at least those scenes), because revisions are also a great time for typos to sneak in when you least suspect them. When you finish these revisions, or if you don’t feel compelled to revise just yet, send your manuscript to your beta readers. After you receive their feedback and chew on it for a few days, then it is time for revisions.
Revisions come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, whether it is adding a scene to explain
something, adding sensory details throughout, or fleshing out your side characters. Besides listening to feedback, I recommend reading articles, such as what makes characters come to life, why readers quit books, and how to write a good chapter ending, as well as author interviews. You never know where inspiration will come from.
Aside: One of the best articles I’ve read was how a writer based a character on her high school bully. The character turned out flat and one-dimensional. In fleshing the character out, the writer began to feel sympathy and pity for her former nemesis. This helped me develop the character of Witt in COLOSSUS.
To tackle revisions, I recommend making a check-list of assignments. For example:
- Add sensory details
- Add characterization
- Make dialogue sound more natural
Skim through your draft and indicate places you need to make these changes (if they’re big changes), or just change them. For COLOSSUS, I printed out a draft and used differently-colored highlighters for each assignment, wrote the revisions out on paper, then added them to the draft.
NOW it is time to send your manuscript to an editor.
After you receive your editor’s feedback, make the revisions you agree on, then sit on the rest for a few days, maybe even weeks, then reread and revise again. The distance will help you look at your manuscript less as a baby you need to preserve and more as something you wish to cultivate. (I actually recommend taking two weeks to a month between all of these steps, but I know enthusiasm rarely allows that.)
OH MY GOD PLEASE NO DON’T MAKE ME REWRITE THIS THING
OK, I won’t. But it needs to be acknowledged as an option, and sometimes the best path to take. You may even do this in lieu of extensive revisions. *GASP*
Rewriting has two ends of a spectrum:
- Throw away the original manuscript and start over again with the same idea.
- Literally re-write, almost word-for-word, including your improvements.
Most rewriting will be some form between these, such as consulting the original draft on occasion, but using fresh words.
Rewriting is not as daunting as it sounds, nor is it as time-consuming as writing the first draft, or even the entire revision process outlined above.
I first realized rewriting was a viable option when I was finishing up Phoenix Rising – FLINT RANCH. I wrote each scene freestanding, and not in chronological order, so when I put them all together, it felt disjointed and inconsistent (Jed’s dialect, Thatch’s personality, etc). After beta readers and my editor read it, rather than attempt to fit a square peg into a round hole, I decided to rewrite it, almost word-for-word, to smooth it out. Since it was only 17k words at the time, it was an easy endeavor, but made me realize how beneficial the method is. The end result was almost-perfect and published soon thereafter. (Most readers say FLINT RANCH is better than COLOSSUS by far.)
Two Guns is in a similar situation where it is disjointed, and it feels like there is too much going on. I’ve decided, rather than hack at it until it resembles a publishable story (which is what I’ve already done), I’m going to completely rewrite it, using method #1. This is my April Camp NaNoWriMo project, and I will keep y’all posted on my progress.
After all this, of course, send it out to some fresh beta readers. Nothing compares to fresh eyes.
Do you have any other advice on the revision process? Drop your tips in the comments below, regale us with your revision battles, or give a shout-out to your editor!
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