The revision process
This post is a special request. To make a special request, visit our Facebook page, post on the wall, or send a private message. You can also write to firstname.lastname@example.org . Exceptionally, this post is separated in two parts. Part 1, “Preparing to revise” was posted this past Thursday.
The first step: editing your own work
So, you are ready to begin. I recommend re-reading the story five times, each time looking single-mindedly for something very specific. When your mind is focused on one subject, it makes it easier to spot everything. Whenever you go through a read, always take notes! I recommend printing the manuscript; I use post-its and hi-lighters. Don’t try to rewrite at the same time as you are reading, or you may lose your focus. Instead, finish each read, then go in the story and make the changes. Time is a very good advisor when it comes to solving problems you identify, anyway. Do make the changes before starting on another read.
Take your time to do this. Rushing through this process is the surest way to miss things and to work inefficiently.
– First read: structure. Make sure that each plot point, every piece of information is given at the right moment, and with the right intensity. Make sure that every time something big happens, the reader has all the information they need to understand it. Make sure every sub-plot is resolved before (or at) the climax. Make sure every scene is essential to the development of the story.Take a sheet of paper and write down every element in a graph, if necessary.
– Second read: characters. Do they change? Are their motivations clear for the actions they take? Are their relationships well developed, understandable? Are they all necessary to the story, or can some be removed? Are they proactive? Distinctive? Well-rounded?
– Third read: style. Make sure to put aside a long stretch of time to do this one; if possible, you should do it all in one sitting. Read it as if you were reading the story of the person you hate most in the world. That co-worker who keeps taking credit for your work. That boss that keeps passing you over for promotion and stealing your lunch. That kid in high school who took your lunch money, or made fun of you because you were fat. Look for weak or bad transitions. For boring parts. For inconsistent pace. For mistakes and flaws in point of view.
– Fourth read: Dialogue. Find a quiet place to sit for this one. If you have not done it yet, this is the perfect time to read your dialogue aloud. Read each line carefully. How does it feel to say it? Does it feel like real speech? Don’t skip this one. You have to read your dialogue aloud at least once. I recommend reading it to someone to have a second opinion, but you can read it to yourself. Just do it.
– Fifth read: sit back, put your feet up, and enjoy yourself. Just read the story. Are you still enjoying it? Do you still like your characters? Your plot? If you’re still having fun after all this, then you know you’ve written something really good.
Notice that I haven’t mentioned spelling or grammar once in all these re-reads. The fact is, you shouldn’t be doing your own proofreading when it comes to spelling and grammar. Nor should you trust a program like word; it might tell you when a word is misspelled or doesn’t exist, but it’s notoriously bad at grammar, and will do nothing to help you when it comes to homophones. Please, for spelling, grammar and syntax (including proper verb tense), hire a professional.
The second step: asking for help
When you’re finished revising your work, you should still show it to others before self-publishing or sending it out. This step is crucial for two very good reasons. The first is that you should not be the only one revising your work. You can take all the time you want before you do it, but you can only attain a maximum emotional distance; after all, it is your baby. I often compare the act of revising one’s story without relying on others to the act of painting a mural six inches away from the wall. You may not be in the best position to see the big picture. Besides, you should make sure that all the information is correctly conveyed by running it by someone else, someone who does not already know everything you are trying to say. After all, as the author, you inevitably know a lot more about your story than you’ve written down, and if that’s not the case, you’ve either said too much or too little. As Hemingway put it:
The second reason you should get others to look at your work is that you should learn to receive criticism. An author who does not know how to receive criticism graciously is likely to have emotional reactions when asked to change things in their novel. Editorial changes are a reality of the business, and an author who has emotional reactions or outbursts toward their agent or publisher is someone who is marked as unprofessional, and is likely to have a hard time publishing a second book with the same people. So, having people you know and love be the first to criticize your book is a good way to test and practice your emotional resilience. Just think about it this way: people (and publishers) are busy. If they take time out of their busy schedule to not only read your book, but take notes and either write you a critique or sit down with you to point out the areas that need work, it’s because they not only care about you a great deal, but also think your book has potential. If you jump in their face and get defensive, not only are you not receiving information that might make a big difference in the quality of your writing, but you are also ensuring that this person will never again give you an honest critique of your book. Even the worst criticism is better than “that’s nice” or “that’s great”. You can tell when someone really enjoys your work; they tell you about their favorite parts, their favorite characters, all the things that they really enjoyed about the book. “That’s great” usually means “there are problems, but I’m not going to waste my time telling you about them”.
There are two kinds of criticism; constructive criticism, and criticism that’s related to taste. Usually, constructive criticism is specific, and objective, and comes with a suggestion to fix the problem. Criticism that is relative to taste is usually put in words that are vaguer, and come with no solution. It’s important to pay attention to both. Not all the people who are going to read your book know a lot about writing; maybe they just can’t identify what the solution might be. Pay attention to all criticism; if you are hearing the same thing from many people, even if it does not sound like constructive criticism, you should think about it carefully. It’s likely that they have identified a problem with your novel.
Feedback from others comes in two forms: beta readers and critique groups. I highly recommend using both; they each have their unique advantages, and, as such, complete each other. While beta readers have the leisure of reading at their pace, and taking down as many notes as they want, critique groups offer group criticism, and can debate about it and brainstorm solutions as a group.
Try to ask a number of people to be your beta readers. You should not have too few, but you should not have too many. I find a good number is between 5 and 8. Try to vary your audience; you should pick as many people who know the craft as people who don’t, and you should try to pick readers who do not usually read the genre you wrote in as well as those who do. This is important because they won’t all give you the same kind of feedback; to be sure to catch all the possible responses to your book, you should run it by a lot of people.
You should also make sure they understand what’s expected of them. I always give my beta readers a letter informing them that I expect them to have read the whole book before a certain date (make sure to make this a reasonable amount of time, do not rush them), and that I expect notes. I also give them a list of areas to watch out for. If this is your first book, you should give them the list of most common mistakes writers make (as posted in the last post). If not, then you should give them a list of areas that are not your greatest strength, as well as a list of questions you still have about your book, such as whether or not a certain emotion is felt, or a certain information understood. Be honest, and expect that some of them will back down once they realize being a beta reader involves more than just putting their feet up and reading your book to their leisure. Don’t give them grief about it. It’s much better for you that they back out now. That way, you won’t be stuck waiting for them forever, and you can move on to finding more beta readers, and neither of you has wasted any of the other’s time.
Critique groups are absolutely essential to an author. They can function online, through forums, or in person, meeting monthly or bi-weekly. Some have each author read their texts aloud on the night of the meeting, and some send them to be read before hand, spending all the meeting time on the actual critique. Some have many people read the same night, while others focus on one member per week. Whichever formula you pick, be consistent. Nominate a moderator. They will be in charge of making sure the critique remains constructive and objective; sometimes, not often, but it does happen, some people join these groups to vent their frustrations about the market, or are just negative energies that bring the whole group down. If you do choose to start your own group, I warmly recommend you read the book The writing and critique group survival guide: how to give and receive feedback, self-edit, and make revisions by Becky Levine. It’s an excellent guide.
If you do not have a critique group, look for one through associations for authors in your area. If they cannot help you, you can join online writing communities and ask around about one which you could join. Failing that, you can always ask around for authors who would be interested in founding an online group with you. There are also large online groups such as Critique Circle, and Scribophile, which you can join.
When you have done all this, your story is ready. Don’t revise forever; you have to stop eventually, send it off, and move on to other things.
As Leonardo Da Vinci said:
I would go further and say that art is a bit like our child; we must wait for it to have the proper maturity so it can survive on its own, but once it does, we must let it go, or run the risk of suffocating it.