How I Revise
This is a continuation of a series of blog posts I'm doing to explore different parts of my writing process and how I put a story together from start to finish. If you want to see earlier topics, you can find them in the writing section of my blog.
Today I'm talking about how I revise. This is my absolute favorite part of the writing process, and it's something I feel like I've gotten pretty good at over the years, so buckle up while I take you through some of the ways I turn my steaming-pile-of-garbage drafts into polished, readable stories.
1. Embrace the process
I've said it before and I'll say it again: your first draft probably isn't going to be perfect, and that's okay. How much revising you'll actually need to do and how much time you'll spend in revisions will depend on a number of factors I won't get into here, but sometimes that process can look really overwhelming when you're staring at an entire novel's worth of words that need to be rewritten, revised, and edited into a quality book. It's a daunting task, but not an impossible one. And if you can just embrace the process and see some of the positive, fun things about it, it might just a little less overwhelming.
Remember how I said revising is my favorite? It wasn't always. I used to hate it. After all, who wants to take a manuscript they've spent months or even years writing and then commit even more time to hacking it to pieces? But you'll come out of the process with a much better story, and that's where the real magic of revision comes in. You can be the world's worst drafter and still turn that story into something impressive if you put in the time and effort needed to revise it and make it better. I love watching my first drafts transform into stories I can be truly proud of as I revise them. Revision is where the stories my heart longed to write in the first place truly take shape, and I've learned to love that feeling even if it is a difficult process. The product I come out with on the other side is always worth the effort.
2. Take a break
Before I begin any kind of revisions on a story, I take a break. It's so important to my process to put some distance between myself and my first draft so that when I do jump into revisions and edits, I can do it with a clear head and fresh eyes. We can't help but get wrapped up in a story when we're writing it, and being that close to something can make it a lot harder to look at it with the more objective perspective needed for revisions.
Sometimes I take a break for a week (this is usually the case with my short stories). Sometimes, especially with novels, it's at least 3 or 4 weeks. It really just depends. And by taking a break, I mean really taking a break. I put that story out of my head and shift my focus to other things. (This tends to be when I get a lot of art done, or maybe play through a video game or something). The more I've done this, the more I can kind of sense when I'm ready to go back to a story, but I always, always find it valuable to step away for a while before I revise.
3. Start with the bones...
When I begin my revisions, I like to start with the most fundamental parts - the bones of the story, if you will. It doesn't make much sense to focus on the nitty-gritty details if you come across something major that's going to require major changes, because then all those nitty-gritty details will be subject to changing anyway. The bones of the story are things like character arcs, overarching plot lines (and any plot holes that may be present), pacing, point of view, world-building, theme, and so on. They're the things that give your story it's most basic structure. Remove or weaken any one of them, and you risk the whole story falling apart (or at least not living up to its full potential).
This is where I tend to do the most rewrites as I will often discover certain elements that just aren't working, whether that's a subplot that isn't pulling its weight or a scene that needs to be in a different point of view or some element of word-building that isn't being adequately conveyed to the reader. A lot of times, I'll find issues with my pacing that need to be resolved before I focus on any of the other details in a scene. I try to do most of this work before I send the story out to beta readers or critique partners, and that usually tends to work pretty well, although they do still sometimes come back to me with feedback that makes me realize I need to do some more extensive work on getting the bones of the story right.
I tend to be an underwriter, meaning I typically write drafts that lack the substance needed to tell the complete story, so I'll often end up adding a lot of those missing pieces in this stage (new scenes, new descriptions, showing character development, etc.). Some people have the opposite tendency of being overwriters, meaning they write a lot of stuff in their first drafts that isn't necessary to the story. For overwriters, this is potentially a good stage to focus on some of those larger elements that aren't contributing and need to be cut.
4. ...Then take a closer look at the details
Once I've got the bones of a story figured out, it's time to narrow my focus and look at the details. This will include making sure each scene has a job to do and is doing that job effectively, making sure my characters' voices are consistent and distinguishable from one another, taking a closer look at my descriptions and character interactions to make sure those are playing out the way I intended, and editing for clarity and flow. This is where I tend to do the most revision passes in multiple drafts as I get feedback from beta readers and incorporate that into the story.
For underwriters like me, this stage might include fleshing out details and descriptions that weren't there before, building transitions into your scenes to take readers fluidly from one part of a story to the next, and so on. For overwriters, it might mean focusing in on places where you can cut some of those unnecessary details on a smaller scale, in individual scenes or paragraphs rather than in the story as a whole.
By the way, if you're struggling with figuring out how to make sure all of your scenes are doing a job and contributing to the story as needed, Jordan Rosenfeld's book Make a Scene has some great tips on this.
5. Level up your revising skills
Like anything else in writing, revision is a skill, and you might not be good at it the first time you make an attempt. That's okay. Keep practicing and you're sure to get better over time. One of the best ways I've found to improve my own skills in this area has been to beta read and critique for other writers. The more practice you have looking at other writers' manuscript with a critical eye, the more you'll learn how to see what's working and what isn't, as well as ways that certain elements of a story might be improved. Those same skills will help you when you go back to your own story. You'll be able to look at it with a more critical eye and better evaluate what's working and what isn't. And as an added bonus, if you participate in beta reading swaps or find a great critique partner who's willing to read some of your work, you'll be getting valuable feedback on your own story. Learning to incorporate that feedback as part of your revision process is so valuable and will really help you improve your skills.
That's all I've got for you today. I'd love to know what kinds of things have helped you in your own revision process, and be sure to come back in a couple weeks when I'll have a post on how I work with beta readers and critique partners.