Monday, October 6

When to Revise What in Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

Unless you're one of those rare authors who can write and polish a novel in one draft, you'll go through several revision passes between the first and final draft. How many depends on both the novel and the writer, and you might do as few as two or as many as twenty. No matter how many drafts a novel needs, there are a few things you can do to make the process more efficient.

It doesn't make much sense to polish the text when you're still figuring out the story, for example. Odds are you're going to change things as you shore up your plot, and taking out all those adverbs first doesn't help much if you put half of them back as you fill in holes and tweak characters.

Early Draft Revisions

These are the revisions that take the most rewriting, so try tackling them first. These are edits that change how the plot and story unfold, but don't typically affect how the text itself reads.

1. Get the story the way you want it

The story is what matters most, and if that's not working, the most beautifully written prose in the world won't save it. The "story" is all the big-picture elements that show your idea and get across concepts you wanted to explore. Check your character arcs to see if your characters are growing and changing the way you want them to, and that their growth makes sense and feels right for the story. Did you include all the scenes you wanted to write? Are all the ideas and concepts you wanted included? Is everything unfolding the way you want it to?

2. Get the plot you way you want it

Revising your plot is all about moving the pieces around so they're in the best possible places to achieve the strongest impact. For example, you might know you need a scene where the protagonist discovers her best friend betrayed her, but not know exactly where that scene's going to go in the novel. Or something you want might be happening, but doesn't include the right people or details. You might even decide a plot event needs to have a different outcome. This is also a good time to review your goals, conflicts, motivations, and stakes to ensure there are reasons for your plot unfold the way it is.

3. Get the characters the way you want them

Characters change over the course of a novel, and not just in the story. You might start a character with one personality and end up changing it as the story develops. Or realize you need to make them a little more/less-something to achieve the arc you want. Maybe they need a fear of commitment, or a sense of stronger family obligation, or even a resentment for a sibling vs. blind loyalty. You might decide two minor characters should be combined into one, or kill off a character altogether.

(Here's more on a first look at a first draft)

Middle Draft Revisions

Once the big, macro issues are dealt with, move on to the text itself. Middle draft revisions include those things that require rewriting on a smaller scene-by-scene level. These are edits that don't usually change the plot or story, but clarify or enhance how the information is conveyed to the reader.

1. Flesh out or cut descriptions

Look for heavy areas that need a little trim, or sparse areas that could use bulking up. Are the descriptions painting the scenes well? Is the reader grounded in every scene? Are there a lot of talking heads in white rooms? Now's the time to add or cut elements that aren't working to dramatize and/or set the scene.

2. Adjust pacing and scene or chapter transitions

Even a great scene can slow a novel down, so check to see how the pacing is working and where it needs adjusting. It's also a good time to check on how the novel flows overall, and how one scene moves into the next. Do scene and chapter transitions keep the novel moving or does it feel episodic? Is the tension building in every scene? Are you hitting the right emotional notes?

3. Edit weak words and phrases to strong ones

Some word edits require more rewriting than others, and this is a good step to take just before the final polish draft. Check for things like adverbs and weak nouns and verbs that often require more than a word change to fix--for example, cutting "she said angrily" and adding "she screamed, throwing the vase at his head." Search for told prose that could be shown, and places where you're explaining or infodumping.

(Here's more on being your own book doctor)

Final Draft Polish

Once the draft is working and everything reads well, it's time for the final polish to put the shine on the prose. These are the edits that don't change the story, plot, or understanding of either at all, just how the text reads.

1. Check for oft-used or repeated words

We all have favorite words or phrases we use, and we tend to use them a lot. Now's a good time to read through and trim out anything that sounds repetitious.

2. Catch revision smudge

In any revision there are leftover bits that refer or relate to something that got edited out or changed. Details change, time of day moves from morning til night, characters refer to something that was cut out. A final read through in one sitting can help those smudges jump out, especially if you haven't looked at the manuscript in a few weeks.

3. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar

Catch any technical errors, such as dropped punctuation, incorrect word usage, and typos, especially those sneaky ones like their, there, and they're.

4. Check any unique spellings or details for your novel

If you've created names or items, it's not a bad idea to check to ensure every instance is spelled the same way and used consistently. This is a must if you happened to change the name of anything mid-way through writing the draft. Odds are one got missed somewhere.

(Here's a checklist of things to look for before you submit)

Working from the macro to the micro issues can make the revision process go more smoothly, regardless of how many drafts you do. It also gives you a plan to make revising a little less intimidating.

What's your revision process?

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. This was so helpful. My first attempts at writing tended to skip many of these steps and it showed. Now I carefully take the time to make everything as close to perfect as possible. This reaffirms that I'm doing things the right way.

  2. Great post - and offering not only a revision plan, but validating the point that you-will-do-multiple-drafts!

    No matter what I'm writing - and even when I edit other writer's material - I 'give it a day'. Nothing original gets a free pass, it has to stand up to the 24-hr test. I've re-written hundreds of words, whole scenes, character reactions (and personalities), all because they were beginning to 'rot' after a day in the bin.

    However, once in awhile a sentence or two manages to squeak through - sooo satisfying!

    Thanks again for solid advice and links to past relevant posts.

  3. I found this so helpful and will follow this when editing my next book. Thank you!

  4. Great post. I'm going to copy and print this out for reference!