You wrote a book and typed out those awesome, magical words “The End”, but it’s not actually the end of the work on the book. Far from it. Now that the first draft is complete, revisions have to occur.
The process of revising a book is different for everyone, as is the number of revisions the book will go through before it can be considered polished. (Honestly, from book to book this process can change.) Even those who edit as they write and might have a fairly ‘clean’ first draft will have revisions to do once the book is complete. And of course, even once the book is polished enough to submit, there will be more revisions down the line once an editor picks up the book, but I’m getting ahead of myself. This post is about those initial steps in revising.
I can’t tell you how to edit your book because everyone–and every book–is different. But I can tell you the way I approach revisions.
My first drafts tend to be fast and sloppy. I don’t stop to go back when I’m writing, so if I realize something has to change earlier in the story, I leave myself a note and move on. That typically means that by the time I finish the book, I have a lot of notes and in theory know some of the changes that will have to be made. Note that word some. Despite the fact I outline extensively before I start writing, the first draft still tends to be where I figure out what the heck is happening in my story.
If possible (and it isn’t always now that I have deadlines) I let the first draft sit at least two weeks before coming back to it so that I can view it with fresh eyes. Once the dust has settled, I read the draft in its entirety, just to see what is on the page. As I read, I make notes. Not in-line, nit-picky notes, but big picture stuff. This is a Macro edit–looking at the book as a whole. I usually run into some scenes that are so awful I cringe, but I also run into scenes that draw me in and I forget for a moment I’m supposed to be editing , or I run across scenes where I laid the foundation for a plot element I didn’t even plan to work with but now I can see where it would make the story so much stronger. Reading a first draft can be painful, and it’s sometimes hard not to jump in and start fixing stuff right away, but it is important to read through the whole book before making changes.
By the time I finish reading, I typically have a lot of notes. Things like: Such-and-such character is flat or goes through an abrupt personality change in chapter X; ABC plot line totally dropped; XYZ scene lacks tension; and so on. For the most part, everything I list in my notes affects the book as a whole or at least several scenes. This is the big stuff. I’m not going to slow down and make sure all the dialogue and descriptions are perfect at this point. I’m just focusing on the big issues. Thus once I’ve finished my assessment, determined how to address each problem and corrected them on the page, my second draft has turned the book into the story I actually want to tell. (Note, while I say second draft, this may actually take several passes.)
Once all the big picture changes are made, the manuscript should tell a complete story, plot lines should be followed through, the characters should develop properly, and there should be no major logic flaws. The story is looking pretty good–but don’t look too close because the writing doesn’t.
In the previous draft(s) I focused only on the big stuff, but now it is time to start the micro-edit. This is where I look for dialogue that flops, info dumps, listless or trite descriptions, and all around clunky writing. There wasn’t much point doing this in the previous draft as polishing chapter X until it shined only to realize that the chapter didn’t advance the plot and had to be cut would waste a lot of time and energy. But, now that my macro edit is finished, I have a pretty good feel for the book and it is time to make the writing shine.
At this stage, some writers will focus on only one aspect of a micro edit at a time. They might go through the book addressing all the dialogue or focusing just on how backstory and information is distributed. Others will make the entire edit one chapter at a time. It really depends on the writer and if focusing on everything overwhelms them, getting them stuck endlessly revising one chapter without moving forward.
Here are some tricks I’ve picked up over the years that can help when focusing on micro-editing scenes:
- -Read the dialogue out loud–just the dialogue; skip everything in between. You’ll be able to hear issues you might not notice when the action and narrative breaks up the dialogue. Some things to look out for include dialogue that doesn’t actually say anything, monologues, and characters answering questions that aren’t asked.
- -When looking at action scenes, pay close attention to cause and effect. Simply put, don’t have characters react before the event occurs. Sounds like a no brainer, but it is actually a very common mistake. Clauses and the word ‘as’ are often the culprit, but sometimes entire sentences can be out of order.
- -When analyzing descriptions, watch out for passages where everything and everyone is described, filling the page with endless solid blocks of text. That said, (and here is the tricky part) also look for scenes where absolutely nothing is described and the characters are featureless, naked, and wandering around empty space.
- -Backstory can often lead to info dumps, which completely stops the action and forward progression of the story. The best analogy I’ve ever heard on how to deal with backstory (and sorry, I don’t remember who said it) is to imagine the entire backstory written on a plane of glass. Then break the glass so it shatters into tiny slivers, each with just small bits of backstory. Slid those tiny slivers into your story.
Okay, anyway, once you’ve finished your micro-edit, your manuscript should look pretty well polished. So now you’re done, right?
Not exactly. Now that you have the story you want to tell and your writing has flare, it’s time to pass it on to critique partners or beta readers. I know it hurts to think that you went through all of this work already, you’ve polished until it shines, and now someone is going to point out all the flaws you missed.
And you did miss some.
Even once you finish your revisions based on the critique you receive, and you submit and get more revisions and finish those, you could still keep revising. Every word you write makes you a better writer and there is always a little more polishing you’ll discover you *could* have done (even after a book is in print). But there is a point in which you have to stop, step back, and work on a new project. If you’re published, that point is pretty much dictated by deadlines. If you’re not, that line can be rather hazy, sometimes preventing a writer from submitting or (on the opposite end) making them reluctant to drawer a project that has been submitted and revised to death.
My advice: make sure you’re telling the story you want to tell (macro edits), polish for flare (micro edits), get feedback so you know you’re actually telling the story you think you are (critique), and then get that book out there, start submitting, and move on to the next project.
Have a great weekend everyone.
(**Note: writing is not a one size fits all kind of gig. This is just my advice based on my own experience. Take what works for you and leave the rest. Best of luck!)