Monday, March 12, 2012

Taming the Revision Beast by Becca Puglisi

When it comes to the writing process, I’m kind of a freak of nature. Drafting is by far my least favorite part. It’s so hard to get the story out, and after all that work, you’re left with something that needs...well, lots of work. But as much as I dread drafting, I love revising. That’s when it gets fun for me because with each change that’s made, you can see your story getting better.

Still, editing an entire manuscript can be daunting. The revision stage has to cover everything from correcting typos to adding scenes to removing whole subplots. So how do you get through all those changes without losing your mind? As with any potentially-overwhelming project, organization helps. Here are some steps that make the revision process manageable for me.

Make a list. Hopefully you’ve already jotted some things down--problems that you noticed during the drafting stage that would eventually have to be addressed. Don’t be alarmed by the length of your list, which will probably expand as you revise, because the more time you spend examining your manuscript, the more problems you’ll find. It may sound depressing, but look at that pile of edits positively. Every problem that you notice and resolve in the editing process brings your fledgling manuscript one step closer to being accepted by editors and read by gajillions of people. Your list is super important for keeping track of what needs work.

Group similar editing points. Now that your revision list is long enough to give you an anxiety attack, take deep breaths and get organized. If you try to read through your manuscript with every editing point in mind, you’re going to miss things and your brain will explode. To avoid the mess, sort your list into sections. Here are some ways you might want to group your edits:
  • Repetitions: words and phrases that you tend to overuse and need to find and replace throughout the manuscript; repeated sentence structures that stand out; too many sentences starting with I, He/She or (Character’s Name).
  • Voice: Certain things need to be examined and tweaked from start to finish to make your character’s voice consistent: similes and metaphors that your character uses, word choices, and speaking style, to name a few.
  • Individual Subplots: Examine each plot line or character arc for consistency throughout the novel. Does a romantic subplot need an extra scene for it to develop smoothly? Does more foundation need to be laid to shore up an important future event? Do relationships progress realistically from start to finish? Each subplot needs its own revision round. Some may not need much work and will only take a few hours to fix. Others might take days or even weeks to iron out.
  • Proportion Issues: Are there long stretches where a character isn’t mentioned? Has too much emphasis been placed on a person, item, or characteristic that doesn’t amount to much over the course of the story? To even out the proportion across the novel, you’ll have to amp up certain parts and tone others down.
  • Miscellaneous: Everything else
  • Final Read-Through. Once the revisions are done, it’s important to read the whole manuscript again--aloud. This will help you zero in on typos or new repetitions that may have arisen during the editing process.
These are just some of the problems that writers struggle with. Dialogue, descriptions, and showing-versus-telling are a few more. An excellent, nearly comprehensive editing resource that I can’t recommend enough is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Browne and King. Truly. Go get it. It’s awesome.

Attack your revisions in rounds: Each of the sections on your list will be one revision round. Depending on how many items you start out with, you might end up with two rounds, or four, or nine. Again, don’t be alarmed. All that stuff has to be fixed, right? And in my experience, finding the problems is often harder than solving them, so you’re ahead of the game if you’ve got a good list to start from. Next, order your rounds according to preference; you can start with the one you’re most excited about or the one that’s going to take the longest--whatever you prefer. Then work your way through the manuscript with the points from Round One in mind. When you’ve finished, start again with Round Two, and so on.

Maintain Forward Momentum: As you revise, you’re undoubtedly going to come up with more things that need work. If it’s a really big picture item that will effect the entire story (like changing the main character’s strengths or flaws to make success more difficult for her), you may have to backtrack and work those changes into the story from start to finish. Most of the time, though, it’s best to keep making your way through your existing list and tack any new edits onto the end. Address these items once the original list is finished.

So...that’s what works for me. It may be a little too orderly for some. Luckily, there are as many different revision methods as there are ways to draft, or outline, or critique. The most important thing is to get started and keep moving forward, because each round of edits will bring you one step closer to a publishable manuscript. Best of luck, NaNoEdMo’ers!

Becca Puglisi is a YA fantasy and historical fiction writer, SCBWI member, and co-host of The Bookshelf Muse, an on-line resource for writers. She also has a number of magazine publications under her belt. Her book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression is scheduled for release in April 2012.


  1. This is really helpful Becca. I find that I struggle most when I don't take revision in bite-sized pieces, and it can seem like an overwhelming task.


  2. Thanks Becca. I'm knee deep in revisions on my Nano novel right now and this will help me take it in strides. :)

  3. Ange, me too. I know my technique is probably a nightmare for people who don't do lists, but it's the way it works for me.

    Kitty, best of luck on the revisions! Tackle it in pieces and you'll get there eventually!

  4. Wonderful advice! Thanks for sharing. :-D


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