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Revisions – Part Two: The Three Step Process

In my last article, we took a broad look at the subject of revision. I began by delivering the bad news: finishing the first draft is the easy part – revision is where the real work begins. I’ll start this article by delivering more bad news. Revising isn’t a process. It’s multiple processes. You’re going to have to revise multiple times. Based on the highly unscientific method of perusing lots of author interviews, I can estimate that the typical published author does six to ten revisions of their manuscript. A few state they do less. Some do significantly more. How many you do will, of course, be up to you and will likely vary from work to work. But don’t expect to be able to turn a first draft into a polished manuscript in a single pass. You’re much less apt to be disappointed that way.

While you’ll almost certainly do multiple revisions, not all revisions are created equal. Your goal when doing your first revision will likely be quite different from your goal when doing the last one. The amount of effort a revision takes will depend both on the goal of that specific revision and on your particular talents and skill set. For some people, polishing prose is a process of sweat and tears while tweaking a plot comes easy. For others, it may be just the opposite.

So armed with that knowledge, let’s take a look at the overall revision process. Remember that this is a description of my particular approach. Your specific process will almost certainly differ in some respects from mine. You have to find what works for you. Read this with an eye to general suggestions, not as a specific series of steps that you must follow verbatim.

I approach revision as a three step process. That doesn’t mean three revisions, as I may do each step multiple times. It means I go into a revision with one of three broad goals: make it work, make it flow, make it shine.

Make It Work

The first goal is to bring my creation to life. I normally do a first pass of this step immediately after I complete my first draft. When I’m done with this step, the manuscript may not be pretty. Like a Frankenstein monster, there may be protruding bolts and lots of visible stitchery and scars. My story may have a lumbering gait and bad breath. But it will be alive. It will have a plot which works, without gaping holes, improbable coincidences or unexplained loose ends. It will have consistent character personalities and motivations. It will have an overall shape and feel that I’m happy with. It will live.

This first step may or may not contain extensive rewriting. Particularly if the changes I identify are small, I may simply make notes or comments, either in a separate document or within my rough draft, to guide later revisions. Once I’m content with the broad picture I’ve put down into words, I generally set the piece aside for awhile. A couple of weeks is minimum, several weeks or even a few months is preferred. It’s difficult to put something aside after working so diligently on it for an extended period but I find that it’s vital for me to step away from the story, to gain some distance and perspective, so that I can view it with fresh eyes. I devote extensive time and effort to a story and I become immersed in the picture I have in my head. When I read my manuscript, I’m playing the scenes in my head as I imagined it rather than simply seeing what I’ve actually put down in the text. I see what I wanted to write and not what I’ve actually written. And so I step away, moving onto other things and other stories, letting new ideas and inspirations flush away the details of this particular work.

When I come back to the story, I do a fresh read. Depending on the length, I may print the story out. Reading text on paper has a different feel from reading a document on screen. If it’s a shorter work and I have an alpha reader who’s available and willing, I may have him or her read the story aloud to me. Audio is processed by a different section of the brain than is visual information and the difference in reading and hearing a story is profound. I also note where the reader stumbles or pauses. This can indicate confusing sentences or poor word choice that I mark for later attention.

After reading my story again, I’ll again look at it with an eye towards step one. Are there any big picture items I missed in my first once-over? Any plot or character issues that catch my attention and need to be addressed?

Make It Flow

I then move into making the story flow. I have my plot – the overall sequence of events – established. Now I look at how that’s presented to the reader. Did I start at the beginning and tell it linearly, relating events in chronological order? Did I start somewhere in the middle and provide information on earlier events through flashback, dialog or other techniques? Whatever choice I made in the original writing, does that still seem to be the best approach or do I need to look at reorganizing the chapters? If I decide to delete scenes that appeared in the original, do those scenes contain any information that I’ll need to fold in elsewhere in the story? If I need to add missing information, do I expand an existing scene or do I create new ones? Where in the narrative do I place new scenes? This is also where I look at foreshadowing. Have I placed clues in the narrative that suggest what’s to come without spoiling any key plot points? And, of course, I’m not just looking at plot in this step. I’m considering character. Do the existing scenes adequately establish my character’s personality and motivation? Do they take any actions which don’t flow naturally from their personality and motivation? Have I put sufficient clues in the narrative such that the reader can glean that motivation from the character’s actions? What about the pace of the novel? Is there rising tension with sub-climaxes located at the right junctures of the story? Are there any areas where I got a bit long winded and that I need to punch up or pare down? Once I fix any issues identified in this step, I move on to polishing.

Make It Shine

Polishing is a combination of proofreading and word-smithing. I’m looking primarily at my prose, not my story. First, there are the obvious questions. Are there spelling or grammatical errors? Have I used stale metaphors or stock descriptions? What about too many adverbs or complicated dialogue tags? Has passive voice slipped in anywhere? Are there run-on sentences or sentence fragments?

I also look at more subtle issues. Does my style and authorial voice remain consistent? If I’m using multiple viewpoints, have I remained inside a single viewpoint for an entire section? Are my transitions to a different viewpoint character clearly signaled? Have I snuck some telling in where I should have been showing? Have I allowed the author to intrude into the story? Is my dialogue and action balanced? Is my dialogue consistent?

Dialogue is an area that many writers, myself included, find challenging. I generally give it lots of attention. For a long work, I’ll use a software tool which prints out just the sentences with quotation marks. I’ll read through just the dialogue to ensure that each character’s voice remains consistent throughout the story.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

When I’m satisfied with the prose, my story is done. I’m ready to present it to an editor or beta readers and get their feedback. Hopefully, that’s all gushing praise and fawning accolades, with no complaints or weak areas identified. (okay, so that’s never happened but I can still hope, right?) Depending on the nature of the issues that are identified, I’ll step back into the appropriate step of the revision process to correct them and send it out again. Lather, rinse, repeat until either I’m satisfied that the story is the best I can do or my beta readers refuse to read another version.

This is my three-step process. Of course, real life is seldom as neat and compartmentalized as I’ve laid it out here. If I see a misspelled word or a grammatical error, I’m probably going to fix it regardless of which stage I’m working in the revision process. These steps are the overall goal I’m focusing on as I go through the work. The objective is to start with the major items and work down to the smaller issues, and to avoid spending time revising or polishing text that may eventually be cut or substantially altered. Whether you choose to use something close to this process or to vary things in a manner that works better for you, your approach should be a top down process – fix the big issues, leave the smaller ones to last. Otherwise you’ll likely find yourself wasting a lot of time fixing little things that later revisions will eliminate.

Now that we’ve established an overall approach to the process of revision, we’ll spend upcoming articles drilling down into each step and looking at techniques to accomplish each of the major goals. Thanks for reading and keep writing!

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3 Comments

  1. Khaldun says:

    Another wonderful article, Dan. Also, I’m very impressed with what you said regarding your first drafts: “it will be alive. It will have a plot which works, without gaping holes, improbable coincidences or unexplained loose ends. It will have consistent character personalities and motivations.” This is impressive because even Pat Rothfuss said WMF was full of holes and all sorts of other issues came back to it thinking it was done.

    If ever you’re looking for another set of eyes for your work, let me know. I’m Khaldun on the forums as well, so just send me a PM.
    Cheers

  2. Dan Jones says:

    Thanks. Glad you enjoyed the article.

    As I mentioned in the article, “…real life is seldom as neat and compartmentalized as I’ve laid it out here.” My goal in a first revision is to fix the issues I described. There are definitely times when I come back to reread after taking a break from a work and realize that I missed something, or when beta readers point out things which escaped me. I’ve definitely had stories that I thought were essentially done and later realized that I had extensive work to do.

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