Last time we talked about the dangers of listening to other writers’ advice on the creative process. I noted then that you have to find your own way when it comes to writing, but that revising your draft is a different matter with more well-defined best practices. Today, we’ll get into that.
There’s certainly no shortage of advice to be found on this subject as well, and I don’t for a moment suggest that any of this is the last word. It is, however drawn not just from my own writing experiences but from my two-decade career as an editor and journalist. That being said, just as with writing itself, you have to experiment to find the methods that work best for you.
The key thing, however, is that you must have a method. You can afford to lose yourself in the writing process, but for revision, you must remain focused. Writing is a creative process; revision is a deliberate one. You cannot revise effectively unless you approach it in an organized, disciplined fashion.
For me, the revision process has three main elements, each of which is not just critical but a prerequisite of the next: Wait, Read, Fix. That may sound awfully basic, but there are good reasons to break it down like that.
First, wait. Why? Because, however excited and proud you may be to have finished your draft, you’re too close to it to start revising right away. I explained a while back about the conflict between the inner text (the one in your head) and the outer text (the one on the screen) and how this interferes with good editing. When you’ve just finished your first draft, that inner text is in control. You need to give yourself some time to forget it.
Over the years, I’ve found that the best way to is replace it with something else. Go read another book or story, or, better yet, write one. This latter approach is something I’ve done many times myself. I wrote both The Hunt and The eGirl after I finished the first draft of The Wizard’s Daughters but before doing any real revision on it. When I came back, I found myself much more able to look at it objectively. I finished The Witches’ Covenant last week, and, thanks to a comment from Connie Cliff, began work on a sequel to Vector. I got about 10,000 words of that done before turning back to TWC.
Now, the read part might seem obvious, but it’s not. You aren’t just re-reading your book. You must read with purpose. You aren’t doing it for your enjoyment; you’re on a search-and-destroy mission for things that need fixing. But with so many things to think about, you can’t look for them all at once without missing things.
This is why seasoned editors employ the approach of editing at different levels, which is to say, editing only certain things at a time so as not to divide their attention. Editing for style and plot is a very different thing from editing for spelling and grammatical errors. You’re going to need to do multiple passes with different targets.
Further, the order that you do this matters. You can’t do your copy-editing first, then go back and make major changes in the plot, because you’re just going to be introducing more errors with the new things you’re writing. That’s why it’s best to go from large to small: Do a read as if you’re a reader: Does the overall plot work? Are there holes and inconsistencies? Is it engaging? Then, when you start to be satisfied with the structure, look at smaller stuff: Is the dialogue realistic? Does the prose flow? Are there uneven sections that need smoothing out? Then, and only then, should you get into serious copy-editing. (Note: This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fix obvious errors when you come across them, just don’t let them bog you down.)
Finally, the fix part is not as straightforward as it might seem either. I’ve often come across statements that a draft should shrink by 10% (or some other arbitrary figure) with each revision. This is fine, if your writing tends to be wordy and bloated. If you keep feeling that things are moving too slowly and your characters are doing and saying things that don’t advance the plot, and that your prose seems larded with throat-clearing and other useless words, keeping an eye on your word count and aiming to bring it down can be very useful.
But not all writers suffer from this problem. My prose, by contrast, tends to be pretty sparse, and I’m constantly finding spots that seem to move too fast or need more fleshing out. My drafts almost always expand during the revision process.
This leads us to the main point here: You need to have a good feel for the problems in your writing. All writers have these sorts of hiccups: expressions you use too often, bad habits with grammar and syntax, words you habitually misspell, plot devices you fall back on too many times, and so on. Some writers like to revise with a list of these things at hand, though I’ve found that to be overkill in my case (which isn’t to say I don’t have a list; it’s just in my head). Things like this are often susceptible to rapid fixes with find-and-replace, which should be a part of your revision process.
All of this needs to happen at least once before you send your book to your editors or beta readers. (This why they’re called beta readers, not alpha readers.) Then, depending on the feedback you get, you’ll need to do it at least once more.
Revision is rarely much fun, but having a disciplined approach to it will ensure you’re not wasting your time and that your book will be improved by it.