On Revisions–Making the book tell the story you meant to write


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!)



15 comments to On Revisions–Making the book tell the story you meant to write

  • Jeremy Beltran

    Wow thank you for that. My current WIP is the first one I’ve planned on showing anyone let alone trying to publish, so it never really occurred to me to do revisions before sending it to beta readers. Although it does make more sense now that I think about it. I’m definitely going to use the “Reading dialogue out loud” though I have a tendency to do that as I write, mostly to get an idea of each character’s voice.

  • Kalayna, you and I edit a lot alike, except that I do an edit every day before I start writing. In it, I accomplish several thiings:
    1. I find / remember the voice, so I can dive in when it’s time to start new word count.
    2. I get a chance to see if I am on the right track, or if I took a side road and wrote off the map. I used to be bad about tangents and this stopped them cold.
    3. Smooth out the choppy plot lines.
    4. Make sure everything is heading in the right direction.
    5. Slip into the story seemlessly. I also used to have problems beginning the day’s writing, so that starting with the previous day’s writing helped.

    All that said — (all together now!) There’s never just one way to do things at MW! We need to write some music for that.
    This was a great post, as always!

  • As one who is the middle of a new round of revisions, I can say that this post is spot on. I was actually considering a similar post for Monday, and might instead take a slightly different tack and focus more on the interaction between an editor and author in the revision process. Thanks for this, Kalayna!

  • I’ve almost decided that I’m not going to write anything but first drafts. I’m in the midst of revision and it is killing me slowly. But I think if I can figure out how to do it, it will make it easier next time around.

    Right now, I’m rewriting the boring info dumps now.

  • Glad the post came at a good time for you, Jeremy. Best of luck on the revisions!

    Faith, I’m pretty sure if we had a recording of me singing on the MW site that our traffic numbers would quickly plummet. ^_^

    David, sorry to steal your topic. LOL. I do think a post on editor/author interaction during the revision process would be a good thing to cover.

    Vikki, don’t give up!! You can totally conquer the revision of your novel.

  • Unicorn

    I know exactly how Vikki feels. I just realised that I have to cut two main characters, totally rewrite another and delete a huge subplot from my big, sloppy, all-over-the-place WIP. *bangs head on desk*
    Oh well, at least that solves my word count problem… I hope. After finishing my first draft, I shelved the thing for four weeks, then printed it out and read it through with a pen, writing problems and solutions in the margins. Now is the hard part, actually rewriting the novel and fixing all the rubbish. I seem to be rewriting every single scene. At this rate there will be nothing left of the 160 000-word first draft. Oh sigh. Back to work.
    Thanks for the great post, Kalayna. It’s very timely.

  • Meg

    First of all, I would like to say, awesome post, and an awesome blog.

    Even if it seems like common sense to know how to revise a novel, it’s a big undertaking, and especially for new writers like myself, it’s somewhat daunting, especially when everyone has all kinds of different opinions about what good writing is, how writing should be improved, etc. I know I had a problem with that on my first WIP and that’s why I froze up when I first sat down to edit it. It’s nice to have a basic training course in editing just to start out from. And I especially liked the tips/tricks for micro-editing scenes, especially the one about cause and effect. I always find I have to be so careful about that, only because I know that, like you, I just kind of blow through the rough draft and just try to get the entire basic story out on paper.

    Another technique that I like was something I read about in a book about self-editing by James Scott Bell, where you write out a summary of each chapter as you go through, as a way of plainly mapping out the basic flow of the story. For me it was a great way to spot plot holes and to find other places where I could round out flat characters, fill gaps in a plot lines that appear to have no real beginning, middle, or follow-through, and trim the fat. If anything it seems to keep the massive work in check.

    Thanks again for the terrific post!

  • God, are we ALL in the middle of revisions right now? Or are we all just ALWAYS in the middle of revising something? I just sent out the second(ish) draft of my WIP to some beta readers and am waiting on feedback. This is after I killed the first 2,000 words of boring crap, eliminated three major characters and changed who dies in Act II. And pretty much rewrote the whole thing. Now that notes are trickling in from folks, I’ll go through and play with those suggestions, and then start the fun of grammatical editing, which I loath. But I gotta get this one out the door before I can start working on the next bright shiny thing!

  • Great post, Kalayna. I really like the idea of reading it through without editing it, but I have a serious problem keeping my hands off! So it just occurred to me that I could create a pdf. Can’t edit that! That should help me next time I need to do a read-through. 🙂

  • For myself… I like getting beta feedback relatively early in the process – before I do major edits. Because I think I know where I want the story to go and what I’m trying to say – but getting feedback from readers makes it clearer to me where I strayed from my vision. So I attempt to combine my first-read gut check about what I did wrong with the comments and reactions from my readers.

    The real question, I find, is how do I get good feedback from the readers? I’ve had a few who were fan-freaking-tastic… but I’ve had others who were like “I liked it”. Maybe pointing out a few grammar mistakes. I’m toying with ideas on how to get more out of these readers, but I feel a little uncertain: they’re essentially working for free (or reciprocal beta-reads by myself if they’re also writers) so I’m not sure how hard to push for feedback.

  • Unicorn, I have also found myself staring at ginormous changes in a WIP and realize I’m rewriting more than I’m keeping. It’s intimidating, but totally do-able. We will all be cheering you on. ^_^

    Thanks Meg, glad the post was helpful! I’ve heard of the short summery per scene, approach but never tried it. I might have to try it out at some point.

  • John, yes, I think with the way publishing schedules go, revisions seem to pop up constantly these days. ^_^ Ooooh, eliminated 3 major characters? Which ones?! (Don’t answer that. LOL)

    Laura, it really is a struggle to read without fussing with the book. Oh, the temptation. Converting to a PDF is a great plan.

    Stephen, I think you’re juggling the difference between a critique partner and a beta reader. In my experience, beta readers tend to give large picture generalizations (“I didn’t like this character” “I didn’t understand the xyz” “The mystery was good but it wasn’t really a surprise” “Yeah, I’d buy the next one if this were on the shelf” . . . whatever.) whereas a critique partner, a good one, gives you the nitty-gritty hard truth. Some will have different skill sets. Some will focus on logic and/or motivation flaws (“But WHY did she go there in the first place?”)while others naturally focus more on sentence structure and grammar. It typically depends on their own strengths and experiences. It is really hard to find a good critique group/partner and it is almost always another writer so is very much a two way street. (Meaning you should be reading as many chapters as you’re sending out) Finding someone who can be bluntly honest (without being cruel) and who makes intelligent and in-depth observations and suggestions (but who doesn’t try to change your story to their vision) may take a while to locate and you may have to test out several potential critique relationships before you find a good fit. That said, my best advice, as you already have readers you’re working with, tell them exactly what you are looking for from the critique. If you’re giving them completely raw material, you probably don’t care about grammar and sentence rhythm as much as character consistency and plot holes, so be specific as to what you’d like them to look out for as they are reading. Best of luck!

  • Thanks Kalayna! I’d never really thought of it that way: I’d always used the terms “Critique Partner” and “Beta Reader” as essentially interchangeable, but maybe it’s useful to see them as performing different roles.

  • Great post, Kalayna. I’m in revisions right now and this is helping to clear up some of what I need to do. I’m at the stage of changing macro stuff my beta readers noticed before I submit the ms for critique.

    One thing I’m running into is trying to change too much all at once: depth of character, improving voice, plot issue. Some of it is related, but still, it seems like a lot.

    Nevertheless, hopefully these posts on revisions will help when I sit down to revise.

  • sagablessed

    One thing I have noticed in my revisions: details are a (insert word of choice). Why? Because I made one change in the backstory, and discovered a kajillion little things that had to be changed. One must keep consistant the story line, which can change in micro-ways during the writing process. I also belong to scribophile, and have to tell you, the number of times I see little things that I as a reader/lay-editor pick up as “WRONG!! You just said……….” is amazing. And many have done the same for my works as well.
    I hope one of the professionals here will do a piece just on that.