Commandments for Successful Revision
I'm currently midway through the process of revising and editing A Day in Fall, a topical thriller I finished writing over a year ago. I want to start by saying that there are a ton of different methods for tackling this stage, and everyone has their own process. Congruently, there have also been plenty of articles and blog posts written on the subject. I've linked some of the ones that have helped me the most below.
I've developed my own set of commandments, so to speak, for taking a flawed draft and turning it into a polished manuscript ready for publication. It isn't foolproof, and the more revision passes you make on a draft the more likely a better outcome.
But if you have a manuscript that you feel just isn't quite ready, or simply want to know more about how the revision process works, then keep reading.
Some writers get hung up on the distinction between revising and editing. This is very important. An edit is a correction of basic spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. Revision is the much more complicated task of actually going in and improving the writing.
But how do we do that? Below, I've listed out the most crucial things I look to improve during the revision process.
Active vs. Passive Voice: I discover this problem a lot when going through early drafts. Active voice makes things clear to the reader while also keeping sentences from becoming too bogged down with unnecessary words. When you start to see things like "was blaring", "had been looking", or "was written", change them to "blared", "looked", and "wrote". "The book had been written by Thomas" becomes "Thomas wrote the book".
Show Don't Tell: This is one of the most common pieces of advice given to writers. And it's tricky. Some exposition is most likely going to be inherently necessary in whatever you're writing. You can't show everything, and switches between exposition and direct showing or dialogue can make for entertaining writing. The key is to know how to balance between showing and telling. Check your draft for huge blocks (multiple paragraphs or pages) of exposition and condense them down. If you have an info dump, try to work it into dialogue or sprinkle it naturally into an action sequence. Make sure you're keeping the reader as engaged as possible.
Trim the Fat: I find that when I'm trying to get a draft on paper I come back to a lot of redundancy. Sometimes this comes in the form of repeating the same information multiple times in dialogue or in different chapters. Others it's simply using the same word multiple times too close together. Be on the lookout for repeat information and condense it down. And some readers don't mind redundant words, but they throw me off. The English language is vast; there's no need to use the same unique verb or adjective twice in two sentences.
Story Inconsistencies: This is the time to really hone in on the details of your story. Assume everything from the largest plot points to the smallest minutiae is going to get picked over. And this doesn't just go for plot. Make sure capitalization and spelling is consistent throughout. This is where I also group in syntax problems or confusing sentences. Revision is a great time for seeing things differently than you did while writing. Don't be afraid to rework sentences that sound off or get rid of confusing ones altogether.
Add Value: This is one of my big tenets. Everything in your manuscript - chapters, scenes, and even individual sentences - should add value. Values comes from either progressing the plot forward or developing characters. Cut or rework indulgent writing that you may really like but does neither of these things. Readers and publishers will thank you.
Tone and Mood: At the end of the day, every part of your story exists to service a specific tone you want the writing to have and a mood you want the reader to feel. I typically group a bunch of different things to watch for into this category. Do characters change and develop throughout the story while undergoing stresses and conflicts? Does tension build (even subtly) toward some type of breaking point? Is your writing significantly fresh? Meaning, have you avoided cliches and overused tropes? This is the time to assess whether or not your writing fits with the tone you wish to convey. Taking a break between writing and revision can really help you get a truer understanding of how your manuscript will feel to readers and if its plot complexity, timing, and actual vocabulary and writing techniques are all working in concert to present a cohesive final product.
Finishing Touches: Before you're ready to start contacting agents or sending the manuscript around to be read, consider this final checklist of sorts. Does each scene generally begin by identifying the point of view, setting, and time within the framework of the story? Are tenses congruent and flashbacks written clearly to avoid confusion? Are the opening chapters hook-worthy? A great premise is important, but those first few chapters closing the deal on interested readers is absolutely critical. Above all, make sure everything is working in your favor to hook interested parties and then deliver on the story you've promised.
None of this is easy. Writing a great book, no matter the genre or subject matter, takes a ton of practice, awareness, and patience. Editing and revision are just as difficult. Reading as many articles like this one as possible is a great way to hone in on a revising method that works best for you. One of the most time-consuming things about writing is figuring out your own process and discovering what is most effective on a personal level. For example, after the initial editing I prefer to have my manuscript printed and go through it by hand as opposed to doing it via a word processor. Everyone is different.
Thanks for reading. There's plenty more to come and stay tuned for news about my upcoming release of A Day in Fall. And check out these links for more advice on editing and revising your manuscript.
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