Most people think of revision as painful and something that should be avoided. It’s much more fun to play with a first draft than to try to take something half-baked and shape it into something publishable. If you want to make money writing, though, you have to revise. No one’s work is perfect on the first try, and no one is going to pay you for a half-complete idea filled with errors. Revision is essential.
During revision, you’re looking for more than just typos and grammar mistakes. You’re looking for continuity issues (does the character look and sound the same throughout the book, is the timeline consistent, do the scenes advance the work, does your non-fiction make sense and proceed in a logical order, etc.), things that can be cut or shortened (unnecessary scenes, redundant scenes or topics, lengthy descriptions, etc.), and things that need fleshing out (too-short character descriptions, scenes that come to an abrupt end and make no sense, and topics that aren’t fully covered). That’s not everything that will likely need to be fixed in your work, but these are some of the main items.
There are many ways to revise. If you want to excel at revision, you have to find the method that works for you. Here are several different approaches. Try a few and find which one (or a combination) works best. Personally, I prefer to read things aloud. I always find the most mistakes and “clunks” in the writing this way. My way doesn’t have to be your way, however.
Read it aloud
Reading a work out loud reveals unrealistic dialog, repetitive sentence structure, and many other errors. When you read something silently (especially for the umpteenth time) your eyes tend to see what they want to see. Reading it out loud, however, forces you to focus on what the words actually say, rather than what you think they say. If you feel stupid reading to an empty room, you can read your work to another person or to your plants or pets.
Let it sit
Some people find that putting the work away for a time (a couple of weeks to over a month or more) gives you some distance from the project. When you do come back to it, it is with fresh eyes that see all the flaws you couldn’t see when you were wrapped up in it.
While letting your work sit may lead you to look at it with fresh eyes, there’s something to be said for jumping right into revisions while the work is still fresh, especially if you tend to be the type to procrastinate. You’re still immersed in your world and you haven’t forgotten where you’re trying to go and what you’re trying to say. You might also be more likely to finish the project if you revise immediately. (While waiting for something to “sit” you may get involved in other projects and never come back to this one.)
Let someone else read it
It’s nerve-wracking, but letting someone else read your work can be a good revision technique. An impartial third party can see places where things get confusing, where characters act inconsistently, or where contradictions or continuity issues appear. They can also give you valuable feedback about what “works” for them as a reader and what does not. Pick someone you know who can be both constructive and kind in their feedback. You don’t want someone who says, “It’s great,” if it’s not, but neither do you want someone who’s so harsh that they crush your dreams.
Start at the back (or in the middle)
Reading from the beginning to the end is the common way to revise. But some people have success if they start in the middle and work to the end, or start at the end and work to the front. Reading out of order can force you to think about the overall structure of the work and it takes you out of the zone where you’re seeing what you expect to see.
Read and outline
Some writers like to read their work and make an outline as they go. When they’re finished with the outline, they go back and read it to see if it “hangs together.” The outline may reveal places where the story becomes redundant, or where things are not explained clearly or left out altogether.
Revise as you go
Some people like to write a few pages and then go back and revise them before continuing on with the story. They make those pages as good as they can make them before moving on. There is some benefit to this as mistakes that could snowball (strange subplots or unnecessary characters) are caught early and eliminated before they become major issues that have to be eradicated in the next draft.
Talk to yourself (either on paper or actual speaking)
When I revise, I have conversations with myself. Sometimes I write these out in a notebook (for example, “What is this character trying to accomplish and how is this getting her there?”) and then I answer the questions, sometimes making notes about where this is covered elsewhere, noting something that isn’t clear, or making lists of things that I still need to show or do. It’s messy because I end up going back and forth in the notebook, checking prior “conversations,” adding to them and making new ones as I go along, but it keeps the flow of the book moving for me and keeps me in the mind of characters.
Keeps notes as your write the first draft
Sometimes you’ll write something that you know isn’t really working, but you keep going just to keep the first draft moving. Make a note before you move on. That will alert you during revision that you need to pay particular attention to that place.
You can use several different colored highlighters and sticky notes to mark various sections and problems. One color for technical issues. Another for character issues and another for plot. Use still another color for continuity problems. When you’ve got everything colored, it’s easier to see what you’re working on and work backward and forward in the manuscript to address everything.
Revision isn’t as bad as some writers make it out to be. It does require more discipline than the freedom of a first draft requires, but it can still be fun if you approach it in a way that works for you and is effective. Just think about the ways you work will be so much better when you’re finished.
(Photo courtesy of Denise Krebs)