My Process for Approaching Large Revisions

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

sw_Editing_N10_20130809_230442 (1)I received an email last week from a writer who is feeling a little overwhelmed by the revision process and asked if I’d written any posts that helped to sort of sort through revision in an organized way.

And my first reaction was, besides completely understanding why anyone would feel overwhelmed, was: “Oh sure, I’ve got gobs of blog posts like that.”  But…no.  Although I talk a lot about my need for revision and stuff I’ve had to fix in the past, and the fact that I don’t edit while I draft–I had no posts at all about how I organize and approach revision.  So I’ll correct that now.  And, looking at my process below, I’m thinking that one reason I might not have outlined this before is because it so closely resembles my process for writing a book that maybe I thought I’d repeat myself.

This is a process for someone who really, really needs a process or has become frozen because there is so much to do and she doesn’t know where to start.  It could work for someone with really limited time and a demanding day job.  Or someone who has tried other methods without success.

First off:

Brainstorm a list for your revision.

This may be a humdinger of a list, but work on it a little every day. Maybe you already have a list of notes to yourself about manuscript problems…this is a good time to organize the bits into a master list.

Everything goes on the list.  The stuff you worried about in your book.  The feedback you got from your editor/beta reader/critique group.  It’s a master list.

Brainstorm all the global problems you recognize in your book. You might know immediately what these are. If you can’t put your finger on them, think about lack of conflict, whether the protagonist is taking charge or observing, character development, character growth, flat dialogue, and character goals/motivation.

Brainstorm all the smaller mistakes you want to watch for.  Be thinking about things like: repeated words (echoes), continuity errors (character’s hair color/outfit changes in same scene), POV problems, pacing (some scenes too rushed? some scenes too slow?) too many adjectives or adverbs, dialogue tag issues, varied sentence structure, bumpy scene transitions, etc.  Weak word choice–sometimes I’ll double-check that I’ve used words like felt, very, look, started to, think, really, put in a smart way.

Brainstorm all the additions you want to make to the manuscript.  These might be chapter breaks, descriptions, setting description, added scenes that add conflict or develop character, etc.

Brainstorm all the deletions you know you want to make to the manuscript.  These might be instances of backstory, dull dialogue, or meandering scenes that don’t further the story.

Then: break headings on your list into smaller tasks of things to do/address.  See how many tasks you can break each area down into.  So maybe you received some beta reader/editor/crit group feedback: Help make main character more sympathetic and likeable.  You could change that to add in a pet-the-dog/save the cat moment near book’s beginning.

Martin seems too flat as a character could have a few to-dos:  Brainstorm Martin’s backstory and what he fears most/wants most.   List why Martin is important to the protagonist and ways to make him more soHow does Martin grow during the story?

Some of these things are going to take only a few minutes (word searches for frequently repeated words or potential problem words).  Some will take longer (continuity errors, POV, etc.).  If you’ve broken down some of your bigger tasks into much smaller, manageable to-dos, though, you’ll have bits you can accomplish even in small amounts of time.

After you finish with your list, work on it as you have time.  If you’re forgetful like I am, carefully mark off each item when you’ve finished. Mark on your document where you left off, if you’re working on a read-through. I use Word’s Track Changes or Comments feature.

Continuity errors seem to take the longest amount of time for me to catch because I usually have to jot down notes about what day of the week the story is on, a character’s eye color (can prevent this if I make a style sheet as I write the book!), etc.  Read through the book for continuity errors (notepad beside us),  POV, and transition problems.

If you come across additional problems as you go, add them to your to-do list, also breaking them down into smaller tasks.

Double-check yourself.  Check your list again.

Do a final read-through to make sure all your deletions, additions, and word changes make sense.

Call yourself done and reward yourself somehow.  Maybe by starting on that next book that was tempting you the whole time you were plodding through your revision?

I’ll add here that now, although I still do need a list to help me keep track of changes I need to make, I don’t *have* to make one as extensive as the one above…now it’s more rote because I’ve done it so many times.  This is more if you have a heckuva revision on your hands, feel overwhelmed, or need to apply some real organization to your project to help stay on track and motivated.

There are so  many ways to approach a big revision.  What are some of your tips?

Image: MorgueFile: jppi

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25 thoughts on “My Process for Approaching Large Revisions

  1. I go through it first just making the easy and obvious changes, and highlighting things that need fixing but will take some thinking. Then I go through it chapter by chapter. Not the fastest method but feels good as you get close to the end.

    Moody Writing

  2. Elizabeth – What I like about your process is that it keeps you open to making all kinds of changes. I think that openness and flexibility help to keep the writer willing to try different things. And some of those different things can really make a book better. Sometimes you get really brilliant ideas just from laying it all out. And the task becomes more manageable too.

  3. I find your posts helpful and save them.

    My mind is like a little girl who is told to go straight to school, but along the way follows butterflies and picks flowers. I must have a revision list to stay on course.

    As I’m writing my newest compilation of shorts, I write down things that I need to detail like a character or mention other characters earlier etc. My first time through, I just write to get the story out. I believe that was your idea, too. :)

    1. Teresa–I like your analogy. :) I think my mind is a little like that, too. I have to be very stern with the little girl…

      Excited about your compilation of shorts! Is your first compilation published? How did I miss that?!

  4. This is a great list. The process can be overwhelming, for sure. I do an extensive revision before sending it to betas, then another extensive revision once they’ve finished. Then read it 100 times with a notepad beside me. And after those 100 times? I still miss a typo :)

  5. I actually love the revision process. It’s still daunting, but I see it as a way to craft the best story I can from all the words on the page. Like you, I don’t edit as I write the first draft. In cooking terms, the first draft is my mis en place. Revision is creating the meal out of the ingredients.

    I teach a 3 pass approach for revision. Look at the story, look at the conflict, look at the characters. When you’ve assessed and improved these three aspects, it usually creates the story you were imagining when you typed the first word. If not, it can mean you need to do a rewrite.

    One thing I never do is polish until I know everything will be in the book.

    1. Perry—Love it! Yes, a mis en place! :)

      Three passes is very reasonable and seems less-scary. And you’re so right about the polishing….such a waste of time unless the book is basically done. Otherwise, it must be polished again later.

  6. These are some really helpful tips. I find I usually have a mental idea on where I want to go with revisions, but when I go back through and re-read a first or second draft, I do try to make notes on things I don’t like–such as a character is too preachy, or scenes I want to expand from a summary to a full-blown scene. Whether I follow those notes are anyone’s guess, though. ;) I usually try to get a master file that has any feedback from critique partners all in one with my own notes, so that’s also of assistance when I’m rewriting.

    1. Liberty–That used to be tough for me, too–I’d jot down notes of things to fix and then I’d come across the notes…after the book had been published. :( I’ve gotten better about putting those types of notes on my master list.

  7. Love drafts, don’t love revisions. I’ve taken notes from your post here and will integrate them. Everything I know about revisions (so far) has come from Sol Stein’s How to Grow A Novel. Thanks so much!

  8. Hi Elizabeth
    I must confess, i still feel like i’m getting to grips with editing. My approach, which I know could be more efficient, is to start at the beginning and change as I go through, and I do everything, spotting typos, passive voice, repeated words, the whole shebang.
    I’ll then get to the end and figure out where the story is lacking, which characters need more or less, and so on. Then I’ll do the second pass, making those changes and spotting yet more typos and making tweaks to sentence structure etc.
    It’s all a bit random, but so far seems to work. After I’ve done that, I’ll send it off to my editor, which is another story entirely… :)
    I think the list thing is a good idea, I just feel like the time is better spent actually on the manuscript. Having said that, I’m fairly sure your way is better, so I’m going to make myself try it with the next one :)

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