How I Revise

Although NaNoWriMo is only halfway over, my book is done. I should wait until the end of the month for this topic, since so many NaNos are still in the drafting stage. But since it’s on my mind today, let’s talk a little about the revision process. There is one inescapable fact: revision is always necessary. If you do not revise, you are not done writing. How you do that, though, may vary. Every author has a different procedure, and sometimes mine changes based on the book. Here is my general process, which I hope will give you insights into my writer’s brain and – if you’re an aspiring writer – will give you some tips for your work work.

Take time away from the manuscript after it’s fully drafted.

This one is tough, admittedly. I just finished drafting my royal romance novel, and I’m eager to plunge back into it. We want to do a quick clean-up, write the query, and get the thing off to a publisher as fast as we can. Recent trends like rapid release also encourage swift drafting and minimal revision in exchange for quick publication and faster royalty checks. If your goal is to write stuff, this works fine. If your goal is to write well, you need to put the manuscript away for a little bit.

Time away is a crucial part of revision because it gives us critical distance from what we’ve written. It’s a lot easier to catch spelling and grammar errors when the sentences aren’t so fresh in your head that you can remember them without fully reading them. Time away means you have to actually look at the words on screen or on the page, and that’s when you start to notice mechanical errors.

But it’s not just a matter of proofreading. When we write, we fall in love with the characters and the story. The work is precious to us; we remember how hard it was to get out there, and the emotions can easily take over when we go back and read what we’ve written. By giving myself a week – or two or three – before beginning revisions, I find that I’m able to look more critically and objectively at my writing.

Read on paper if possible.

Most of us write on computers these days, and publishers and agents want manuscripts submitted electronically. Increasingly, readers encounter our work on screens, too. It’s possible for a book to exist only as a digital file from inception to publication. This revision recommendation isn’t the greenest in the age of climate crisis, I admit, but I try to print my manuscript and read it on paper. I’ll print double-sided with two pages per sheet to conserve a little. If you can’t handle reading print that small, my suggestion is to alter the margins or the font in some way, so that the words fall in different places than they do on the computer screen. That way, when you read, you can trick your brain into seeing different stuff and you’re less likely to overlook things you did before.

There’s a lot of research that shows we process information differently on paper than on screen. We often read faster on screen and less carefully. College faculty are encouraging students to go back to taking notes on paper to help with comprehension. Although doing manuscript revision on paper means that I’ll eventually have to go back to the computer to input any changes I want to make, I find it allows me a much more thorough reading of the document. I can see multiple pages at once, spread out on a table. I’m more willing to move entire sentences, paragraphs, and sometimes even scenes, by drawing brackets around them and arrows to the place where I want them go. I strike extraneous words, revise sentences, and have this complicated system where I use letters in circles to indicate points of revision. (When I do get to this step with the royal romance, I’ll post photos on Twitter, so you can see how marked up my pages get and how weird my process is.) When I read on the computer, making these kind of big changes is a lot harder. Your mileage may vary.

Proofreading and plot reading are two different steps.

Proofreading is the process by which you clean up a manuscript for errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation and catch the fact that Katie’s name changed to Kathy in chapter three or that Liam left the house without an umbrella but got soaking wet when a rainstorm came. Proofreading is an absolute must for any writer at any career stage, whether you work with a publisher who has in-house proofreaders or not. If you don’t proofread your work, you’re being lazy.

Plot reading is a much harder step. This involves looking for places where the narrative flow is disrupted and cutting, moving, or adding scenes. It means including details that help the reader under characters and their motivations, things that are clear to me, the creator, but not clear to anyone else because they’re not yet in the book. When I work with student writers, I find this is the absolute hardest step for them because it requires being able to critically assess your own work. Consequently, this is the step that many writers try to skip or do halfheartedly. But, actually, this is the step where you should double your efforts. It’s the most important step, the one that distinguishes a polished, good manuscript from an okay one.

I do plot reading before proofreading, since plot reading means sentences and paragraphs will undergo big changes. It’s better to handle the mechanical stuff after, so I’m not wasting time cleaning up stuff that is just going to change anyway. First, I read my book again, all the way through, the way a reader would (without a pen in hand and without fingers on the keyboard ready to make changes). I ask myself where I laughed, cried, and felt empathy for the characters. I look for glaring plot holes and missed chances to flesh out my characters.

Then I read again, on paper, with a pen in hand. Using the system with arrows and letters I mentioned above, I chop up the manuscript. I think of my pen as a scalpel and myself as a surgeon. I carve up what I’ve written and stitch it back together, knowing the bad stuff has been cut and the healthy stuff has been allowed to thrive. Over the years, the amount of pleasure I have taken in this process has grown and grown. I find rigorous revision the most enjoyable part of the writing process. It takes me a very long time, but my work is infinitely better for it.

I once saw a quote from Ray Bradbury: I'm an okay writer, but a great editor.

After I finish the plot reading and paper mark-up (during which I can also fix commas and misspellings), I input all the changes in my computer document. This step gives me one more chance to see what revisions I’m making and contemplate them. Sometimes I actually keep what’s already there, but usually I add even more changes than I made on paper.

When this is complete, it’s time to run spellcheck and grammar check. Usually, by this point, I have caught most mechanical and grammatical errors. But one more careful read, on screen, looking for things that digital tools like spellcheck inevitably miss, can’t hurt.

Read it one more time before you send it off.

Once I finish plot reading and proofreading, having read my book once on screen, once on paper while marking it up, and once again on screen to complete proofreading, it’s time to read one more time. This is a pleasure read. I’ve worked really, really hard on my revisions and proofreading, and this final read-through is to 1. make sure I haven’t done anything to harm the book more than help it, and 2. give me a chance to enjoy it.

This last read is necessary for seeing the flow of the story. It ends up helping me write the synopsis and query that accompany a manuscript when it’s submitted for publication because it means the pacing and the idiosyncrasies of my characters are fresh in my mind. It also gives me a chance to sit back and enjoy the story, pat myself on the back, and think, “Wow! I made that!”

Revision is painstaking.

My process (and the length of this post!) should tell you that I approach revision as painstaking work. It takes a very long time to do well. I write romance novels, which are often consumed quickly and read for pleasure rather than scrutinized for their literary merits. So you may wonder if all this is even necessary. For me, it absolutely is.

First of all, I can’t draft well. I draft without self-censoring. I write things like “put something about food here” and “lost what this scene was about” into my manuscript. Currently, one of my characters is called Wilbur because I’m picturing him as a man with a very pink face and a pudgy belly, and I was thinking of him as a very nice piggy. But he’s French, and this is obviously not the name he’s going to have when I’m done. I just didn’t want to interrupt my drafting flow to pick a more suitable name for him.

I’m lucky that I don’t experience writer’s block where I struggle to put words on the screen. I am a word glutton. Drafts flow out of me, only stopped because I have an appointment to do something else. Because I’m such a glutton, revision helps me clean up and clear out.

Second, I don’t care if my readers will only spend three hours with my book and then never think of it again. I want those to be three pleasurable hours, and I want them to buy future books from me. One way to do that is by writing to my absolute best ability, and that means careful revision.

And, finally, I don’t do all this because I like torturing myself or because sales are the only thing that matters to me. I love writing. And that means I love revising. Even if I could learn to write better first drafts or if a book I never proofread sold a million copies, I’d go back to my painstaking process in the end because it’s fun for me.

What about you? Leave a comment with your tips for revisions!

1 thought on “How I Revise

  1. Pingback: Update: The Holiday Detour | Jane Kolven

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