In all writing processes, especially fiction writing, drafting your novel is only half the battle; the other half involves performing the oft-dreaded tasks of revising and editing. To pick out plot holes, voice inconsistencies and other errors in your current draft so you can begin amending and improving upon them... This is no easy feat.
So where do you start looking? How do you deal with the problems and issues that you've found?
Here are eight steps for you to use as a guide through your revision process…
Table Of Contents
- 1. Take a step back
- 2. Perform a read-through
- 3. Decide what and what NOT to change
- 4. Identify global and local issues
- 5. Create an editing checklist
- 6. Have peers review your work
- 7. Make use of different tools
- 8. Edit grammar and sentence flow
1. Take a step back
After completing your draft, set it aside for at least a month (the longer you leave it, the better!) before coming back to it and re-reading it with a fresh pair of eyes.
Why set your work aside, you might wonder? When you've just finished composing your draft, it tends to be more difficult for you to view that particular piece of writing with a critical eye.
That’s when you need to take a step back. Mark a date in your calendar as a reminder that, say, six months from now, you will go back to your draft. Then immerse yourself in other projects and activities, and cast away any thoughts on your current manuscript. After all, only with the fresh eye of forgetfulness can you more effectively spot and tackle the shortcomings in your draft.
When it comes to critically evaluating your own writing, author Tracey Baptiste advises:
[Think] of the time you take away from a manuscript as an investment in your craft, rather than a delay in seeing your title in print. If you wait to do your best work, you will faster get an agent or editor. If you don’t, you’ll be wasting time in a slush pile anyway.”
Remember: there is no magic formula for how long you should wait, only that you should wait as long as is necessary.
2. Perform a read-through
The read-through is all about reading through your draft at a slow and careful pace.
Before you start, draw up a table with two columns, like so:
|Jot down any issues or discrepancies you encounter within your draft.
Quick tip: Think in terms of plot and character development, not in terms of grammar and sentence structure.
| Jot down possible paths you could take in order to solve those issues or discrepancies.
Quick tip: This column is for brainstorming only; the solutions you write down here won't necessarily be implemented.
It's a good idea to take breaks between each couple of chapters, as you don't want to overload your mind and decrease your overall productivity.
An important point to note here is that conducting a read-through isn't simply about spotting problems. It’s also about evaluating your novel's plot and scenes in terms of:
- Plot originality, predictability, complexity, logicality/consistency, pacing;
- A satisfying beginning and end;
- Characters – their motivations and relevance to the plot.
Make sure to have a list of questions prepared as a guide to aid you through your evaluation process. When well-constructed, a list should give you a clearer sense of purpose and direction, so you know what you need to be looking for before you actually start looking for them. Check out the list of questions you should ask during your first read-through, suggested by the author of the popular Divergent series, Veronica Roth.
There are certain ‘rules’ and ‘conventions’ to every genre, and originality partly stems from breaking, parodying or deviating from these rules. As you read through your draft, note down your main plot developments.
Compare your timeline to any previous novels you’ve read or movies you’ve watched. Are there too many resemblances between your plot and theirs? If you’re unfamiliar with the genre you’re working in, consult a friend or someone who has some experience in the field.
Many online resources provide comprehensive lists of clichéd storylines you might want to avoid: for example, we found a list of overused fantasy clichés, as well as an expansive 'cliché gallery' full of genre-specific tropes to avoid.
An overuse of clichés often results in a predictable (and therefore tedious) story; giving away too much information all at once, rather than gradually through plot development, also tends to create situations where the reader can easily guess what will happen next. This inevitably snuffs out the mystery and suspense in your story.
Info-dumping often takes place while exploring the following things:
- A character’s backstory or personality traits;
- Rules that govern the story's world;
- Sci-fi technology;
- Fantastical creatures;
- The mechanisms beyond an ability/power (whether magical or not).
Remember: while you shouldn’t leave everything ambiguous at the risk of sounding too vague and confusing, you also shouldn’t fall into the trap of spelling everything out to the reader. So look out for parts of your story where you’ve revealed too much, or where you’ve explicitly expressed a point that the reader could have easily deduced themselves.
Create an overly complex plot (i.e. too many subplots, flashbacks or dream sequences), and you run the risk of confusing the reader to the point that your story loses its focus and momentum. Too shallow of a plot, however, and you potentially jeopardise the meaning and purpose that underlies your story. The trick is finding a balance between these two ends of the spectrum.
To find such a balance as you conduct the read-through, you first need to determine how complexity in a rich, nuanced story differs from that in a cumbersome and overcomplicated one. Consider the following:
- Does the complexity add to your story or is it needless?
- Do those complex elements run along the same theme, or are they arbitrary (and therefore pointless)?
- Have you integrated the complexity smoothly into your theme/s, or does it stick out as unnatural and awkward?
Make sure there aren’t scenes where the following inconsistencies occur:
- Items mysteriously disappear.
- Characters appear in settings or scenes they shouldn't be in.
- You unintentionally change a character’s name halfway through.
- You completely abandon your large cast of minor characters until a couple hundred pages later…which creates shocking moments where a long-forgotten character from Chapter Two randomly pops up in Chapter 20, without receiving any kind of mention in between.
Pace is essentially the manipulation of time within your story. If the pace is too fast, readers may find it difficult to keep up with your sequence of events or may find their progression unrealistic. Too slow a pace, however, and you may find the reader falling into a state of boredom very quickly.
The key is to control the pace so that the speed of the story corresponds with its height on the plot diagram.
The rule-of-thumb is: the closer to the climax your story is, the faster its pacing should be. Keep in mind that readers typically prefer fast-paced novels interjected with occasional slow scenes, over the reverse.
As you read your draft, take note of any scene that either leaps ahead too rapidly or drags back too drastically. Then, brainstorm possible techniques you could apply in order to slow the pace of your prose or keep your story moving quickly enough.
Author K.M. Weiland gives some great tips on how you can effectively control pacing:
2.1.6 Satisfying beginning and end
The first and final impressions that your story leaves upon the reader tend to remain the most memorable, so it’s paramount that you spend sufficient time evaluating the beginning and end of your draft.
Consider the following points for your beginning:
- Hook – Does the first sentence grab the reader’s attention? Does it make the reader ask questions? Here, you want to avoid long, slow descriptions of the setting.
- Disruption – Is there tension or suspense in the air? Is trouble already brewing right from the start? Have you established high-enough stakes? As Kurt Vonnegut advises, 'Start as near to the end as possible.'
- Backstory – Include a minimal amount of backstory; the rule of thumb is ‘the less, the better’. Gradually weaving in the backstory throughout your novel is far better than dumping it all down in the introduction.
- Emotion – Instead of writing what you know, try writing what you feel. Add intimate details on how your character acts or reacts to the world and people around him/her.
For inspiration, take a look at these 100 best first lines from novels.
As for your ending, the most significant point to consider is whether or not your story effectively builds up to its conclusion. This is imperative, especially if you find that the direction of your story changes midway through your draft.
Write down any scenes or chapters that do very little to propel your story towards its climax and resolution. Will the removal of these segments disrupt the flow of the story, or will it actually help to build the momentum?
Economy is crucial. Therefore, it’s essential that most (if not all) of the elements in your novel have some function in shaping or defining the ending of your story. It may also be worthwhile coming back to your introduction after you've read the conclusion, as this could help you draw a connection between the two and enhance your capacity to tie up loose ends.
2.2.1 Relevance to plot
Ensure that all the characters in your story – both major and minor – have some kind of arc or necessary role to play. The character shouldn’t just exist for the sake of existing; he/she needs to be contributing, in some way or another, to the progression of plot or to the growth of another character.
You might also encounter situations where you realise you’re missing a character, and need to bring another character aboard so that your story can make greater sense.
Much like people in real life, all your characters do things for a reason. At any given moment, they must want something or be pursuing something, and it’s your job as the author to convey to the reader (in an interesting way) why they have particular motivations.
Ask yourself questions like:
- Why does my protagonist continue to fight, even when all odds are against her?
- Why does my villain perform the evil that he does?
- Do the characters' actions and behaviour match up with their backstories?
Everyone has a reason, even if that reason doesn’t become apparent until the very end. So while you read your draft, keep in mind that, ultimately, it’s up to you as the author to make your readers understand those reasons. When exploring your character's motivations, author of Let’s Write a Short Story! Joe Bunting says:
To understand the motivations of your characters, you need to interrogate them. Strap them to a chair, shine a bright light in their eyes, and make them talk… [then] you need to show the reader what you learned.”
3. Decide what and what NOT to change
That being said, you might not always be certain whether the 'problems' you spot within your draft are actually problems at all. At times, you'll find yourself in a dilemma where you just don't know if you should make the potential edit or not. Under these circumstances, a third category emerges: the 'maybe, maybe not' category.
In a new list, jot any questionable 'problems' down and keep track of all the sections in your draft that stand in ambiguous territory. You may (or may not) address those sections later on, but for now, they are marked as things to mull over subconsciously while you focus on the clearer issues at hand.
4. Identify global and local issues
Global issues involve novel-wide changes; that is, changes that require edits to be made throughout the entire draft. For example, if you decide that the dynamic between two characters needs to be altered, then a global issue arises.
Local issues, on the other hand, apply only to specific scenes or specific groups within those scenes. Thus, decisions to 'add a plot development after page 234' or to 'rework the dialogue on page 100' are cases of local issues.
But the two are not always as distinct as their definitions may suggest. As author Veronica Roth points out,
Local issues become global issues when you, say, add a scene and then have to edit the rest of the draft to reflect that scene, or when you delete a scene and have to remove all subsequent mentions of that scene."
Nonetheless, try your best to divide the table of problems and possible solutions into 'local' and 'global' issues. An effective method of doing this is through using highlighters and colour-coding each problem accordingly.
Start with the global issues first. The reason for this is because the solution to a global issue may result in the removal of a specific scene that contained a local issue.
5. Create an editing checklist
What if you have very few global issues but a very long list of scenes to write or edit? That's when a checklist comes into use. Arrange the list of scenes in order of decreasing difficulty (tackle the more challenging areas first, and you'll make your life easier later on!), then go through the draft item by item. Try to set goals – for example, editing two scenes per day – as a way of staying motivated and productive.
Checklists are also helpful when making more general global edits, as they help to direct your attention to individual tasks during your revision sessions. Think in terms of:
- Edit character X's voice throughout;
- Make sure group conversations aren't confusing throughout; and so on.
6. Have peers review your work
Have someone else (preferably someone with good knowledge of your genre, and whose opinion you value highly) go through your current draft. And remember: don't limit yourself to a single reviewer. In fact, the more constructive feedback you can gather, the more effectively you can amend any plot holes or deficiencies present in your manuscript.
Think of the feedback as a valuable way of gaining insight into the successful aspects of your draft and the aspects that still need work. Their feedback should fall under three broad categories:
- What have you done well?
- What haven't you done so well?
- What can you improve on?
Even better, take initiative and provide your reviewers with a more detailed range of questions that focus on the areas in your novel you are most uncertain about (for example, a checklist about the structure of your novel).
Carefully consider their comments and pointers, but remember that you are the final decision-maker. Let their review guide your own revising process, not define it.
7. Make use of different tools
A number of easily accessible tools can help make your revising and editing processes just that little bit easier. These include:
- Websites like Litlift and Hiveword allow you to create profiles on your characters (both major and minor), keep track of your characters' items/possessions, and also manage your chapters. The key to efficient revision is organisation, and these sites are perfect for organising all the small, intricate details that you may find difficult to keep track of in your head.
- Microsoft Word comments enable you to make notes for certain words, phrases, paragraphs and blocks of text; it's a little like digital sticky notes, but more expandable and manageable.
- The Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word saves your edits so that you have the option to either approve or reject those edits.
- Colour-coded tables can help you keep track of the storyline and character development at a single glance.
- Giant pieces of paper with sticky notes on them are also useful for mapping out the development of your story.
8. Edit grammar and sentence flow
Once your 'big edits' are complete, it's time to begin making small but equally important edits throughout your manuscript as a method of improving flow, momentum and grammatical fluency. This involves such tasks as fixing up grammatical errors, rearranging clauses, and making changes to sentence or paragraph length and structure.
In essence, this is a process of small deletes and small re-writes; it could be as slight as using an alternative word or phrase. The Write Life has some great editing tips for tightening your expression, and Grammar Girl provides some more general tips for editing and revising.
Fix up the definite errors (such as typos) first, then turn your attention to the more indefinite questions like 'Is the adjective necessary here?' or 'Is there a better word to replace this?', which typically require more thought and contemplation.
It's worthwhile taking the time to consider exactly what effect you want to convey, and to subsequently decide (perhaps aided by the wisdom of more experienced writers) what you believe to be the most fitting choice.
If your draft is a sculpture with rough edges and imperfect curves, then revision is your chisel; your goal is to carve out the all problems and shortcomings you find within your draft. Strengthen the weaknesses in your manuscript, and build upon the strengths.
Revising may be difficult, but as long as you stay organised, stay consistent and stay determined, it's not impossible. So keep at it; the outcome will be worth all your effort.