Revisions: Are We Having Fun Yet?

While I continue to tweak the novel I thought I finished six months ago, the revision process is on my mind. Most writers would rather write than revise. I suspect many writers would rather visit the dentist than revise their work, but adhering to a well-defined revision process can be the difference between a mediocre and a great novel.

Let me share my process:

First draft: As a minimalist outliner, my first draft functions as a highly detailed outline. The first draft is where the writer gets the basic story onto the page. Don’t labor too long to come up with the perfect phrase or scene. Perfection is not the goal. That will come later.

Step back: Let your work sit for at least four weeks, longer if you have the patience. This time away will give you a better perspective and allow you to look at your work with fresh eyes.

First look: Read your first draft as a reader would. Focus on “big picture” stuff: story, structure, characters, theme. Ask yourself: does the story hold together. There should be a cause-and-effect to the events in your story. If there’s a major development that comes out of the blue, the writer needs to go back and lay the groundwork. Are the characters fully developed, interesting and complex? Take a hard look at the protagonist and the antagonist. Why should the reader care about them? While the main character should have some likeability, the antagonist must also have qualities that are attractive to the reader. Is there a central conflict? Is the main character’s goal clear to the reader? Have you created tension and conflict among the characters that grows organically without feeling forced? Have you identified and developed the theme of the story?

During this first look, make notes but resist the urge to make changes. This can wait until you’ve read the entire draft.

Second draft: This is where the greatest improvements to the story should take place. This is where the writer must address all of the problems identified during the first look. When you finish your second draft, the story should be airtight, the theme should be clear, and your character should be in sharp focus.

Line edit: This is just what it sounds like—a line-by-line editing of the manuscript. It’s the most tedious part of the process. At some point, a writer must read the manuscript carefully, line by line, looking for typos and grammatical errors. I did seven line edits of my first novel, in part, because I kept finding minor errors and in part because I made the decision to self-publish.

When these steps have been completed, a writer should then show the manuscript to others. I’m put off when someone shows me a manuscript riddled with typos and grammatical errors. This shows no respect for the reviewers.

Beta and Alpha Reviews: A beta reader is an astute critic who understands and recognizes quality fiction writing. An alpha reader is a super-astute critic. Why show your work to others? The writer is too close to the work. An outside critic can spot flaws and weaknesses the writer cannot see. Give your critics ample time to review your work and submit their critiques. Remember, they are doing you a huge service.

After these steps, the writer should consider hiring a professional book editor, if resources permit. Some writers hire an editor and a proofreader.

Final Draft: Now the writer is ready for the final draft. At this point the manuscript should be in great shape. The writer is looking for minor flaws that a sharp agent or publisher would spot.

How long should these rounds of revision take? The short answer is, “until your manuscript is ready.” The real answer is it could take anywhere from six months to two years or more, depending on a number of variables.

What is your revision process? Do you enjoy revising your work? 


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2 responses to “Revisions: Are We Having Fun Yet?

  1. My process takes at least ten drafts.

    • Mari,
      I’m one who believes the more drafts the better, but I reach I point where I’m too close to it and then I don’t know whether my tinkering is making it better or watering it down. It’s a tricky call to know when to let it go.


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