Friday, June 29, 2018

The Difference Between Editing and Revising a Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week's Refresher Friday takes an updated look at the difference between editing and revising. And for a deeper look on same theme, Jami Gold just wrote about this as well (which is what inspired me to pull mine out of the archives for this week). Enjoy! 

You often hear "edit" and "revise" used interchangeably, but it's helpful to think of them as two different things, because they really do focus on different aspects of the process.

Editing is the line by line tweaks that polish your text. 

Revision is more macro level, changing parts of the story. 

Which do you do first? I revise first, because that covers the big issues. The things that may take a lot of work. Once the story is unfolding how I want, then I edit, polishing it until it shines. For example, there’s no need to polish the text of a paragraph if I might cut that entire scene. Makes more sense to wait until the story is solid.

Your Novel's Macro Issues

You'll save both time and hassles if you work on these first, since odds are these will change other things in the story. It also gives you time to focus on the big-picture aspects of your story before getting scope-locked on the word and sentence level.
Story and Structure: This is the biggest part of any novel, so if these aren’t working, none of the edits you make will do any good. Take a step back and look at your overall story. 
  • Is the story working overall? Things may need to be changed, so don’t worry about the smaller “this part is too slow” problems. 
  • Does the basic story unfold in a way that makes sense? 
  • Is the structure working? 
  • Do you need more set up and less middle? A longer ending and shorter beginning? 
  • Are there too many chapters? Too few? Do you need to break in into parts?

Plot and Stakes: Now look at the plot and major moment and turning points that make up that plot. These are the particular building blocks of your novel.
  • Does each turning point advance that story in a logical way? 
  • Are there too many subplots? Too few? 
  • Check your stakes. Are things going from bad to worse over the course of the novel? 
  • Are the stakes worth risking something for?

Characters and Point of ViewWho is in the novel and who is narrating the story determine how that story is told. Distant or close style, single or multiple point of view, even the voice is all wrapped up in who's there and how they see the story and its world.
  • Do you have the right characters? 
  • Is the protagonist the best person to tell this tale? 
  • Is the antagonist the right bad guy? 
  • Are the secondary characters pulling their weight or are they just hanging around? 
  • Are there too many characters? Not enough? 
  • Is it told through the right point of view? 
  • Are there too many or too few of them?
(Here's more on the difference between idea, premise, plot, and story)

Your Novel's Medium Issues

Once you’ve revised the major pieces, you can start tweaking the gears of the novel. The guts that make it work.

Pacing: Pacing is an underrated tool for writing a strong novel. The right pace can strengthen a scene, while the wrong pace can kill a scene that should be keeping readers glued to the page. 
  • How does your story unfold? Look for those slow spots, the too-fast spots, the jerky spots where the flow feels off. 
  • Is there a rise and fall in the tension? 
  • Does the plot feel like it’s moving forward or running around in circles? 
  • Are revelations and set pieces happening in the right spots or are they all clumped together?

Scenes, Conflicts, and Goals: Check each scene for the point of view character's goal, how they plan to get that goal, what's in their way, and what’s at risk if they fail.
  • Do they have a solid goal? (remember, goals can crossover scenes, so they can have the same goal if it takes them a while to resolve it) 
  • Is the obstacle in their way tough enough so it doesn’t feel like “stuff” just to fill up the novel? 
  • Does each scene lead logically to the next? 
  • Does every scene need to be there? 
  • Do you need to add any scenes?
  • Is the risk big enough to make the reader worry if they fail? 

Transitions: Look at your chapter and scene transitions. How you move from scene to scene determines how much the reader wants to follow you.
  • Do you end a scene or chapter with a carrot to lure the reader to the next scene? 
  • Do you start the next scene with a new problem without resolving (even if that means “we need to worry about this later”) the last problem? 
  • Are you chapter endings "false cliffhangers"? Exciting endings that don’t lead anywhere get old fast, and stop being exciting once the reader figures out you’re just tricking them.

Character Growth and Story Arcs: In most cases, your protagonist will grow and change over the course of the story, same as your story will grow and change as the novel unfolds.
  • Does their tale unfold in a way that allows the protagonist to grow as a character (even small growth)? 
  • Are they learning the things they need to learn for the story?
  • Is there a good mix of character arc revelations and story arc revelations?

By now, the big issues have been dealt with, the story is in good shape structurally, and you’re ready to start the detail work. It’s time to actually edit vs. revise.

Dialogue: This is one of the first places I look when I start polishing, because a lot of the other editing issues can be found here. Characters talking usually pinpoints the story’s “action” (as in, things happening) so they’re also good spots to weave in all the details that can slow a story down (but in a way that doesn’t slow it down). Bits of description, backstory, stage direction. These things slip in easier when combined with something interesting going on.
  • Is there any unnecessary dialogue? 
  • Do you have too many tags? Not enough? 
  • Can those tags be changed to show action, internalization, setting, etc?

DescriptionsDescriptions are the spices of a novel. Too much and it's hard to swallow, too little and it's bland. The "right" amount a description varies by novel and genre, so trust your instincts on what's right for yours. 
  • Is there too much? 
  • Too little? 
  • Is it in the right place? Look for large blocks of paragraphs on the page. Often those blocks are red flags that there’s too much of something going on.

Word Choice and Usage: Set off on that adverb hunt, check your prepositions and your classic telling flags, such as to, with, saw, looked, etc. Also check for commonly misused words.
  • It is that or who? Effect or affect
  • Are you using the best word for what you’re trying to say? Often isn’t the same as usually, red isn’t the same as scarlet
  • What about favorite words? I always have to do a search for just, only, and still. 

Rhythm and Flow: How your sentences run together goes a long way to pulling your reader through a story and giving that story a voice and style.
  • Are your sentences varied and working with your pacing? 
  • Are there too many short, choppy sentences in a row? 
  • Too many long ones? 
  • Does it read awkwardly anywhere? 
  • Do you stumble over words or passages? Reading your work out loud can really show you where the stumbling blocks are.
How you choose to work on your novel is up to you, but I’ve found putting myself in the right mindset for what's needed helps keep me focused on what I’m trying to do. If I’m “revising,” I’m more open to hacking out parts or moving things around, because the text isn’t finished yet. But when I’m “editing,” I’m looking at the individual sentences and not the bigger picture as much. I’m trying to make what’s there the best it can be, not deciding if it should be there at all.

A subtle shift in thought, but sometimes that’s all you need to get the job done.

Do you treat edits and revisions differently? 

For a much deeper look at revising a novel, check out my Revising Your Novel Series. Get all three Fixing Your Revision Problems books in one omnibus!

This book contains Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems, and Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems--PLUS a BONUS workshop: How to Salvage Half-Finished Manuscripts.

A strong story has many parts, and when one breaks down, the whole book can fail. Make sure your story is the best it can be to keep your readers hooked.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus offers eleven self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus starts every workshop with an analysis and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. This easy-to-follow guide will help you revise your manuscript and craft a strong finished draft that will keep readers hooked. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Thanks Janice. I found this really helpful as I'm just finishing my novel revisions and then I'll be moving on to edits and polishing. The revision process is where I did all the things you mentioned (deleting, rearranging, etc.) The manuscript is so much stronger now and I'm really looking forward to the editing stage since I know the big changes are behind me. Now I just need to make it shine.


  2. I just posted the other day about doing the final polishing on a short story. I haven't got to that stage on a novel manuscript yet, but when I do I'll certainly be referring back to your tips on the larger kind of revisions first. Your posts on passive voice were a huge help when working on that short story!

  3. Thanks for posting this. I always get caught up in the little things when I should be focusing on the bigger issues. I'll definitely be looking back at this post (and some of your others, as well) to keep myself on track.

  4. I'm glad you're re-posting some of your blog tour posts. I thought I'd read them all, but apparently I missed this one.

  5. I hadn't thought of defining revision versus editing quite that way, but it makes sense. It is valuable to start with the big picture first. Sometimes it seems almost impossible to keep your whole story in mind at once, though, while you figure out what's working and what's missing!

    I find it helps to start by making an outline of what I have, and analyzing that for the different elements you mention. That way you have a "map" laid out across a few pages, and you don't have to flip through hundreds of pages trying to remember where exactly the characters did something.

    I'm starting a series on my blog about using this for the novel revision process.

  6. Tracey: Good luck on that! It sounds like you're on the right path :)

    Elisabeth: I'm glad the passive post helped ;) I'll have some guest posters in a few weeks to do more on shorts.

    Melissa: Most welcome! That's not an uncommon problem ;)

    Tessa: I'll be posting them on the weekends. I figured it would be good to have them all n this site as well so I can refer back when needed.

    Chris: I'm a huge fan of the outline as a revision tool. I'm sure there's a post or two on that here somewhere :)

  7. Thanks, Janice! I read this in exactly the right point in my revision/editing story. Great post!

  8. Janice, you always come through when I need you the most. I was thinking about the difference between the two when preparing an email for my wrimos. Then I gave up and did something else because I just didn't have the time.

    Next week, I'm sending them to this post. Thanks!

  9. Awesome post. I did both already on my first project that is in the query stage now, but I am printing this to use when I get to this point with my current one. Thanks :-)

  10. Charity: Happy to help ;)

    Rachel: Good luck on your submissions!

    Ali: Wow, what an interesting task you're doing. I can't even imagine tackling that, but part of me loves the idea of trying it. I have tons of ideas I wish I had time to write, and it would be great to get a bunch of them banged out in a first draft form. You've inspired me to do a mini version and do synopses of the ideas so at least I'll be that much closer to a first draft when I get to them :)

  11. Wow, this was really helpful. I did think editing and revising were the same thing, but I've seen the light. Thanks.

  12. Like Julie, I'd lumped together editing and revising but thanks for pointing out their differences. I liked what you said about scenes and goals.

  13. Julie & Jennifer: It's a silly little mental shift, but I've found it really helps keep me focused on whatever aspect I need to work on. It's easy to ignore the piddly stuff if I'm revising, knowing the polish will come later.

  14. Obvious. Get it out there first. Find the skeleton, then put on its flesh. But, I forget and get stuck in commas long before it's time, then wonder why I forget where I am with a story. Thanks for the reminder.

  15. I am currently stuck in the revision process. I've made it to a point in my story that I'm not very fond of, and I'm completely lost on how to fix it.

    I tend to focus on the editing, when I should be revising. It's probably just another form of procrastination for me!

    Thanks for the tips!

  16. Happy to help! Good luck on that revision.

  17. Robert Allen4/23/2011 11:15 PM

    Great stuff. I have been revising my 142,000 word novel down to 90,000 words. I love the things you've offered. Most of my revising was finished by the time I found this. I believe I did the things you said. But in my next book I will surely reread this information. Thank You much...

  18. Robert: Grats! That's quite an accomplishment to trim that much.

  19. This a bit off topic, but I like the pic used in this post. For some reason I keep thinking this is how Nya from your books looks.

    Detached and feisty outside. Torn inside.

    Back on topic: Until I read this I didn't realize that revising and editing had such distinct differences.

    They always seemed hand-in-hand to me.

  20. Overall, they're used interchangeably, but if you look at how you revise and the steps that go into editing a book, you do realize there are separate issues at separate times. Thinking about them as separate things really helps put the focus where it needs to be depending on what stage you're at.

    And yeah, she does kinda look like Nya :)

  21. In relation to a recent blog entry of my own ( I've taken editing to address the writing and revising to address the storytelling.

  22. Duane, good post. I've written on that topic here as well. There's a difference between telling a story and just being technically well written, and that can be the hardest thing to teach because it's so instinctual.

  23. Not since I read "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lemott have I been so educated about what this thing we call writing is. You are dead on correct about keeping the soul in and letting the technical work around it. It is the spirit mountain in the prose I choose to climb until my bleeding fingers become numb from the cold. Then I coffee up and write some more. My sincere thanks Janice for this blog.

  24. Harry, thanks so much, that's high praise. I'm so glad this post resonated so well with you. Love climbing spirit mountain. Great image.

  25. Hi Janice,

    I have two quick, mailbag-y questions and didn't want to hijack any of your homepage threads to pose them. In searching your site, I thought the questions may fit here. I understand if this thread is no longer active and/or you are too busy to answer. Here goes:

    (1) When finalizing a draft, is it still tradition to put a character's name in all-caps the first time they appear in the book, or has that gone away?

    (2) Do you think most agents and editors are still using readers that may not sense italics, such that we should underline words meant to be italicized, or is the "modern" way to go ahead and use italics?

    Thanks for all of your fab advice! Good luck with your seminar on August 23rd.😊

    1. Happy to answer questions, and you can always email as well.

      1. That's only for a synopsis, and folks still do it. Folks also don't do it, so it's up to you these days.

      2. I think most readers can see italics now, so you'd be fine using them. I have an old Nook and it can read them, and I'd suspect agents and editors have probably upgraded to nicer readers by now. Plus, unless the italics significantly change how the words are read, even if they don't show up it shouldn't hurt you. Agents can figure it out when a format goes wonky :) They know tech has its shortcomings from time to time.


    2. Thanks, Janice! I'm thrilled about the italics. The underlining was bugging me! 😊 And the all-caps posed a couple of style problems I'll be happy to ditch.


  26. Excellent post, Janice. I’ll be bookmarking this one for sure!

  27. LOL! I saw this post's headline, and I was like, "Oh, great minds!" Then I saw you mention my post. Thanks! :D

    1. (grin) They seemed to go well together :) And you fleshed the concept out so nicely I didn't have to.