How to Revise Your Novel

Posted on January 13 2016 in for writers

We've talked about how to plot your novel and how to write faster first drafts, but once you've written your first draft ... What's next?

How to Revise Your Novel: Learn the difference between editing and revising, and get a step-by-step plan to help you survive revisions. Click through for the post >>>>>

Your rough draft is meant to be rough. To get to The End, you’ve likely ignored plot problems, grammar, and anything else that prevented you from writing quickly. That’s a great way to get your first draft, but now you’re left with a very messy manuscript. This is why we revise and edit.

Revising vs. editing

Writers throw around the terms “revising” and “editing,” and it’s important to know how they’re related, and how they’re different.

Both revising and editing are ways to address problems in your manuscript, but they are like two different lenses you can use to look at your manuscript. Revising is the big picture lens. When you revise, you’re addressing novel-wide issues, problems, tasks, or questions. Editing is the micro lens. When you edit, you address sentence-level issues like sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation.

Revising isn’t re-writing

I started writing novels seven years ago. At first, revising meant I re-wrote sections of my manuscript over and over. Honestly, I can’t even tell you how many times I re-wrote the first 300 words of my first manuscript. I thought that if I wrote a perfect paragraph or chapter, then the rest of the manuscript would fall into place.

It took me four years to realize that revising isn’t about perfection, it’s about improving your manuscript one step (or problem) at a time. Sometimes, it will mean making your manuscript look a lot worse before you can make it look better. Worry about perfection later, when you’re editing your manuscript, or getting ready to query or publish.

Now, I’m starting the seventh (or eight?) round of revisions on one of my manuscripts. Although I have learned quite a bit about revising and I get better with every manuscript, there is still so much to learn. My approach to revisions may not be the best approach for you, but I do hope you find it helpful.

If you are a revisions rockstar, then definitely jump in the comments on this post to share your favorite or tried and tested approach to revising!

Okay, friends. Let’s jump in.

Revising your novel is hard, but it's manageable with a plan.

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1. Set aside your manuscript.

Before you do anything, set your project aside. My rule is a minimum of two weeks, but a month would be better. What you want is to distance yourself from the story. It will help give you a fresh perspective, which will be essential for spotting plot problems.

2. Read it and make a list.

Now that you have some distance, read through your manuscript from start to finish. At the end of each chapter, try to jot down any big picture problems that stand out to you. Now is not the time to worry about grammar, word choice, or any small-scale mistakes and errors. Focus on the story as a whole. Are there things that don’t make sense? Is there enough conflict? Do your characters have arcs (do they grow or change)? What could improve?

Writer tip

I like to read my manuscript on my Kindle (you can email your document to your Kindle address) because it helps me stay in the reader mindset - if I read on my computer I’ll be tempted to fix things and make changes. Others prefer to print our their manuscript. You can also read your manuscript out loud, although I find this most helpful for finding smaller plot problems (awkward dialogue, missing words, mis-used words, etc.). Find what works best for you, and remember: right now your goal is to find and list your plot problems, not fix them.

3. Jot down your favorites.

Take a moment now to write down your absolute favorite things about your story. Try to be kind and generous, as though you were commenting on a friend’s manuscript. Trust me, revisions are difficult, and having a little note of positive things about your manuscript will help keep you going when you’re struggling.

How to Revise Your Novel: a step-by-step plan to help you survive revisions

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4. Prioritize.

Take your list of plot problems and order them from biggest to smallest, or most important to least important. Try to group together plot problems when possible. For example, if you listed numerous problems related to one character (“poor motivation in chapter two,” “why did he do X at the climax,” etc.), those problems likely fall under a bigger umbrella (“character X needs stronger goal, motivation, conflict throughout”). When you group them together, you can make sure you address the larger problem in addition to the smaller problems.

5. Make a copy.

Before you make ANY changes to your manuscript, make a copy. There is always the possibility that you won’t like the changes you make, and you will want the option to revert to your previous version.

You can save a copy in Google Docs, upload it to Dropbox, or save it in a folder in Scrivener. Always back up your work to more than one location. It might sound like overdoing it, but losing your work is no fun.

6. Revise.

Okay, now we dive into our revisions. With your list at hand, start from the top (biggest, or most important). Make changes and mark off each item once you’re done. This is by far the most challenging step. Use your list to keep you focused. When you find new problems that need to be addressed, make a new list. You have the option of adding those items to your current list, but I encourage you to keep the new list separate and tackle those items in a new round of revisions.

7. Get feedback.

Find a trust-worthy reader to read your manuscript and give you feedback. With an early reader you simply want a sanity check. Does the story have potential? What are the best parts? Later, you can share your work with critique partners or beta readers for more detailed feedback.

Any time you share your manuscript, make sure you communicate exactly what kind of feedback you want. You will have varying needs throughout the writing and editing process, and you can make the most of your — and your reader’s — time by being clear about your expectations.

For example, after your first round of revisions, you might want someone to read it and tell you what they love about the story (not point out grammatical mistakes or nit-picky details or even tell you negative things because you might break down and cry). But after your third or fifth round of revisions, you need to hear what is and isn’t working and that nit-picky reader will be extremely helpful.

When you get feedback, you can create a new list of items to consider, then pick and choose which to add to your list of revision items.

8. Repeat steps 2 - 8 as necessary.

For each read through , your list of “big problems” will start to include smaller items, too. That’s great. I encourage you not to focus on the smaller problems in your first rounds of revisions for a couple of reasons. First, when you’re revising you’re going to toss out and add scenes; you don’t want to edit a scene to perfection if you’re only going to have to delete it. Second, revising and editing are challenging tasks, and you don’t want to burn out. Once you’ve addressed the bigger problems, then start fixing smaller problems.

Those are my tips for navigating your revisions. I’d love to hear your thoughts on revising. Is there a step you’d add, or an approach you’ve found helpful?

Photo credit: Death to Stock

P.S. You might also like How to Set Reasonable Writing Goals and How to Get in the Writing Zone.

P.P.S. I talk more about writing and revising in my emails for writers. Sign up now and I’ll send you my Novel Writer’s Story Workbook! Click the image below to get started.

I talk more about my writing & revising process in my emails for writers. Sign up now and I'll send you my Novel Writer's Story Workbook!