YOU’VE FINISHED the first draft of your book, and you feel great — for about five minutes. You know your next step is to revise, but the task seems overwhelming. You’ve spent months, maybe years, writing those chapters, those pages, those carefully crafted scenes. And you’re supposed to . . .what . . . tear it apart?
In a way, yes. And in another way, no. Revision isn’t about tearing apart your work, and it isn’t about cutting, though that’s certainly part of the process; revision is about strengthening your work’s foundations and then making sure that every detail, every cornice and bit of molding (to continue the building metaphor) is where it’s supposed to be, every mitered corner meticulously fitted together, so that your creation fulfills its purpose — whether that is to entertain, educate, or persuade (or some combination of the three).
At some point, you’ll want to hire a professional editor. Because, even if you’re an excellent editor yourself, and even if your critique group has helped you develop your chapters, a professional editor has both the distance and skill to see what you and your critique group cannot. A developmental editor will sniff out the manuscript’s flaws and make suggestions to strengthen and develop the overall structure and coherence of your work. And a copyeditor will help you sharpen the details.
But I recommend going through at least one revision yourself in order to give your best to your manuscript before handing it to a professional.
If you’ve never been through the revision process for a book-length work before, you might not know how to get started.
Here are the Seven Steps I Recommend
1: Step Away
I know this seems counterintuitive. It’s natural to want to dig into the revision process while everything’s fresh in your mind. But, at this point, you’re too close to your work. You need to step back, get a breath of air, and take enough time away from your piece to come back with a fresh perspective.
If you’ve finished a book-length work, put it away for at least two to three weeks and up to six weeks. For a shorter work, one to three weeks should be enough time to put some distance between you and your writing.
In the meantime, dig into that “to-read” pile that’s been building up on your nightstand. Take long walks outdoors. Engage yourself in another kind of creative work, like painting or playing a musical instrument. Write in another genre, such as poetry, or play with some fun writing prompts that stimulate your imagination.
2: Focus on the Big Picture
After your “mini-vacation” from your manuscript, come back to it as though you were a reader from your intended audience, rather than the author. Print it out and read it all the way through, from start to finish — away from your computer, so you’re not tempted to line edit.
As you read, focus on the big picture. Note how the writing does or doesn’t flow. Does the beginning interest you and make you want to keep reading? How are the transitions from paragraph to paragraph and from chapter to chapter? Do you want to turn the page? Are there inconsistencies? Do you notice irrelevant passages or paragraphs or parts of the plot in the wrong places? Are there places where you find yourself skimming to get to the next part of the story? Do you get lost in the story and forget to analyze? Underline passages where you notice these things and write comments in the margins.
Sure, if you notice typos, make a note to correct them, but don’t get caught up in line editing. That comes later. At this point, you want to feel your way through the story rather than nit-pick it.
3: Use a Beta Reader
At the same time you are reading your manuscript, have someone — a friend, colleague, or family member who represents your target audience and who you can trust to be honest — also read it. Ideally, this person is an avid reader and not a writer (unless you’re writing a book for writers). Ask this person to give you his or her opinions and impressions. Did the writing engage and keep her interested and turning the pages? Were there gaps or unanswered questions or places where she felt lost? Sections she skimmed over? Your beta reader’s responses, combined with your own, will help you identify problem areas in the manuscript, as well as which parts work well.
4: Rearrange and Cut Out the Unnecessary
Now it’s time to go back to your computer. As you read, you will have noticed and marked passages that seemed irrelevant or interrupted your story in some way. Does the story begin in the right place, or does it really begin on the second page? Is that dialogue between those two characters necessary?
Save your manuscript as a new version. And then, be ruthless. Cut out everything that doesn’t contribute in a meaningful way to some aspect of the story, such as plot, atmosphere/mood, character, or place. Reread the paragraphs before and after the deleted section(s). Does the story flow better now? If it does, then cutting was the right decision.
In some cases, you’ll have identified passages that interrupt the story, but the information contained in them is important in some way. These might simply be in the wrong place. For example, long descriptions and backstory sections can be broken up and strategically reinserted in smaller chunks throughout the manuscript. But before adding these bits back into your story, ask yourself: Is this really necessary? Does this bit of backstory or research really need to be included in order for the reader to understand this character or situation? Pare the information down to the bare-bone essentials.
5: Fill in the gaps
You may also have noticed gaps in your story or passages where there was not enough sensory detail or description to engage your readers emotionally. You, or maybe your beta reader, identified places that may confuse readers because you made assumptions about what they do or don’t know. So, in addition to cutting, you may need to add to your manuscript in order to make your story more compelling.
6: Narrow Your Focus
Once you’re confident that your story starts in the right place, that you’ve got the big chunks in the right places, and have filled in the gaps, narrow your focus. Start by examining your transitions from chapter to chapter. Does each one lead naturally to the next? Revise where necessary. Then revise your transitions between paragraphs in the same way. Finally, bring your focus down to the sentence level. Revise sentences from passive to active, replace weak verbs with strong ones and vague adjectives with specific descriptors. Cut any unnecessary adverbs. And correct typos.
7: Repeat steps 1 and 2
Again, step away from your manuscript for a while, and then reread with a focus on the big picture. After reading, you may want to perform another revision pass, but if you followed steps 3-5 diligently, you probably have a fairly solid manuscript at this point.
It’s time to celebrate.
Then, hire that editor and listen carefully to what he or she suggests.
Do you have some experience revising your own manuscripts?
What’s your process and what would you recommend to others?