Revisions — When is enough enough?


Please Note — I’m at Ravencon this weekend, so I’ll be a little slow in my Friday responses (assuming the hotel has WiFi).  Have a great weekend all!

I had planned to write something else for this post, but I’ve come across several discussions (including a bit here at MW) concerning when to stop revising.  Since many of us have stated our New Year’s resolution to finish those pesky WIP, and many are still plugging away hard it, revisions will become a necessary aspect of creation.  So when have you gone too far to the point of doing more harm than good?

Of course, there’s no easy answer to this.  There never is.  It’s mostly (but not entirely) subjective.  And yet, we authors have to get a feel for this mystical demarcation point or else be stuck ruining our manuscripts with infinite revisions.

Well, just as the writing process is unique to each writer, so is the revision process.  There are those who are methodical and meticulous as well as those who play it fast and loose.  However, if you’re just starting out (and thus don’t have a process firmly in place) or if you’re looking for a new tactic toward revisions, here’s my suggestion — make a battle plan.  With this technique, I find you’ll address everything you want to in a manner that will leave you feeling you’ve left no stone unturned, yet you won’t feel the need to keep going over the same territory again and again.  Here’s how it works:

Decide what key elements you seek to revise in each individual pass at the manuscript.  Perhaps you want to focus on a particular character.  Perhaps the plot doesn’t feel strong enough.  Perhaps you want to make sure your dialogue is tight or your metaphors and similes are the best they can be.  Perhaps you simply want to make sure all the core elements crucial to any story are working effectively.  Whatever you feel is important, list it on a piece of paper.  It’s okay if it’s a long list — it probably will be.

Now, combine some of the ideas that go well together.  Metaphors and similes will go well with tightening all description.  Dialogue may fit well with pacing issues.  Just try to keep it down to about two ideas for each pass.  At this point, your list may consist of about five to ten passes.  If your thinking ten rounds of revision sounds insane, I agree.  Don’t worry.  You’ll probably do a lot less.  If your thinking ten isn’t enough, you have my sympathies.

When you start revisions, keep focused on whatever your list denotes.  It’s okay to fix other problems you notice along the way, if they’re small, but try to stay focused.  For larger issues that don’t apply to your current focus, jot down a note, so you’ll be sure to tackle it at the appropriate time.  This simple approach has numerous benefits, and you will find many good things occurring.  For example:

  • You’ll be able to confidently know you’ve handled the issues you intended to handle and have done so to the best of your ability.
  • You’ll have cleaned up many little things (typos, misspellings, grammar, etc) that will make subsequent passes easier.
  • In the course of re-reading your manuscript, even though your focus was on one or two main aspects, you’ll have started picking up on other problems.  By the time you get to the third pass, you’ll already have solutions for many items on your list (and probably several not on the list).
  • You’ll gain a deeper knowledge of your manuscript and how the pieces fit together, making each revision more productive.
  • With practice, you’ll be able to juggle more tasks in each revision.

In the end, you’ll find a number of revisions that works for you which addresses everything in a solid, systematic fashion.  For me, I find around three in-depth revisions, each handling about three main points, are more than enough.  Lately, I’ve been trying to do more revising as I write the initial draft (I’ll talk about that in another post), so perhaps I’ll be down to two passes.  Anything more than five sans editor/agent/reader feedback sounds like overkill to me, but each writer is unique, so I make no judgments.  Just remember that by approaching revisions in a focused, clear-cut manner, you can rest assured you’ve done your best.  You don’t need to keep going back.  You do need to send it out, cross your fingers, and get started on the next piece.


18 comments to Revisions — When is enough enough?

  • Thank you Stuart, right now I’m trying to revise a 120k wip and having trouble. Short stories I have no problems revising, but when I try to apply the same revision style to the novel length story, I fail.

    I need exactly what you proposed above, a battle plan. I like the idea of focusing on just a couple of elements on each pass.

    So far in my revisions, I’ve found that I tend to add more to the story and make bigger changes that require me to change a lot of what will come later, causing the word count to increase rather than get tighter. I guess at some point I need to stop that and just edit what I have.

    Thanks again for the great post!

  • I don’t think I’m this organized or deliberate but it certainly makes sense. As I read–particularly as I reread in the light of what other readers tell me, or just fuelled by my own hunches, sense of what’s missing etc.–I start to home in on what needs fixing. Then, as you suggest, I do quick passes targeting just one element, focusing on isolated parts of the ms. rather than rereading the whole thing. When all those are done, I’ll do another slow pass reading the whole thing aloud as I go.

  • Stuart, I enjoy seeing how other writers revise. And I adore the term battle plan as it applies to revisions. Cutting, slicing, splicing, pasting, dumping…
    I like! I’m stealing!

    And I particuarly agree with this >> Just try to keep it down to about two ideas for each pass. When I started out, that was all I could manage, and I did maybe 5 passes for each book, all in hard copy. Oy…

    But lately, I’ve been able to cut it down to 2 passses, one to revise, and one to make sure I actually did what I wanted to do. I revise all in one pass with my wonderful mulicolored sticky-notes on hardcopy. If anyone is interested, I mentioned this method on Wednesday in reply to a comment.

    And before anyone notes it — yeah, all the pretty paper is kinda girly. So sue me. (grins) Battle plan. With my pretty paper. I like!

  • Great stuff, Stuart. I’m revising now. I do a lot of polishing as I write — that’s just my approach. But I make notes to myself as I go about issues that need to be dealt with, be they big meta-plot problems or tiny things like inconsistencies in spelling or capitalization. Then I fix things, look for my various crutches. Finally, I do a slow read through in which I try to see how the book flows and what, if anything, still needs work. This is where I am now with the WIP. When I’m done with this, of course, I send it off to my editor and agent for their comments. I do another set of revisions with them, then copy edit, then proofs. By the time I’m done, I’ve read the book through 4 or 5 times. But I find that I need distance between each reading. If I read through and revise, then immediately do another pass, I start to glaze over and miss stuff. Just me.

  • I’m in a revision process right now and this post helps me a lot. I’m ridiculously organized and love making lists, and I can’t believe I’ve never thought about making a list for revisions. Jeez, I must be losing it! Too much time spent staring at a laptop screen, haha. Thanks a bunch for this post!

  • Revision is something we all go through and I think as we work through building our writing experience, something we learn to like if not love.

    I have read, and written, a lot of advice on revision and I think this posting is very helpful. I’m in the process of revising 3 works and I’m hoping a new approach will refresh my energy and passion for the stories. Thanks

  • I’m going to point out something really dumb, but considering that about 75% of the students I TA’ed never bothered, it’s probably important.

    Use the spellchecker. Twice. Once when you’ve got the rough draft complete, once when you’ve got all the revisions complete.

    It’s basically a crap fixer, and it catches all that screwed up punctuation and invisible misspellings. Yes, the spellchecker is mindlessly rule driven, but that’s what makes it good

    Second point: add your neologisms (including character names) to your spell-checker. It saves time.

    Third point: I agree with that “mystical sense” idea. Not that I’ve published a novel yet, but in my other work, I’ve noticed that when I get sucked in to my own manuscript, it’s ready to go. You have to be careful, though, because you can get infatuated with your own raw prose quite easily and miss big mistakes early on. But later in the process, just read the darn thing. If the manuscript sucks you in for longer than you intended to read it, then you’re on the right track. Also, every place that you get spat out, that’s a place that needs revision.

    Fourth point: I’ve had a lot of great ideas for revisions, and many of those ideas turned out to be not as good as what I wrote the first time. I’d suggest always comparing newer to older, and keeping copies of older drafts. Sometimes, the first thing you wrote really was the best thing, and particular revisions are about your insecurities creeping in.

    Otherwise, I agree strongly on organizing your revision process and keeping it goal-oriented.

  • Wow, I just have to say again how grateful I am for this website. I’m just beginning revisions myself, and I’ve kept a notepad file for this exact reason. But I didn’t think to consider the process in terms of stages. That actually takes some of the pressure off. Thanks!

  • Thank you for your great advice Stuart.

    I’m writing my very first book (or trying to anyway) and has just begun the revising process.

    I find this process even harder than writing the actual manuscript – not that I found that particularly difficult though – loved it actually.

    I will steal your idea about the battle plan, if you don’t mind, and use it as my guideline for my revision.

    So thanks a million 🙂

    And Btw Faith – I totally love the girly colored sticky-notes (and your books) I will adopt that one too.

    Now all I need to figure out is how to get an agent so I can get it published (hopefully)

  • (waves to Annette)
    Thanks you!

  • Het said Use the spellchecker. Twice.

    But don’t blindly trust it. Especially if it tries to suggest a better word. I think I’ve told the story of the Nubian before (writer was describing a sofa with an afghan across the back, and the spellcheck didn’t like the word “afghan”, so it suggested “Nubian” instead. Which resulted in a hysterical visual…)

    Spellcheck doesn’t even like the spelling of itself in this post!

  • And it won’t pick up misspellings that aren’t really wrong, but just the wrong word, like then/than, just as an example.

  • Good ideas here Stuart, I’ve made notes for future revisions. I’m also stealing your battle plan concept and adding in Faith’s sticky notes and maybe highlighter. I’ve already found that marking mss in a violet colored pen helps me feel editor-like. Not sure if that’s a good thing, but I hope so.

    You mentioned reading aloud, and one thing I noticed in revising Shadowslayer was that I needed to hear the story out loud to know what wasn’t working. I used a text-to-voice program because I didn’t feel comfortable reading to myself. The major drawback of this is the lack of flow or emphasis in having Mr. Robotman read to me. The added bonus was Mr. Robotman doesn’t fill in missing words and auto-correct ‘an’ to ‘and.’ He reads mistakes aloud which helped me catch them.

    With the next WIP, I think the reading out loud needs to happen early in the revisions process. Then I’ll know if my metaphors, similes, and descriptions are working or where the prose needs tweaking. Mr. Robotman can wait until the prose works and I’m only looking for missing words.


  • @Misty: You’re so right about not trusting spellchecker. I was just checking a >100K manuscript, and spellchecker is STOOPID. My impression was that Word’s is getting dumber by the year.

    You’ve got to wonder at a program that flags sentences that start “I wonder if…” as statements, not questions. Word 2007 also has real problems with subject-verb agreement, and that’s where we writers have to pay attention. Don’t trust it, certainly. I absolutely agree with Misty. But it is still useful.

    Be that as it may, Word caught a bunch of low level mistakes, including screwed up spacing, a number of simple mistakes (“a the” is currently my most frequent screwup), several repeated words, and one case where I’d flipped a minor character’s name half-way through. You’d think that, after two people read the manuscript about four times, we would have found it all. Nope. That’s where the checker shines. Unfortunately, spell-checking a long manuscript takes hours, and it really needs to be a separate phase of the revision.

  • Hi everybody. I’m back from Ravencon! As I had feared, Internet access was difficult to accomplish with the hotel and buggy when you did manage to get online. I’m glad to see that you all had a productive conversation without me and that this post proved to be useful to many of you. Now, I’m going to sleep (good cons are so fun but so exhausting). 🙂

  • Tom

    Stuart, your spellchecker takes several hours? Dude, it’s the 21st Century. At least get a used Pentium 4. That Tandy 1000 just ain’t cutting it.

    Alistair, I have the same problem. My revisions tend to ADD rather than remove wordcount. And I really need to removed about 20k.

    I hate revisions. Hate hate hate them. My problem is that I tend to get caught up in the story rather easily, and totally forget what I’m supposed to be doing. So I’m constantly going back over and over the same material until I’m so sick of it I would rather write something new than revise. So this battle plan idea sounds good to me. Maybe if I’m looking just at specific scenes and passages I won’t lose myself in the story. I’m hoping anyway.

    Faith, I’m a guy, and all my postits are BLUE. Nothing but blue.

  • Tom

    Oops, sorry Stuart. It was Heteromeles with the super slow spellchecker. My bad. Disregard. Move along, nothing to see here, folks.

  • First thing to remember about revisions, are they really necessary? Sometimes a simple, straightforward “Three rounds sufficed to put him down, but not kill him…” does the job. So ask yourself, can you say it in a way that will get the message across better. So to let the reader know how hard your vampires are to kill you may want to say, “Three rounds sufficed to put him down, but it took decapitation to finish him off.”

    One fault I’ve seen in many revisions is over writing. Sometimes people say it just right the first time, but then decide the work would sound so much better if the writer prettied up the prose. This becomes a problem when dealing with people who don’t know how to overwrite, how to say more than needs to be said in an effective way.

    Bad example: Carrie was a pale skinned soul with no sense of style or class.

    Better example: A pale skinned soul, Carrie had no sense of style or class.

    Hope my meandering doesn’t overwhelm my prose.