You often hear that revision is the name of the publishing game. I say it regularly too. Because, well, in this business, revision is literally everything. But writers often get stymied here. So what goes into successfully revising your novel or narrative manuscript?
First, let’s talk a bit about what revision is not.
# 1. Revision is not polish.
Yes—polish is vitally important! In order for the prose to sing, writers strive to make every word count. To say exactly what they mean to say. To tighten to the point where the words shine without being buried under verbiage.
# 2. Revision is not copy editing or proofing.
Yes, yes, these are vital steps too. But they’re the final steps in the process to publication.
Copy editing targets typos and misspellings, grammatical issues and infelicitous wording.
Proofing catches the glitches caused by translation from manuscript to formatting for publication. And the last errant typos, etc.
Again, both are vital—at the very end.
So what really goes into revising your novel or narrative non-fiction manuscript?
Let’s pause here for one other topic about those two different genres.
Writers know that novels must follow cohesive story lines, have a flow to the narrative, and that their characters must come to life. The arc of the story is imperative to fiction.
But guess what? It is to narrative nonfiction as well. For example, memoirs also need that story line arc. They need a beginning, middle, and end, all of which flows together to evoke the main theme of the person’s life. I.e., to be successful, this isn’t just a chronology of events.
Which almost always begets major revision, once the life of the author is down on the page.
So what, then, is true revision?
# 3. It’s identifying what didn’t work out.
When you begin into any revision, you need a blueprint to get you from point A to point Z. That original draft isn’t really a draft at all, but a sprawling idea of what you’re wanting to convey.
You know—you had this great premise, worked off of it, wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, finally got to The End.
And what you have is a big amoeba, waiting for the skilled hand of the writer to shape it into an actual book.
So first and foremost, you begin by weeding out the chaff. So much of what goes into that first experiment are story lines that go nowhere. Ideas that fizzled out. Characters you thought were important but don’t blossom (and often don’t even have a role in the way the story played out).
Once you ax the fluff, you’re left with:
# 4. What does work.
You’re always left with some good stuff here. And it’s here that you find who your important people are. And, where the story takes off (which is often 50 pages into the book).
Now you can begin the true revision.
#5. And we begin with the people.
Because characters drive your story—in all of fiction, and most non-fiction too. Even if you’re writing a how-to, you, as the author/expert, need to be accessible to your reader. And skills are involved to bring this about.
Now is often when you find that character who originally seemed ancillary, but in actuality holds the key to finding the grail.
Now it’s time to get to know that character—to truly know him from early childhood ‘til death (even if he only goes from age 25-30 in the book). You, as the author, have to know every single thing about every single body who counts.
As a book editor, I have my writers stop here and write short stories about these characters. The viewpoint ones, and everyone who is truly important. These aren’t to be included in the book (although sometimes they find their way into it), but rather for you, as the author, to get to know the backstory, which is vital to bringing the people to full-color life on the pages.
# 6. Then we go to the flow of the story.
Again, we have this giant amoeba, right? Wrangling that into the shape of a book can be daunting.
But it doesn’t have to be.
What I have my writers do here is the study that arc of the story. It’s tried and tested and although you don’t have to follow it exactly, doing so will provide you with a clothesline to pin your plot points to. It keeps the story moving, so you don’t end up with those awful sagging middles.
Then, outline your own book as you have it. Compare the two. See where you’ve rushed things? Where you’ve belabored others? See where you’ve gone a hundred pages with no major plot point, and even you are bored with it?
# 7. From there, we begin reshaping the book.
You’ve identified the issues, noted places for new scenes, realized where a character needs a plot point to force him to grow.
You’ve axed out those threads that go nowhere.
This makes the revision process so much easier, as you have a blueprint to follow to effect your vision.
# 8. Finally, the rewriting.
So often, as a book editor, I hear from writers who have revised their entire books in a month or two. I always cringe. Because, again, we’re not talking about polish here, we’re talking about rewriting.
Now, that doesn’t mean you have to ditch all that you’ve written before. But, the more you do, the better the end product is going to be. Especially as you’re finding your sea legs, the more actual rewriting you do, the better the result.
How do I know this for a fact?
Because when I get those manuscripts back where some parts have been rewritten, and some left as is and just polished, it’s glaringly apparent. What we’re left with is a very uneven narrative.
Here’s the deal: Writers become better by writing. The more you write, the better you get at it.
And when you write new scenes, or rewrite existing ones, the writing is oh-so-much better. You now have a box filled with powerful tools from which to write. You understand why the rules matter—what they mean, what you gain by using them when you can break them, and why. You’ve learned, and your skillset has grown enormously.
And what flows from your creativity is richer, fuller, more evocative—in far fewer words.
So yes, while revision is a huge umbrella under which polish and copy editing and proofing all stand, the key to it all is rewriting.
So when revising your novel or non-fiction manuscript, go at it in the manner my successful authors do:
Rewrite it, like a pro.
Then you end up with a book that is all of one piece and provides a satisfying read.
And isn’t that your goal?