5 Ways To Tackle Revisions
Many of us are in the thick of National Novel Writing Month, commonly known as NaNoWriMo, and hope to have most or all of the rough draft of a book finished by the end of the month. Even if you’re not, you probably have a manuscript lying around in some stage of completion that you’ve been avoiding. And most writers do. Revising after that initial dump of creativity is hard, and it’s difficult to know where to begin refining your beloved dumpster fire into the brilliant gem it’s destined to become. But there’s a few techniques you can use as a starting point when facing this seemingly insurmountable task, and I’d like to share them with you here.
This may seem obvious, but continuity is everything in making your story credible to readers, and it’s the first thing I look for when reading back through my writing. But it’s not easy to keep track of where everyone and everything is at all times on top of maintaining exact details about the characters and settings. I’ve actually read published books by big name authors that still had major continuity issues, so it’s well worth it to make sure you’re being consistent. You can’t expect an editor to be able to track the specifics of your story like you can, and fixing a continuity error can reveal the need for changes that will affect your story on a larger scale.
For me, logical fallacies are my second largest problem when facing down a rough draft. It’s not uncommon for me to unearth situations that are straight up impossible according to the rules of the story or reality itself. I’ve also found scenes where the events run contrary to my characters’ goals and motivations or introduce red herrings that I never resolve, so make sure you’re researching and verifying that everything happening is in fact possible and makes sense. This is also the time to check that each character and scene you’ve included are even necessary. Ask yourself, does this progress the plot in a crucial way? Will the story ultimately be different if it’s taken out? The answer may surprise you.
Outline and Synopsis
If you’re having a hard time keeping the entire story in your head while checking for continuity and logical consistency, it can be helpful to draft a rough outline or even write the synopsis of your book. This allows you to see how the plot progresses from start to finish from a bird’s eye view and reveals how each chapter and scene leads into the next. If you’re still struggling to know what to change and what to cut, it can also help to establish what the purpose of each scene is, what part of the plot or subplot it builds on, and what the characters’ specific motives are so you can make sure those are all developing properly every step of the way. I’ve had to rewrite entire scenes and rethink how plot points connect after stepping back and getting a more holistic viewpoint of my story, so although outlines and synopses take time you may not think you have, they can be useful revision tools, plus then you’ll have a leg up when you begin querying agents and publishers who often ask for these as part of the submission process.
Cut the Bloat
Once you’ve made sure the overall nuts and bolts of your story are working, it’s time to start revising on a closer level. Although it hurts to chop out those favorite lines and hard-won words, it’s true that “in writing you must kill all your darlings,” as William Faulkner famously said, to make your story the best it can be.
Here’s a checklist of questions to get you thinking about your story on an objective level:
- Are you getting right to the point in each sentence, paragraph, scene, and chapter or do you beat around the bush with empty phrases and details?
- Do you begin chapters with unnecessary lead-in or exposition that can be removed?
- Do your chapters end with a summary or conclusion when they can end in the middle of the action instead?
- Are you including descriptions of your characters’ mundane, everyday actions that can be skipped to get to the significant, and therefore interesting, events?
- Is your dialogue full of transitions, small talk, or filler?
- Do you lecture or overexplain in your narrative or dialogue?
- Are you repeating phrases, actions, or sentence structures?
- Does every adjective and adverb really need to be there?
- Are you relying on passive helping verbs like “was” and “had” when you can switch them out for strong action verbs instead?
- Have you checked for grammar, typoes, and other mechanics using a professional style guide such as The Chicago Manual of Style?
There are a hundred other ways you can look at your writing to refine it into its best version, but the long and short of it is you should trust that you don’t need to explain things multiple times, crop out pointless padding, and don’t use three words when one would work better.
Get Some Breathing Space
Once you’ve revised your manuscript until you’re happy with it, the best thing you can do is let it sit for a while even though you’ll be eager to start submitting queries immediately. As Neil Gaiman said, “[P]ut it away until you can read it with new eyes. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.” In the meantime, you can benefit from writing or editing something else or advance your skills by reading others’ work, whether it’s published works or manuscripts from a critique partner or writing group.
You might also consider turning to beta readers or professional editors to give you a new perspective. I’ve actually gone through several rounds of beta readers on my most recent manuscript now and they’re still pointing out new places I can address to tighten up the story. It’s time consuming and can be expensive, but having fresh pairs of eyes analyze your pages is essential since it’s so easy to become blind to the flaws in your own work.
Revision is never an easy endeavor, and it can be tempting to give up before you’ve even started. But remember that even the most difficult tasks can be accomplished by breaking them into smaller, more attainable steps that use your time efficiently. Rather than line-editing sections that may not remain in the final version, focus on the large-scale changes that need to be made. Then you can work your way down to the final polishing steps once the big picture is ironed out. It will take a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to make it to the end of your revision journey, but never forget that you love your story. If you keep that passion while you revise, it will shine through in the final product, and someday you’ll be able to release your book into the world to share with an audience who loves it as much as you do.