Writing Tips: Revising vs. Editing, or How to Revise the Sh*t Out of Your Novel
I am currently in the midst of a grand revision of my novel The Princess and the Frog (working title) and have realized how little I actually knew about the revision process up to now. If you are like me, then perhaps you too entered your first year of college writing courses and scoffed at being told to revise a piece of writing two-to-three times!
"Ha!" you (and I) thought. "I know how to write! A little editing for typos and I'm good!"
Maybe you even got straight A's doing this, but now--when it comes to giving your work to a more critical eye than your grad-student English 109 instructor--you may be faced with the startling realization that the first try with a little editing is not going to cut it.
So now, here we are, flipping desks over and going crazy because we never actually learned how to revise. Editing, check. Actual, full-scale revision? WTF is that?
Never fear, my friends! We creative types need to stick to together and support one another, so here I have provided you with some first steps to get your revision (not editing) well under way:
Step 1: Take a Step Back
This is advice which is touted by the highest voices in the writing sphere. Once you have finished your manuscript (emphasis on finished--you cannot edit an empty page!), chances are you either hate everything about it or are so in love with your brilliant, beautiful words, that you cannot see how they can be improved. In either instance, it is in your best interest to take a step away and do something else for a while before going back to revise your manuscript.
In On Writing, Stephen King tells writers to put their freshly-completed manuscript "in the drawer" for AT LEAST one month before taking it out to read and revise. For my manuscript, I even set an event on my calendar to let me know when to open that drawer again (or, in my case, the file, as we now live in a digital age). I even named the manuscript file "The Princess and the Frog - DO NOT OPEN UNTIL 7-7-17," marking the precise date one month from the day I finished the first draft.
Was this necessary? 100% yes. Even though it was very difficult not to dive back into this story I love, and even though I was itching to enact some changes I had thought up during the slapdash rush towards the end, I DID NOT open that file. My reward? Quite literally two days before I was scheduled to start revisions, I thought of a new aspect to my main character which would completely change her actions in the story. I could not have come up with this idea if I had been so enmeshed in the story that was that I could not see the story that could become.
Step 2: Read it, or At Least Look It Over
As I am dyslexia and a slow reader of my own work in particular (how can I not just change that word right there? and while I'm at it, why don't I just rewrite this whole chapter right now), I did not do a full read-through of my novel when I removed it from the drawer. It is usually recommended that you print out all the hundreds of pages, double-spaced, with wide margins, and start making notes.
If you are like me and read slowly, or just don't have the time for this right now, I think there are other options. What I did to re-evaluate my manuscript was import the novel into Scrivener, a comprehensive writing program, with each scene labeled according to its place in K.M. Weiland's story structure outline.
(For more detailed information about this brilliantly comprehensive guide to story structure, click here.)
This method allowed me to A) Review each of my scenes and remind myself what was happening in my story, B) See how and if each scene fit into the structure of the story, and C) Remove scenes, and even whole chapters, that I could immediately see were doing nothing for the plot. Adios! This was an incredibly helpful strategy and allowed me to cut 7,000 words in two days.
Granted, it took a lot of hard thought and time to move over an entire manuscript to a different program, but I believe it was time well-spent and it moved things along much faster, for me, than reading over my work would have done.
Step 3: Ask Others to Read It
Now, you have your manuscript all ready to go and looking a lot better. It is time to get some other opinions. For me, it was daunting trying to figure out where to begin the changes in an entire manuscript. Transporting to Scrivener helped me realize structure problems, but what about character and story problems? This is where it's good to get a second, third, or even fourth opinion.
If you are not yet part of a critique group or have a critique partner, I recommend you get one asap, especially if you have already finished your first manuscript.
"I don't want anyone to read my work!" you may say. "What if they don't like it??"
My answer to that is, "Fine, if you want to only ever write for yourself. If you want to publish your work, then someone is going to read it sometime, and your critique partner is going to be a lot kinder than a newspaper critic, or an online review."
The Writing Life is all about rejection, and it's good to get your practice in early. Chances are, your critique partner is not going to destroy your story--or, if they do, it's because they want to make it better. They're on your side! But they're also on the side of the reader, so heed their advice and try not to take it personally.
How do you choose a critique group/partner? Go somewhere there are writers, find someone who really seems to get your work and what you're trying to do (everyone is different, so it's okay if not everyone is nodding along to your story idea, but it's a gem to find the person who is!), and then latch onto them with your suckers and bleed them dry. Ha! Just kidding... Probably.
Below are some sites where you can find your group, meet up, and hopefully find your "Ideal Reader." Choose a site within your genre and start talking to people online or in person. And have fun! These are your people!
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)
Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA)
Romance Writers of America (RWA)
Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI)
Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing
Note: Some of these organizations may cost a LOT of money, but you do not need to go this route to find Your People. They may be on a free chat-site, or on Facebook, or meeting for coffee and writing on MeetUp, so look around and find what's out there for you.
Once you have latched onto your critique group/partner, politely ask them if they would be interested in "beta reading" your manuscript. Tell them:
1. how many words it is (or pages, 12 pt. double spaced),
2. when you are looking for feedback (allow 2 months whenever possible, or explain why you would need it sooner--such as, a deadline for an award, agent, or editor submission),
3. and what kind of specific feedback you are looking for (i.e. characterization, setting, story structure, etc.).
They may say "No" and that is okay. You have opened the door and, if they like your work, they may be interested in beta reading for you in the future. Good job! You've caught one!
WARNING: Do not ask your mother/brother/best friend/significant other to beta read your manuscript, UNLESS they are an author or otherwise an expert in the genre/field of your story. Your friends and family are not going to give you an honest critique, because they care too much about you as a person. If you are looking for validation or a pat on the back, sure, send it to them. If you are looking for something to work with, you need someone who is willing to tear apart something you love. This is why the critique partner is so important.
Step 4: Implement Changes
Since you are a professional and have done all the right things to get to this point, you are now ready to begin revising your manuscript to make it THE BEST THING EVER!
At first, it might be overwhelming again, looking at the wealth of information your lovely beta reader(s) gave back to you. As I am not yet at this point, I will direct you to a fantastic blog post by the prolific K.M. Weiland on how to organize feedback from multiple sources. Note that there is an option at the bottom to listen to the podcast reading of the post! (Seriously, that woman does everything!)
So how do you revise? One step at a time. For me, I started at the beginning of my novel because I know that I want to have that shiny and clean as soon as possible. I submitted the first three chapters to my fantastic critique group (built out of my cohort from my MFA program!) and got great feedback about what needed to change. It turned out that something I thought was weak in the third chapter was everyone's favorite part, and that the first chapter was basically universally hated, when everyone's feedback was brought together.
Step One (or a million, depending on how you look at it) for me was therefore completely re-writing Chapter 1. I now have that out to at least one beta reader and soon more, so I will find out how the new first draft is. For the rest of the novel, I am using the structure I set up on Scrivener to see if each scene actually does what it is supposed to do according to its story structure label, or if another scene is needed.
Next, I am looking at the structure within each scene to see if it follows the Scene-Sequel model and if my POV character is consistently motivated with a Goal throughout the scene.
Lastly, I am learning more about story structure by listening to the audiobook version of K.M. Weiland's Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author's Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development. Not only is this book highly informative on a subject I have had only a small understanding of, but it is also strangely motivating. Figuring out how to give your protagonist a Positive Change Arc, where they must relinquish their Lie to learn the Truth that will save their internal struggle, can give you a good idea of what you need in your life too.
For me, my Truth is writing. Since "Writing" is "Revising," then I guess I'm willing to embrace the truth of revision as well. No more just-editing for me!
Note: You may want to go about your revision process in a different order than I have done, or focusing on different things. I know I have the most to learn about structure, so that is where I am focusing my revision. It could be that you have to work more on character, dialogue, or worldbuilding. Find your weak spot, study it as hard as you can, and work on bringing those aspects of your manuscript up to snuff with the rest of your brilliant writing. I highly recommend the following books on writing, revision, and editing to get you going:
Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story by K.M. Weiland
The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman
Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer, Illustrated by Jeremy Zerfoss
Try not to get too bogged down by all the things you need to do. Writers have been revising for hundreds of years, and if they can do it, so can you! If you need to bang your head against your keyboard in frustration over a character arc every once and a while, that's okay too.
Just know that I believe in you, and you should believe in yourself too. You now know what revision is, where to begin, and how to get to started. What is most exciting or daunting for you in the revision process? Feel free to share your revision struggles and techniques in the comments below!
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