How to Revise

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One thing is for sure about revision – no matter how we do it, we will be doing a lot of it. Or at least we should.

Revision has to become as second nature to us as brushing our teeth in the morning or eating three square meals a day – it has to become part of our regular routine if we are going to excel and succeed as writers. And as people! Working toward improving, refining – it’s applicable to any area of our lives. Without this dedication and focus, we will be destined for mediocrity.

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Everyone has their own methods of revision, but this is how I revise. And I’m talking about full-length manuscripts (novel, play, screenplay, nonfiction book), though much of this could apply to shorter pieces of writing too.

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Basic Mechanics

  1. I don’t revise while writing a first draft.
  2. I put the first draft away for a while (at least a few days) before starting revision.
  3. I revise directly on the page for redlining/close proofing.
  4. I enter my revisions/redlines or new ideas into my electronic manuscript file. I mark all revision versions separately in MS Word to keep track of them distinctly, in case I ever want to ‘go back’ to a certain version of a scene.
  5. For big picture revision ideas, I make a separate list so I can keep it close by and look at it regularly while doing future revisions, to make sure all ‘micro-revisions’ are in line with the big picture direction.
  6. I don’t show anyone a draft of my work until I’ve done at least two revisions – usually by then the story has the shape I want it to have. Showing others sooner, when we’re more impressionable, can over-affect us before our sense of story is solidified.

Types of Revisions

Most publishing consultants or sites will tell you about three types of revision you could hire someone to do (or do yourself): proofing, copyediting (corrections and some content commentary/suggestions), or full editing where we look at every aspect of the story, structure, language, characterization, even word count and marketability.

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Across all these types of revisions, however, is each writer’s individual process, how they break it down. Their approach. Their quirks and preferences. On the computer or by hand? Notecards or notebooks? Morning or night? Here are the approaches I use:

Redlining/Proofing

This is going line by line through the manuscript and making grammar/syntax corrections, trimming/shortening sentences, confirming continuity of facts and characters, and anything else. Best done by hand with a red/dark pen or with the ‘track changes’ feature in word processing. I often do this with my first draft and with my final draft, and some in between.

Skimming/Spot Check

If I’ve been away from a manuscript for a while and am a bit overwhelmed to launch into a redline proofing right away, I use this method. I go through the entire manuscript but lightly – skimming, knowing I will not catch everything. But whatever glaring things my eye does catch, I make a note or correction. I either write the note on the manuscript or put a small post it and stick it on the page in question. This way I re-familiarize myself with the story without pouring over every page, and I get back in the habit of revising, though less intensely. This can be repeated as much as I wish, until it’s time for redlining.

Feedback

Giving my manuscript to trusted advisors, relatives, writing teachers, or partners is a form of revision. I maintain a separate file (paper or electronic) of their suggested revisions, to keep track and to compare them to my own. If I find a pattern of commentary, something that everyone is telling me again and again about my manuscript, it’s probably worth listening to.

Character-Based

One playwright friend encouraged me to read through my play manuscript separately for each character – and during that read-through, just concentrate on that character and what he/she needs. Then repeat for the other characters.

Plot-Based

Like character-based revision above, but just reading through the manuscript for the plot – the structure, arc, key points.

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Scene-Based

Mostly for play or film scripts but valuable for any manuscript, make a list of scenes to ensure that each scene truly builds upon the prior scene for maximum arc, momentum and character development. Some like to put each scene on an index card so that you can rearrange your stack of scenes however you wish, should you find that your structure requires some changes in sequence. Writing software often has this feature as well, where electronic ‘note cards’ can be created and reshuffled as needed.

World-Based

Like the character or plot-based approach, instead read through the manuscript focusing only on the world of the book – the details of the era or geographical location, the accuracy of historical events or figures in the background. This is especially necessary in a period piece or science-fiction/fantasy, where there are so many minute details required to fully realize a convincing environment for your story and characters.

Reading Aloud

Some writers swear by doing this – when they or someone else reads their work aloud, and they hear their words, they are able to catch turns of phrase that are awkward or too wordy; unrealistic language; or other errors. This is particularly important for a play or film script, or if you plan to produce an audiobook recording for your novel or nonfiction book. Improving how it sounds will also improve how it reads on paper.

Timing

Some people prefer to look through an entire manuscript in one sitting when they can really concentrate on it. Some may not always have that length of time available to them regularly, so they do one chapter a week or some other partial breakdown, in manageable amounts of time worked into the schedule. Or we end up doing a combination of both. We have to know ourselves and our habits well enough to decide what will give us the best results.

Notebooks

Saving

I think it is valuable to save at least some of one’s revisions – either electronically, in notebooks or as fully printed manuscripts with written notes on it. Not only because it might be an encouragement to others someday (you know, when we donate our grand body of work to a university library for students to study forever?!) — but also so we can go back to them occasionally, and see how our instincts/habits as a writer may have changed or improved over time.

How do you revise? What works best for you? Share with me.

Onward!

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