How to Write a Novel, Part 7: Revision and Editing

So you completed the first draft of your story. Congratulations—it’s a milestone in the novel-writing process. But your work is far from done. If you think revision means typing “The End” and running spellcheck, think again. Drafting just generates raw material. Through revision, we sculpt that narrative clay into a novel. That’s where creativity and craftsmanship really ignite.

What does revision mean?

Look at the word. Revision = re (again) + vision (see). You’re seeing your work again. That’s hard to do after months of staring at the draft! Set it aside for a few weeks. Take a break. When you return, you’ll be able to evaluate the story with fresh eyes. If you’ve kept notes throughout the drafting process (I recommend you do) organize them into a checklist for review. Otherwise, just dive in!

Start at the macro-level, evaluating plot and theme. Chances are the story has evolved a lot since you began, and that can be a good thing. Sometimes it takes the whole draft to discover what the story is really about. List every scene in the book, then eliminate or rewrite any that don’t advance the narrative. Consider your sub-plots as well: all should follow complete mini-arcs. Once you fill in all the gaps, evaluate:

  • The starting point: does the book begin where the story begins?
  • Does the story make logical sense and maintain plausibility?
  • Does it sustain momentum through the final page?
  • Do the climax/denouement resolve everything in a satisfactory way (or, if this is a series, does enough suspense remain to prompt readers’ interest in sequel)?

As you solidify the plot, appraise the characters. They should be the impetus behind each scene, driving the story with their actions and choices. Does each main character have a strong, plausible motivation? Do they evolve over the course of the story? If you’re using multiple perspectives, evaluate the POV of each scene to make sure it’s the best choice. Read dialogue aloud to make sure it’s brisk, meaningful, and appropriate for the character(s).

We can’t discuss revision without addressing William Faulkner’s notion of “kill your darlings”. No, this doesn’t mean you should slaughter your characters (unless you’re writing Game of Thrones) nor that you should wantonly excise all your favorite parts of the story. It simply means you shouldn’t let attachment hinder your revision. If a scene, a sub-plot, or sentence doesn’t fit, take it out, no matter how much you like it. Revision demands ruthlessness. It stings now, but your story will be better off for it.

Keep zooming in on the story elements. Assess the manuscript visually for “word bricks”: long paragraphs with little dialogue or exchange. These dense spots are clues that the story is “telling” instead of “showing”. Re-work that exposition as action. Apply wordcraft and begin honing your prose. Finally, re-format the draft cleanly with a standard font and a new page for each chapter. It’s ready to share…not on a publishing platform, but with your beta readers.

Beta readers

Just like programmers engage beta testers to explore new software and uncover the bugs, authors need beta readers to give feedback on their stories. The ideal beta reader fits your book’s target demographic and has familiarity with the genre, but it’s more important to choose people you trust to provide candid, thoughtful critiques. Ask readers to consider:

  • If you’d bought this book on Amazon, how would you rate it?
  • Did it hold your attention from beginning to end?
  • Were the characters interesting and believable?
  • Did the plot make sense and maintain plausibility?
  • Was the quality of the writing equal to that of a well-reviewed published novel?
  • What changes would make the novel more satisfying?

Depending on their responses, you may go back and revise again. That’s good! Ultimately readers will determine the success of your book, so give their opinions serious consideration.

Editing is essential

Nothing screams “amateur” like a book riddled with technical errors! It undermines your credibility as a author, distracts from your story, and may drive some readers to put down the novel. When you’re satisfied with all your content revisions, pass the manuscript to an external editor. The internet teems with professional editors, many of whom specialize in particular genres. Before hiring one, it’s wise to:

  • Verify their resume, client list, and independent affiliation
  • Ask for samples of their work
  • Obtain a project quote in writing

Professional services can get expensive, however. If you can’t spare the cost, recruit a friend or family member with a keen eye and impeccable grammar. This doesn’t mean they should work for free: editing is incredibly time-consuming work, so negotiate fair compensation for their efforts. If you can trade a day of childcare or tickets to a ballgame for a good copy-editing job, you’re getting a bargain.

Why is this taking so long?!

By this point, you’re probably wondering: “what’s the point of all that advance story planning if I’m just going to re-work everything anyway?” Because a little forethought will:

  • Prevent you writing yourself into dead ends
  • Give you a plan for completing a draft as “raw material” for revision
  • Improve the overall quality of that material.

I find that new ideas emerge s I draft, which can necessitate massive re-writes. It can be discouraging at times, but all those evolutions are part of the writing process. As May Sarton so astutely put it, “revision is not going back and fussing around, but going forward into the highly complex and satisfying process of creation.” Revise fearlessly. Even the rarest gemstones need a lot of cutting and polishing to transform them into jewels.

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