(This article is based on a blog post I wrote several years ago, but I’ve tweaked my methodology since then.)
Writing a novel is hard work, but for many aspiring authors the much harder part is revising that first draft into something fit to send out into the wide world. It’s easy to think that all you need to do is run that puppy through a spelling-and-grammar checker and you’re done. Sorry, kid, but that’s putting the carriage before the unicorn (you have carriages pulled by unicorns in your world, right?)…
Depending on how you work, it might not be possible to do a single, once-and-for-all revision pass. If you outline your book in advance and follow it successfully, or can seat-of-the-pants your way to a coherent first draft, then yes, maybe. For the rest of us, it may well take a couple of passes, tightening up the book as we go.
On the other hand I would urge against doing revision after revision, because after a point you’ll suffer from the law of diminishing returns. You might even polish the life out of your prose, leaving it shiny and pristine but ultimately sterile.
With that said, let’s get on with the work!
I use a mixture of electronic and paper-based editing, as I find that switching between the two keeps things fresh, but you can adapt the mix to your personal preference.
Here’s a comprehensive list of supplies:
If you have disabilities that prevent you from handwriting with any ease, use your favourite note-taking app: Google Docs, Evernote, or whatever you prefer. Also there are lots of software alternatives to physical index cards, including Microsoft OneNote, Cardflow (iOS) and OmniOutliner (Mac). Or create a new Scrivener project and use the corkboard (you’ll understand why I strongly recommend creating a new project later).
If you want to edit the old-fashioned way, on paper, you will also need:
On the first page of my notebook, I write a one-sentence summary of the plot, containing:
Note that this is not the same as your pitch/logline, as it will almost certainly contain spoilers. You’re not trying to sell the book here, you’re trying to capture the essence of the story to use as a yardstick against which your manuscript will be measured.
If you’re writing a complex novel with multiple protagonists that have their own major plot arcs (not just subplots), create a summary sentence for each of them. A good example of this would be The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie, whose three point-of-view characters don’t even meet for most of the book.
I also make a bullet-point list of key elements in the story – the bits that made me excited to write it in the first place. You want to keep those things front and centre when you’re down among the weeds of the individual chapters, otherwise you might edit your book to death, as mentioned above.
Next you need a working copy of your manuscript (see below for details on how to create one). You do not edit your actual manuscript yet! First you mess with a separate copy, to help you lay the groundwork for the final steps.
Once you have a working copy, sit down with it and your revisions notebook, and start reading at page 1. Please resist the temptation to fiddle with the prose (that’s why you’re using a working copy, not the original document). What you’re focusing on right now is the story. You have to read like an avid reader, not like a nitpicky writer. Every time you find yourself being pulled out of the story by anything other than clunky sentences, make a note. Write a number in the margin (in a circle or with a hash, so it’s obvious), and add a similarly-numbered explanation in your notebook. You’re looking for:
In other words, all the things that tick you off when you’re reading someone else’s book. (Confession time: I’ve found all of these in my own rough drafts. It’s easy to commit storytelling sins in the rush to get the ideas down on paper.)
You have three main options:
This can be the best way to get a new perspective on your work, but an entire printed manuscript can be cumbersome, especially if you’re having to rearrange scenes or refer back to an earlier scene to check on a fact. It’s also expensive unless you have ready access to a printer. I think it’s worth trying at least once (assuming you don’t have any disabilities that would prevent you from doing so), but I don’t do it very often.
If you go this route, you have two further options: print it out double-spaced so you can use it again when editing, or print it single-spaced to save paper if you intend to edit in your word processor. Your call! However if you’re going to do the former, I recommend inserting page breaks between scenes if you can, as it makes rearranging them a whole lot easier!
This is my medium of choice nowadays. If you read ebooks regularly, reading your manuscript on a tablet can replicate the experience of reading a “real” book and allow you to step back from your work, mentally speaking. Ideally you want a largish tablet with a stylus, and preferably a dedicated app that can deal with lots of annotations—I like to use iAnnotate on my iPad Pro. If your ereader’s annotation interface is a bit clunky or if lots of annotations make it slow, you might find it less frustrating to work on your computer.
As a last resort, you can read your novel on your computer. However it’s important not to use the original draft! If you normally write in Scrivener, compile it to Word. If you work in Word, import it into Google Docs. If you use Google Docs, make a fresh copy. Whichever format you choose, change the font so it looks different from the draft you’ve been typing all these days or months (or years!).
Pretty much every novel has subplots – without them, your story is going to feel thin and under-developed. You might have a romance subplot, a character story arc that’s separate from the main plot, or a parallel plot that is linked thematically with the main plot. All of these will add richness to your story. However you might discover that you have a subplot that’s completely unrelated and keeps dragging the story off course. These will need to be either cut or changed.
A plot or subplot can be identified as being a conflict between two characters (or one character and a situation) that extends over a substantial section of the book. If the conflict only takes up a scene or two, it’s probably an obstacle in a larger plotline, rather than a subplot. Identify them all, and make a list; you should end up with around 3-6, depending on the complexity of your story. Give each one a short name, so that you can jot it down in your notes later: Main Plot, Romance, Hero Arc, etc.
As you can see, a conflict doesn’t necessarily mean aggressive opposition. It could be two characters who want different things (often the case in romance), or a character in conflict with himself because he’s trying to overcome a weakness. However each conflict has to be resolved in the course of the book, or at least reach an equilibrium, otherwise the reader is going to feel frustrated.
In order to get a bird’s-eye view of the whole book, it’s essential to have an outline. Even if you never use an outline when creating your first draft, it’s invaluable in the revision stage, because it’s damned hard to hold 100,000+ words of prose in your head. It’s also a great tool for that most dreaded of writing tasks: the synopsis! Hence, the next stage is to go through the manuscript and create one index card per scene.
By “scene”, I mean one section of story in a single point-of-view, with a continuous flow of narrative from one point in time and space to another. This may sound a bit vague, but I like to keep it flexible because I have written scenes that only last a few seconds, and others that span several days and many miles because they’re essentially “told” travelogues punctuated by a few short “shown” moments.
You can use index card software if you prefer, but I enjoy the messiness of real cards. It’s also very satisfying to see the “revised” pile grow, and the “unrevised” pile shrink during Step 7. If using real cards, I recommend that you hole-punch them (I put a sticker on my regular hole-punch to mark the ideal position) and fasten them together with a binder ring or treasury tag. If you write long, multi-PoV novels like mine, you’re probably going to need treasury tags or extra-large binder rings (I buy mine on Etsy).
On the front of each card I write:
Once the current draft has been mapped onto index cards, I go through the manuscript again, this time identifying every notable character and location (including ships, if sea travel is part of the story), and their first appearance in the book. I highlight them in the manuscript and put a number in the margin, and list these same details in my notebook.
This can be a very revealing process: I might discover that I haven’t actually introduced a significant character because I took her existence for granted or, having written the draft out of order, I’ve introduced her later in the book than her actual first appearance. It’s also a good way to spot characters with similar names that might confuse the reader.
Now comes the fun part – playing with the index cards! With my read-through notes to hand, I go through the cards and assess whether each scene is pulling its weight. Hopefully the scene is basically sound but maybe needs a minor plot-point fixed or the pace needs tightening, or perhaps it would work better in a different PoV. In the worse case I may need to drop it altogether – and if so, should I write a new scene in its place? Are the chapter breaks in the right places? Do I need other new scenes to conclude plot lines that trailed off, or to beef up under-developed conflicts (see Step 4)?
I “correct” the contents of existing cards in coloured pen and scribble longer notes on the back, and of course make out new cards for brand-new scenes. These latter I use coloured cards for, just for my own amusement – see photo, right, where I used pink cards for new scenes. Personally, I tend to leave creating new scenes until I get to them, especially in the second half of the book. The trouble with being a discovery writer is that new ideas are likely to crop up during revisions, so you can’t be too rigid. If however you’re a hardcore outliner, go ahead and create your final outline now.
You can use whatever combination of coloured pens, coloured cards, sticky notes, etc gets your juices flowing and helps you to get a handle on the story. Often it’s useful to divide up the cards by plot line and make sure that each one progresses logically to a satisfying conclusion – again, numbering your cards is vital for enabling you to reassemble them in the final order.
Finally I renumber the cards to reflect their new order, so that I have a “master outline” to help me rearrange the scene documents in Scrivener.
It’s very easy to get the timelines of your novel out of kilter: characters travelling from A to B in an unfeasibly short amount of time, or character X being in two places at once. I therefore recommend tracking your timelines in whatever way seems best to you, whether that’s a simple text document, a spreadsheet, or something more sophisticated. Right now I’m using Aeon Timeline, a Mac/iOS program that syncs with Scrivener: it supports custom calendars for fantasy/SF/historical/non-Western worlds, and makes it much easier to keep track of scene duration and character location.
This is the meat of the work. Now it’s just a process of slogging through the manuscript, chapter by chapter, implementing the changes you planned in Step 7. I find that occasionally I’ll have to backtrack slightly and tweak a revised scene, to set up or foreshadow a new plot twist that just occurred to me, but the emphasis is on moving steadily forward.
The previous steps will only take me a few days altogether but since I also have a day-job, rewriting a 120k+ novel usually takes me 7-8 weeks (providing the book’s not disastrously broken). If, as usually happens nowadays, I’m working to an editor’s deadline, I map out a schedule on my wall calendar (see my blog post about completing the previous draft of The Merchant of Dreams) and make sure I stick to it.
When you’ve finished this step, you probably want to step away for at least a couple of days, preferably longer, and give your brain a rest. This is a great time to get beta-reader feedback, especially if you write a messy first draft like me and haven’t dared show it to anyone else yet!
This is the editing step that most people are familiar with: fixing typos, rewriting clunky dialogue, cutting or expanding descriptions. There are plenty of books that cover the nuts and bolts of editing; I recommend “The First Five Pages” by Noah Lukeman and “Self-editing for Fiction Writers” by Renni Browne and Dave King. It’s a good idea to read each scene aloud, if you can, as it really does help to highlight sentences that no normal person would ever say!
If I have time, I do a polishing pass on the manuscript itself, then a final proofread on the iPad. Tip: if you’re not an experienced proofreader, go through your manuscript in reverse page order. That way you’re less likely to get caught up in the story and can focus on the actual words in front of you.
You can (and should) run a spellchecker at this point, but be aware that even the best spellcheckers miss errors. If you’re going to submit this draft to an agent, get an eagle-eyed friend to at least proofread the first three chapters for you. Unless you have a problem such as dyslexia, however, a thorough self-edit should be enough to get your work into submittable condition. There’s “perfect enough”, and then there’s perfectionism used to justify procrastination…
Seriously, reward yourself for all that hard work. You now have a much stronger manuscript than when you started this process, and you deserve to celebrate it.
I hope this article has taken some of the mystique out of how to revise a novel-length manuscript, and given you the courage to have a go. Best of luck with your own endeavours!