What We Talk About When We Talk About Revising


Whether you’re just coming down from an adrenaline-fueled National Novel Writing Month high or you’ve been working at a more leisurely pace, at some point (if you stick with it) you’ll write “The End” on that first draft of your novel.

Good on ya! Feels great, doesn’t it?

So . . . now what?

Now comes what some authors (me included) consider to be THE crucial part of the entire process: revising. Here is where your book really comes together and you polish (or maybe discover) your unique vision and its execution.

I once read a good analogy for the first draft: its purpose is to get all the sand into the sandbox, so you can then start building your castle.

Your first draft is your raw material. It’s the revising that turns it into a book.

Sadly, there’s no magic formula for revision. It always depends upon what’s on the page and what you’re striving for, as well as your own background and experience.

In this brief post, I can’t cover the specifics of how to revise. There are literally hundreds of books, articles, checklists, and blog posts out there that will tell you exactly what and how to revise.

Sometimes these are helpful, sometimes not.

From my 20+ years of experience as a writer and another 20+ years as a teacher of writing, I’ve found there are some things that are helpful for writers to keep in mind about revising, as well as some critical mistakes that writers make when they try to revise.

Here’s my take on what those are.

1. Take a break.

It doesn’t do to jump right into revising when the draft is still hot. The general wisdom is to let the draft sit for a while, and in this instance the general wisdom is correct. Though your impulse might be to turn around and start in on the next version, let it cool down from the heat of composition. Take a break. Catch your breath. Clear your head. Reduce your sleep debt. Reintroduce yourself to your family. You need distance before you can move on.

Some authors like a little help from their friends when they revise.

2. Remember what you’re up to.

Revising literally means “re-seeing.” You’re taking another look at your work with an eye toward making it as good as it can be. Some people distinguish between revising and rewriting; they say revising means working with the draft you have, whereas rewriting means tossing it all and starting over. I tend to conflate the two because I do some of both.

Revising is sparked by a conscious and critical assessment of a draft’s meaning, significance, and potential. It’s different from composing. And here’s where your reading background makes a real difference in how you approach your work; the more you’ve read, the more you’ll understand how your novel can (and should) take its place among the ongoing conversation of literature.

3. Remember what you’re NOT up to.

Revising does not mean either copyediting or proofreading. These are both key elements of bringing your work to completion, but they just get in the way if you do them too early.

Copyediting means bringing your draft into conformity with conventions of format, grammar, spelling, and punctuation; those tasks aren’t important now. “Proofreading” means reading a proof of your book and marking any typos or errors in grammar, style, or punctuation.

Neither of those help you with the substantive intellectual and creative act of revising. Sometimes a writer’s tendency is to start the work of revising at that level, thinking you’ll work up to the big stuff. Correcting those simple errors at the sentence level might feel good and make it seem as if you’re off to a good start.

But if that’s your impulse, you have to block it. Save that for the end. It’s just going to keep you from the real work you have to do, of “re-seeing” what you’ve written.

4. Start at the top and work down.

This doesn’t mean simply starting at the beginning. Rather, I’ve found it’s helpful to think about revising as a series of activities that move from the macro level (that is, the story level) to the micro level (the level of sentence structure and word choice). Even if you like to plunge into revising with a kind of “all-at-onceness” approach, consider these as conceptual guides for how you approach your project:

a. Revise for story structure and major plot points.

The story is the skeleton of your novel—what keeps it standing and moving. At this stage, you’re rethinking or even discovering the purpose of the book, what it is that drives the telling of the story, and sharpening the focus that gets your reader engaged.

Many authors look at their drafts in terms of “story beats”—that is, the key points of action that form the plot. These can be helpful, but even if you don’t think of the story in those terms, there will be high points of action or emotion that you should be aware of and craft for.

b. Revise for structure and development.

These are the muscles and tendons of your book. I like to think of this stage as being broken into different parts: character (thinking about character arcs, character development, dialogue, and character descriptions), scenes (sharpening scenes, pacing within and between scenes, and transitions), setting (describing the locations in time and place where your story unfolds), and point of view (clarifying the narrative voice through which the story is told).

c. Revising for sentence and word-level clarity.

This is the skin—the surface of the book. Here is where you plunge into sentence- and word-level revising, looking for improvements in style (making your writing more graceful and flowing) and clarity (making the writing more accessible to the audience).

Or not . . . if grace and clarity are not what you’re going for, then it’s good to know that, too.

This comes at the end of the process of revising for good reason. Why take time to correct an error or polish a sentence that might not make it to the final version? Also, when you revise a sentence, there’s a tendency to think, Yup, that sentence is done, which will make you less likely to edit it out if it doesn’t work.

IMG_06085. The basics matter.

If the previous suggestions sound like the elements of fiction that you might have learned in a creative writing course or workshop, that’s no accident. These form the core of your revising strategy because they form the basics of fiction.

As a certified Cranky Old Guy, I strongly believe that success as a fiction writer—or a poet or dramatist or essayist (or artist or musician or lawyer or engineer or anything, really)—means having control over the basics of your craft.

For the fiction writer, these elements of fiction—story, plot structure, character, point of view, language—are the foundations of your novel. And when we talk about revising, those are the elements to focus on. Learning about them takes time and effort, but the results repay that time.

Just as you can’t write a symphony without ever hearing one and knowing how it’s put together, you can’t write or revise your novel without knowing what the possibilities are for you. The more tools and understanding you have at your disposal, the more options you’ll have when it comes to the immensely complicated tasks associated with writing.

Despite its importance, I know some people find revising tedious, and approach it as an onerous chore. I would argue that revising is more important than the actual process of composition. Personally, I find it to be enormously satisfying, requiring you to marshal all your skills and talents and creativity. I hope you will find it so, too.