I’ve actually written about the read-through before — here and here — and will refer you to those pieces for some of the nuts and bolts stuff I like to do when revising a recently completed novel. I’ve also written before about developing your internal editor — another post you might find helpful as you rework your manuscript. Stuart has written extensively about revisions here and here and here. And finally, Catie covered similar ground in this post not all that long ago.
A couple of things should pop out at you as you look at the posts I’ve referenced here. First, when you read my approach and Stuart’s and then Catie’s you’ll notice that while there are some similarities in our processes, there are also marked differences. This is another of those MW patented “No-right-way-to-do-this” moments. I could point to posts by Faith and Misty and A.J. that touch on this topic, too. We approach writing and rewriting in different ways, but we all wind up with clean, readable stories. The second thing you should notice is that we at MW write about revising and self-editing quite a bit. Why? Because it is absolutely essential to good writing. So despite what I just said, this is decidedly NOT a “No-right-way-to-do-this” topic. I don’t usually make blanket statements, but I will here: You cannot be an effective and successful writer unless you learn to revise your own work. There are different approaches, to be sure, but this is not a part of the process you can ignore or give short shrift.
I handed in Thieftaker in April after doing the most thorough and exhaustive read-through and revise I’ve ever done. It wasn’t that the manuscript was in need of more repair than others I’ve completed — in point of fact it wasn’t. I am convinced that this is one of the best things I’ve written; I believe it could be a huge book for me. And that’s why I revised so diligently: I wanted to be certain that I had gotten it right, that I’d really nailed it.
Please keep in mind as you read the rest of this, that I took four weeks away from the book before I began the read-through, and as you might have noticed from last week’s “Writing Your Book” post, I’m not the only MW writer who will tell you that distancing yourself from your novel is a key part of the revision process.
I began the Thieftaker read-through by printing out the novel so that I could work off a paper copy rather than reading the book on my computer screen. I realize that in one of my past posts, I said something along the lines of “I sometimes do my read-throughs on the screen — I’ll print the book out if it needs a lot of work.” I regret saying that. I will never revise a novel on screen again. Reading a hard copy of the manuscript allows me to see so much more. It allows me to scribble in the margins and cross things out and in all ways attack what I’ve written. I believe that when I read and revise on the screen I gloss over more — it is (for me) a lazier approach. I recommend that you print out your work, too. If you simply can’t — no printer, not enough paper or ink, whatever — I would recommend that you follow this next piece of advice . . .
Once the book was printed, I then proceeded to read the entire manuscript — all 450 pages — aloud. It took me several days, and I wound up hoarse. But I found passages that looked good on paper but didn’t actually read all that well. To be honest, I’m not sure how that works — how a written phrase would sound so much more awkward when spoken. But it’s something I’ve noticed before. I also noticed words and expressions that I overused, turns of phrase that I fell in love with during the writing phase and that I went back to again and again. In a word (Faith’s word): Crutches. Reading my manuscripts aloud is something I’ve done for a while now, and it has made me a much better editor.
I then did a long, long series of universal searches for other crutches that my editor has pointed out to me in past manuscripts. “Smile”s, “nod”s, “gaze”s, and a bunch of others. I didn’t get rid of every one of them. Sometimes those words work — that’s how they become crutches in the first place. They work once or twice, and suddenly we’re going back to them again and again. But I did get rid of many of them, finding either that there were better, less lazy ways to convey what I was after, or that I was simply filling space and that [key phrase coming] Less was actually More.
You can tell from all of this that the “read-through” is actually far more than is sounds like. I use the term to describe the polishing stage of the book process. As I’ve said before, I want my novel to be as clean as possible when I hand it in to my agent and editor (or my beta readers). I want to clean up the stylistic and mechanical stuff so that they can focus their attention on more important matters.
And this brings me to the most important part of the read-through. Do not — DO NOT — kid yourself into thinking that, just because you have revised your work and caught lots of problems, your book is “finished.” As I mentioned at the outset, my read-through of Thieftaker was the most exhaustive I’ve ever done. And yet, this week I got comments back from my agent (the wonderful Lucienne Diver), and though she loved the book, she also found plenty of places where it needed work. And I agree with her on just about every one. You can only find so much when you read your own work. Creating that distance helps. So does reading the book aloud and editing on a paper copy. But the fact is that even once you’ve done all these things, you still remain too close to your own writing. You need other readers to tell you what works for them and what doesn’t. And you need to listen to their criticisms with an open mind and a willingness to see the faults in your creation.
None of us is perfect; no book is perfect. The read-through isn’t intended to to make a story or novel flawless. Rather, it is one step among many that, we hope, will help us make our work as good as it can be.
David B. Coe