Revisions: A How-To Guide


A reader emailed me a writing question a few days ago, and gave me the all-clear to use its answer as a blog post, so I’m going to give it a shot. The question (and its surrounding commentary, which I thought was relevant) follows:

I know that some authors find rewriting easier (in some ways) than the initial creative process. Me, I can whip something out of nothing without breaking a sweat. But whenever I try to approach the highly necessary rewrite of my recent novella, I get almost immediately overwhelmed by the minutiae of things that need tending to. I am pulled this way and that, trying to keep track of the myriad of details that need to hover simultaneously in my forebrain–and I end up just fiddling with the niggling little grammar nits, polishing word choice, questioning whether that adverb is really necessary, and reassuring myself that all the independent clauses are safely sequestered within their parenthetical commas.

Consequently, the real work–that is, deleting scenes and rewriting the whole cloth of large sections–goes undone because of these distractions of questionable value. Sometimes, I think I might be better off deleting the damned thing and starting over from scratch.

So, my question: In your subsequent drafts, how do you keep the story from getting in the way of your rewriting?

Answer behind the cut.

I know writers who do, in fact, just start their second draft from scratch. I don’t personally, but sometimes I can see the appeal. I also am not one of those writers who finds the revision process vastly more rewarding than the initial writing process, although I do like the end result of all that flipping work. But the actual revision work is exhausting, because I’m trying to hold three different versions of the story in my head at once: the story as it was, the story as it is in process of being revised, and the story as it needs to be.

From the lead-in to the question, it sounds like it’s the second stage where it’s falling apart for the writer, which makes sense to me, because it’s the second part *I* find really headache-inducing. Knowing what you have to do, knowing what the story should look like on the other end, is a lot easier than figuring out how to do it. And I hate to say it, but on some level, it’s just a matter of practice. It’s also a lot easier if a third party (like an editor) has said, “This is a part that doesn’t work. Make it work,” or, “I need to see some motivation for this action,” or “I need more sense of setting here,” because that gives me something to work off of.

Okay. *rubs brain* This is hard to think about, actually, or at least hard to explain, because so much of it for me is just grim determination to get it done. But one thing I do is start with a hard copy. I _have_ to start with a hard copy. If I just try to work on screen my brain dribbles out my ear and I lose all will to live. More importantly, my brain is extremely consistent: if I start doing revisions on screen, what happens is I think, “Oh! This is a place to insert a clever line!” and I revise to insert it, then discover that a page and a half later, I already had that clever line in place. Hard copy prevents me from doing that, and believe me, after about the fifteenth time *of* doing it, I’m very happy to have read the bloody book all the way through and made myself aware of where my brain is likely to come up with clevernesses that it has already come up with. 🙂

Having a hard copy also means I can physically strike sections out, even if all I leave myself with beyond that is a note in big letters saying “MAKE THIS MORE BETTER” (which, yes, is usually exactly what I write). It is, one way or another, a visual cue that this part needs *work*.

I usually start at the beginning of the story, but I don’t think there’s any compelling reason to do it that way. Another advantage of hard copy for me is that when I’m further into the book and I’ve found something that needs setup earlier on, I can go back and leave myself a note on the paper that says “Joanne’s facing Wile E. Coyote on page 235, there needs to be some kind of foreshadowing *here*, in this scene where I can stuff in a Looney Toons reference without it being too gratuitous.” Then when I get to that in the on-screen revisions I can go “oh yeah” and take care of it immediately instead of having to flip back and forth.

Trust yourself–and when I say ‘trust yourself’, I mostly mean ‘forbid yourself to nitpick’–on the sentence structure level, by and large. There will, yes, be times and places where the sentences need work, but put that into a different mental space. That’s copy-editing, not revising. It comes *after* revisions.

I will very frequently cut and paste the sections that need work out of the manuscript. So if I need to strike seven pages out of chapter three and just rewrite them wholesale, I’ll take a version of chapter 3, save it into the Second Draft folder, and then delete everything that needs to go in one big chunk. It’s completely psychological for me: somehow it’s less awful to gut chapter three by itself than it is to take it out of the manuscript and watch the whole page count of the manuscript collapse by eight pages. It also gives me a place (or usually more than one) where the original version of the chapter or scene is saved, so if I need to go back and rescue a sentence, I can snag it out of the original.

I use a lot of white space when I’m working on screen. If I’m working on a specific part of a scene and I know there’s still lots to do further down, I just hit carriage return until I can’t see the later material. Again, it’s pure psychology. It’s a matter of being able to *face* one page of revisions at a time, but having new text that needs work continually scrolling up to face me is just disenheartening.

Focus on one major problem/storyline/thread/whatever at a time. This year an editor asked me to do a major revision on a book. M.A.J.O.R. revision. What ended up happening was I rewrote the first half of the book heavily and the second half less so, and then in the second round of revisions, ended up rewriting the second half of the book heavily. I *knew*, when I submitted it the second time, that there were still problems facing the manuscript, but I had just run out of steam. I needed someone else’s feedback to say “these are the things that can be punched up”. Basically what I did was face one set of problems the first time through, and an almost completely different set the second time around (they had been touched on in the first revision, but it was sort of an emotional storyline revision vs an action storyline revision, and I didn’t have the mental capacity to manage both at once to the degree they both needed work).

All right. If I have any more thoughts I’ll add them later, but right now this is all I can come up with. I hope it’s at least of a little use.


7 comments to Revisions: A How-To Guide

  • I revise off hard copy too. I have a hard time keeping focused reading through on the computer screen. And it’s more difficult to make notes. I prefer to annotate the whole manuscript, then go through and fix what I found. Otherwise I’ll end up doing what you said, adding/changing whole pieces and then either repeating myself or contradicting myself. I’ve usually got a couple hi-liters and a black pen (red brings back too many memories of high school) and I’ll hi-lite what I find and if I need to, add a note in the margins. Hi-liting also shows you those little turns of phrase that keep getting repeated. If you’re reading through and you see yourself using a word fairly frequently, hi-lite it every time. Then you can see just how often you’ve used it and you can find it later to make changes.

    I handed my manuscript to a number of people to proof read for me. Hoping it would help me find things that I’m too close to. I have found a couple things, but my readers are a bit slow on the read…I’m getting antsy to get moving on it again.

  • Thank you for the very helpful information on revising! Even though I edit the first draft on a hardcopy, I still find myself doing a lot of copyediting versus overall picture/macro type editing.

    Any advice on this: I finish a first draft of a short story/novelette/novel and I start revising, but then I feel like I’m not writing so I begin a new story, but also try to revise the old one I just finished. I find I’m not successful at this, since I tend to concentrate on one or the other.

    So… should I finish the macro editing on the first story before I start writing a second one, is that what most writers do? I’m guessing that copyediting and writing something new would work a little better than what I try to do.

    Thank you again for the informative post!


  • Good post on a slippery subject, Catie! I like.

  • Great post, Catie. I’m chiming in on the side of revising off hard copy. I think I have a similar issue with getting stuck on the middle version of the story. Nice to know I’m not alone.

  • I like to revise on hard copy, too, but I don’t always do it. When I revise on screen, I employ some of the tricks Catie describes here. I’ll copy a chapter into a different file and then revise, or I’ll make a copy of the book and only fiddle with the new version, leaving the old one intact, in case I screw things up beyond repair. And I’ll create that white space Catie mentioned, too. And yes, it’s all psychological — creating a computer based work space where I can feel free to tear stuff down and rebuild. Ultimately, that’s the point for me. When I have trouble moving past the little stuff, as the original questioner described, it’s usually because I’m afraid to make that first huge change. It gets easier for me after I’ve started the process.

  • Mikaela

    I am still exploring what works for me, but I think I have found a couple of steps:
    A. Read through, either on screen or hard copy. Without a pen.
    B. Write a synopsis. When I do that, I can see the bigger issues, like scenes are out of order, or missing etc.
    C. Revise the outline
    D. Start the revision.

    I plan to test this method during this year on Scherezade, and the Wild Hunt

  • Thanks, Catie. I had the exact same problems revising on screen. I’d add a great sentence and realize a few paragraphs later it’s already in there. This becomes extremely frustrating. I also found that I was editing out good passages. Although that may be an experience problem, I did it less on hard copy.

    Oh, and keeping the different stories straight is a tough one too. I especially had problems with Shadowslayer because I tried to change the focus of one of the MCs from revenge to forgiveness. It’s messing with my head still when trying to fix my query.