Writers seem to come in two categories 1) those who love drafting and dread revision and 2) those who put up with drafting and live for revising. (Raises hand.) The more books I write, the more I realize how hard drafting is. I just want it all on the page already so I can fix it until it matches what’s in my head.
But when people dread revising, it’s because revising requires a logical/structured approach, which goes against our creative natures. After spending months—or years—working on a book, we’re emotionally invested in the words already on the page. And it can be hard to cut scenes or characters or even half the book, if necessary. But here’s the thing: no book is perfect on the first try. Revising is the phase of writing when the book truly comes alive.
So, you have a draft of a manuscript. Now what?
Revisions can be daunting. You’ve spent all this time on your book and you thought you were done (you wrote The End, right?), but there’s still a ton work left to do. This is where the phrase “kill your darlings” really comes into play. You can’t be so in love with/attached to what you’ve written that you ignore when something’s not working and just needs to go.
I suggest doing your revision in waves to focus on a few key things each time. This method will keep the revision manageable so you feel like you’re making progress. It also allows you to get into an editing groove by letting your brain tune out everything except for the few things you are focusing on in that wave. Depending on what works best for you, there could be any number of waves. I’m going to focus on four big ones that work for me.
Wave 1: Big Picture
When you do your first read through of your draft, you’re looking to see if the overall story works before you get into the nitty gritty revisions. For this first step, you’re looking at the pieces that build the foundation of your story: character goals, stakes, and tension; logical story flow and pacing.
I recommend printing out the manuscript two-up on a page and putting in a three-ring binder. This format tricks your mind into thinking of it more like a finished book, which takes you out of the creative/writer mode and puts you in an editor mode so you can be more objective.
As you’re reading, here’s what to look for and questions to ask:
- Character Goal: Does the main character (MC) have a goal that’s driving the story?
- What does the character want? Most characters want something external and something internal (emotional need). The internal need should be what’s driving the external goal, though the character might not realize it until later in the story.
- The goal/want needs to be clear early in the story so the reader can connect with the MC and have a reason to root for them from the start.
- Does the goal reappear regularly as a reminder of what the character is working toward?
- Stakes: Are the stakes clear (what will happen to the MC if they don’t reach their goal?)
- It doesn’t have to be life or death, but it has to feel like life or death to the character.
- This is what will give the story an underlying current of tension. If the reader knows there’s something bad looming, they’re going to keep reading to see if the MC gets what she wants before this bad thing happens.
- Tension: Are things constantly getting worse for your character? Are they having to fight harder at every turn to get what they want?
- Tension can be external (things happening to the MC through plot) or internal (how the character reacts to those external actions). You need both kinds of tension throughout your book.
- Add in scene-level tension caused by what the MC wants/needs in that moment (may or may not be related to the larger stakes) to keep the momentum driving forward.
- Constant tension also makes the payoff at the end that much more satisfying because the character struggled to reach their goal and achieved growth by the end of the story.
- Logic: Is the plot logical? Does each scene make sense from a common-sense perspective? Is it plausible?
- Readers are willing to suspend belief as long as what you’re asking them to believe is part of the fabric of the world you’ve built, but disruptions in logic that don’t feel true will have readers putting the book down.
- Make sure each action occurs because it’s the only possible outcome for the story and not because you as the author want it to happen.
- Flow: Does the story flow in a This happens SO this happens SO this happens structure? Stories are chains of cause and effect where one action/reaction always leads into the next.
- This is where an outline comes in handy! Look at each scene and make sure that every action or reaction has a consequence that drives the next plot point.
- Pacing: Is the story unfolding too slowly/taking too long to get to the heart of things? Or are things moving so fast the details and motivations get skipped over?
- Split up heavy backstory or info dumps and weave throughout the story to give the reader just enough info to not be confused.
- Do you need to remove or reorder scenes to make the overall story flow better?
- Do you need to draft new scenes to fill plot gaps or connect an emotion thread?
- Do the key side characters appear at regular intervals or do they disappear for chapters at a time?
- Look at the word count for each scene/chapter to see how quickly the story is progressing and if there are any places that stand out as too long or too short.
Once you have your in-document notes, make a list of the changes and group similar changes together to work on one chunk at a time. (Color coding with highlighters or page flags works well here.) Then go ahead and make these edits before starting Wave 2.
Wave 2: Character’s Emotional Arc
Now that the foundation is solid, you need to make sure the changes are not only working but also that character is reacting to things in the right way at the right times. Readers fall in love with characters not specific plot points. So, it’s critical that the character’s experiences and emotional reactions are a constant undercurrent in the story.
Characters must also learn and grow throughout the story for the reader to feel satisfied at the end. In this wave, you want to:
- Ask “So what” to make sure each scene connects the plot to the character’s emotions (Story Genius does a great job at laying out how to identify what Lisa Cron calls the Third Rail—this emotional current—and ensuring that it’s driving the characters actions).
- Make sure the character motivations are clear to the reader. Lead the reader by weaving in hints throughout so decisions don’t come out of the blue.
- Characters will notice different details and describe things differently depending on their mood. Use POV to layer in more details to give a fuller picture of both the story world and the character based on the MC’s emotional state.
- Look for places where you tell instead of show and flip it to bring the reader into the story so they feel like they’re experiencing it with the characters and not just being told what happens.
- End chapters on a strong emotion or decision to drive into the next scene so the reader is compelled turn the page to find out what happens next (even if it’s well-past bedtime!).
Wave 3: Line Edits
Now that all of the heavy lifting is done, this is where you’ll focus on the writing itself and not the content, such as:
- Sentence and paragraph structure/length
- Word choice
- Consistency (names, timing, seasons/weather, character habits) – make sure you didn’t edit out something that now makes other details confusing.
- Transitions between scenes
- Find and replace crutch words/phrases
Wave 4: Final Tweaks
This is where I move from paper to reading on my Kindle and a notebook to mark any necessary changes. This tricks the brain into thinking like a reader, not a writer or an editor. You’ll pick up on different things when you’re not reading it so critically. In this wave, you’re looking for:
- Awkward phrasing
- Overused words
- Repeated words (within the same sentence or paragraph)
- Overlong sentences and paragraphs
- Anything else you might have missed during the previous revision waves
This is not a quick process. But revision shouldn’t be quick. If you’re skipping right to Wave 3 or 4, you’re probably missing out on some of the most important aspects of revising, and your story will show it. Don’t be afraid to make big changes. The only thing that should be off limits during revision is the heart of your story that made you want to write it in the first place. Everything other aspect can—and should—be fair game.