Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Game On: Staying Organized During Revisions

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Revisions can be daunting, even if you enjoy doing them. So many moving parts, things to remember, plots to double check, and you’re never sure if you got everything you wanted to do or not. If this is a final revision before submitting, those doubts can really nag at you.

What you need is a plan.

Just like the writing process, the revision process can take many forms. We all know how frustrating it is to feel you have to do something a certain way when that way isn’t for you, so take what works for you and don’t fret over anything that makes you think “ew.” Embrace the spirit of the plan, if not the details. (and I hope my awesome readers will chime in with their own tips) I’ll break this down into revising from feedback, and revision on your own, with tips that work for either.

Note: These plans are for later drafts, after the story is pretty much the way you want it and now it’s all about making it better. For first draft revisions, you’d almost do this backward, taking the largest and harder revisions and then working toward the smaller ones. Try this post on revision plans for a first draft and this one on being a good critiquer (which covers things to look out for in various drafts and works for revisions as well as critiquing).

Step One: Pre-Game 

A little preparation goes a long way toward a successful revision plan. A file just for revision notes is a handy way to keep track of what you want to do, and gives you a nice check list you can cross off for that sense of accomplishment.

Feedback: Read through the critiques again to refresh what was said. Highlight or copy over to your notes file anything that requires broad strokes to fix. (Like reworking a scene or changing something on a macro level). It can also be helpful to copy line comments directly into your manuscript so you have everything in one file to work with. (This is also helpful if you receive lots of different comments in the same scene, which could point to a slightly different problem somewhere else that your readers are picking up on)

On Your Own: Read the manuscript as if you were critiquing it for someone else, then do a critique. (feel free to make any line edits at this time) Not only will it help you gain some perspective, it’ll give you a base to work from. Jot down the things you want to change in your revision file. It can also be helpful to make notes in your manuscript where you know you want to change things. Even a quick paragraph at the start of the chapter can remind you what needs to be done and be easily referenced later.

Both: Decide how you want to approach your revisions. One chapter at a time? One item at a time (like checking for goals, then looking at description, then looking for trouble words) A large chunk of several chapters or pages at a time? The whole thing at once? Chapter by chapter backward? Sometimes breaking it into smaller sections makes it easier to manage, or looking out it out of sequence so you don’t get caught up in the story.

Double Check: If after looking everything over you realize you have a lot of macro level changes to make, you might consider doing those before you do anything else. Why tweak a scene you might end up cutting when you rework the plot? Get the story the way you want it first and save yourself some hassles.

Step Two: Warm Up 

Some edits are easy to do. Fixing the typos, changing a name or term, looking for adverbs to kill. Try doing these first since they take the least amount of brain power and let you feel like you’re getting somewhere. Momentum helps a lot with revisions.

Feedback: Go through the critiques and make every change that’s easy to do. If it’s something you have to think about, save it for the next stage. I like to do this first before I’ve changed anything in the manuscript so the spots are easy to find and compare against the critiques. Once you start editing, it can be tough to know if the feedback still applies.

On Your Own: Look at your list and pick the things that will take the least effort to fix. Perhaps do a cursory read through and look for typos or awkward sentences, anything that really jumps out at you. If you didn’t do a critique first, this can be a good way to refresh your memory of what’s there so you can make notes on where the larger issues are that need to be reworked.

Both: You know those lists and blog posts you’ve been bookmarking? Now’s the time to break them out. Add that advice to your revision file and start checking it against your manuscript and adding it to your revision plan. Easy stuff first, harder stuff later.

Step Three: Take the Field 

Now it’s time for the hard work. The tweaks that take more thought and might be spread out over various sections of the book.

Feedback: A few options here. Either start at page one and change things in order as you reader through the book, or pick something from your list and work on that until it’s done.

On Your Own: Pick something from your list and revise away. Keep going down the list until it’s all done.

Both: I’ll often do a read through here and make all the changes that require some thought (or research) to fix, but don’t affect large sections of the book where I might have to jump around a lot to lay groundwork or deepen a character arc. It’s also worth deciding which changes might affect other changes (like if you add a scene, that might change the scenes around it or a later scene where it’s referenced) so you can do them first. You want to avoid rewriting sections you already rewrote when possible. (Though sometimes this happens anyway, so no worries if it does)

The trick is to finish whatever it is you’re working on so you don’t have half pieces of revisions and forget what you’ve done and haven’t done. If you’re deepening the protag’s character arc, stick with it until you’re done with at least the first pass through whatever size of the manuscript you’ve decided to work on at a time. (Sometimes you’ll go back and rework something, and that’s okay to take a break between)

Double Check: Some revision types go better when you look at the entire manuscript vs smaller chunks. Continuity checks are harder to do in chunks where you might forget what happened earlier. Reading it through in a short timeframe makes it easier to spot where something is off.

Step Four: Cool Down 

Once the revisions are done, let the book sit for a while. At least a week, longer if the changes were extensive (I like a month after a first draft is done. This is a good time for a beta reader to look at it). You want to give your brain time to forget what was there so when you look at it again, you’ll see what is there. There’s always some “revision smudge” that gets in there with lines that refer to something that changed or was cut.

Feedback: Read over your notes and the critiques again to see if you did everything you wanted to. Double check any feedback that you ignored to see if you have a new opinion on it now. (it happens) Tweak as needed.

On Your Own: Check your notes and see if you made all the changes you wanted to make. Fix anything you missed.

Step Five: Hit the Showers 

Time for the final polish and clean up.

Both: Read through the book once more and make any changes that jump out. Most of it will likely be small things, a word change here and there. It’s not uncommon to cut sentences or even paragraphs that slow the story down now that you’ve been away and can better spot the slow parts and dead weight. However, if you’re still making large changes and rewriting sections, you might consider going back to step three.

Don’t be afraid to mix it up or change the order of these steps if that works for you. Some folks might prefer to do the larger issues first and finish up with the easy stuff and that’s okay. The whole goal of a revision plan is to help keep you focused and providing a way to track your progress.

How you do revise? What do you do differently? The same? 

ETA: As luck would have it, Elle Strauss did a post today on her revision plan. Go check it out for more suggestions. 

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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 for the post! And the link.

  2. I think I'm going to try this out on the short story I finished last week. See how it goes with a small project.

  3. Thanks for this post, Janice. Your revision tips save me so much time, while still doing what needs to be done, and that's different for every book.

    We differ on many things, but when it comes to revision matters, I feel like I met my (Platonic) soul sister in a way.

    Keep up the great work and insight.


  4. I'm a pantser, so my process ends up being quite different for revision, because that's how the story starts to evolve. The first thing I would do is make an extremely fast edit. I end up with a lot of flotsam -- things that never ended up going anywhere in the story. Even in creation, it evolves very fast, so I may have something I should have deleted, but didn't. Since these make revising very hard because they get in the way of working with the story, this has to be my first step (if you think this step is a bad idea, bear in that I took a story through HTRYN and absolutely could not identify what scenes were about because there was so much flotsam).

    By now, since the story is now written, I have an idea of where it's supposed to go, so I start working on getting the beginning in the right place. Chapters shuffle and move around. Eventually, I'll start putting everything into buckets to get the structure in place. Hopefully, this next go round I will be able to identify the theme easily and make changes.

    I'd also leave the typos largely until I reach the end. So much change happens during the revision, I'd add new ones and end up doing double work fixing them too early.

    For a final editing, I'll run my macro of various words and start finding ways to trim in down one line per paragaph.

  5. Thanks all!

    Linda, I pantsed my last novel a bit, and I don't know how you guys do it :) I think I did more work to fix my first draft than it took to write it, LOL. But it sounds like you have a good process, and I'm glad it works for you. I don't think a fast first edit is a bad step at all.