What Revision Is
Revision is not editing, it is re-seeing and re-imagining your work. Revision is different for every writer and each project. Here are some tips that work for me, but you’ll develop your own approach based on your strengths and work-style.
A Time to Reflect
Before you start tinkering with your draft ask: What did I learn from writing this? What excited me most when I started this project? What excites me now? Take long walks, journal, or write a letter to yourself. Let your mind be open.
A Time to React
Take a break, then read your manuscript as if your best writing friend has entrusted you with their first draft. Mark it up, take notes, get your critique partners to weigh in.
A Time to Reimagine
What are your dreams? This is your chance to think big. Do NOT let this become an “I’m not good enough” session. A first draft is a success. Take a deep breath. If you hear that bullying voice, do whatever you need to make it go away while you let your biggest, boldest writer-self dream. Revision is a magic wand. Wave it with abandon.
How to Revise
Revision is bold work. This is the scary part where you have to be willing to change everything you wrote. To quote a dear friend, “words are free.” Throw them away, write more. Don’t let fear (of failure, of hard work, of time, of success) hem you in.
A Time to Rebuild
My rebuilding process generally follows these steps:
- Make an “everything that needs fixing” list. Big ideas, small ideas, dump them all on the page without judgement. Opening setup? Weak character? Slow pace? Scene that isn’t working? Lack of tension? Uncertain relationship? New plot elements? New plot lines? Get it all out.
- For each bold move (or stuck spot) on the “everything” list, ask: “how many different ways could I write this?” Our first few ideas tend to be ordinary, so shoot for 20 ideas to find the ah-ha moment that gives you goosebumps.
- Make a chart of your existing manuscript. The goal is to capture the key elements of your story and your revision notes for each chapter. A recent historical fiction project of mine was set in two time periods, so my columns were: chapter, year, characters, main events, revision notes, #pages. This helped me see whether characters were getting the right amount of screen time, whether the two plot lines were balanced, and whether my plot points were well-placed in the manuscript. I occasionally made charts for some of my sub-elements In this example, I was tracking historical world events and weather. I had a separate chart just for those elements so I could keep my revision accurately grounded. Your chart(s) should fit your project. I keep my chart taped to the wall by my desk while I’m revising so I can see the big picture and mark it up as I go.
You may be tempted to rush through (or skip) the charting step, but my experience tells me that a lot of deep thinking happens when you’re building the chart. Going through your entire work multiple times, you notice patterns and opportunities you might not see by just reading.
A Time to Rewrite
Start a new file. Write new words and be intentional about what you bring forward from your earlier draft. Test your draft against your new vision and only use what still works.
A word of warning: this is where I look at previous material and think, “It’s probably good enough. It just needs a little…adjusting.” This comes from the same part of my brain that gets overwhelmed at the enormity of revision. It helps me to tell that voice that I’m only “renting ideas.” I’m not buying them. Then I test an idea out in a blank document, and use it if it works.
A Time to Recalibrate
Every project is a juggling act: characters, plot points, dialogue, chapter endings, emotional resonance, subplots, and special effects. It helps me to keep a running list of “things to fix” and to work in layers. Fix a plot point that’s not working. Did that force a ball out of sync? Put it on the list. You’re constantly making choices during revision and you can’t fix everything at once. A running list helps you remember to come back to the dialogue on page 120 after you’ve finished with your character work. Add one ball at a time to your revision juggling act and eventually you’ll be amazed at all the balls in the air.
A TIme to Refine
As you go through the revision cycle, your lists should get shorter until you arrive at the refinement stage. Print out a copy of your work and read it aloud. Adjust the words, tinker and polish, this is the last and finest step where every word gets the attention it needs.
A Time to Reward
Each time you finish a revision, set it aside and reward yourself with something that supports the writer you are: a walk, a bath, or a cup of tea with a friend. You’ve earned it.
If drafting is the fiery act of falling in love with our work, revision is the thoughtful, intentional act of deepening our connection to our work, and bringing out the best in both of us. It requires fortitude, time, and attention.
To revise is to re-see the potential in your work and yourself. Good Luck
Mary Jane has been a member of SCBWI since 2014 and is currently writing a historical fiction mystery. She graduated from VCFA in January 2020. Visit her at www.maryjanenirdlinger.com and follow her on Twitter: @MJNwrites