You’ve just finished writing your first draft! Woo-hoo! Now it’s time to jump in to the revision phase, polish, and make the story shine.
Full-stop writer. Cool those jets. Revision is not simply about making sentences tighter or words prettier. That is part of it, but it’s a tiny slice of the whole. So please repeat after me: on my list of editing concerns, pretty writing is dead last.
Writing a novel is like putting together a 2000-piece jigsaw puzzle. It’s not a fast process. Drafting is the equivalent of shaking the pieces out of the box and onto the kitchen table. It’s messy. Some pieces are right side up; most are face down. If you’re lucky, a few components are already connected.
Revision is Turning all the Pieces Right-Side up and Evaluating How They Could Work Together.
First, you organize by shape and color. Then you start with the edge pieces and work toward the middle. Sometimes you get it wrong. Sometimes, there are big chunks of connected segments, and you have no clue where they fit. But, after many passes, it all connects and creates a beautiful picture.
To make putting those pieces together a more efficient and enjoyable process, here are three common revision mistakes to avoid and a systematic approach to use instead.
Mistake #1. Not Resting after Finishing a First Draft.
Completing a first draft is a major accomplishment. Many people want to write a book. Very few do. The importance of celebrating our creative milestones cannot be overstated.
Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint.
If you want to create a story others will read and enjoy, you must put down your pen and walk away for a bit to celebrate and fill your creative cup. Failing to slow down and acknowledge your wins is a recipe for burnout. So don’t blaze past the goalposts because it’s hard to build on the success that you don’t acknowledge.
Resting and celebrating will also provide you with two essential revision tools: Objectivity and a renewed perspective.
Revision is a left-brain analytical process, whereas drafting is a right-brain creative process. Resting allows writers to downshift into an analytical mindset so they can approach the work with a fresh set of eyes better able to spot the big-picture problems.
Mistake #2. Not Reading the Draft as it is without Making Changes.
The revision process begins with an assessment of what you have, not what you think you have. It is crucial to take inventory before you make changes. Writers often skip this initial auditing step because it can be painful. They know the writing is messy and are in a hurry to improve it. Unfortunately, they are only successful in making superficial adjustments at the sentence level.
Instead of rushing to fix it, first read the manuscript all the way through and don’t take notes. This will allow you to feel the story’s shape and refresh yourself with what is on the pages. Do your best to experience the book as a reader, not the writer. Make mental notes of what you like and why, as well as what’s missing.
Mistake #3: Beginning on Page One, Revising Line by Line, Scene by Scene, to the End.
Revision is not a linear process. Instead, it is an iterative and circular process. If you begin on page one and work your way forward line by line to the end, you will only make line-level changes.
The result is pretty prose inside a story that is still structurally broken. The manuscript will still have fatal flaws—missing or lopsided character arcs, absent story logic, plot holes, structure and pacing issues—because you couldn’t see them at the sentence level. Polishing only increases a writer’s attachment to the work. Don’t polish until you are certain the scene has earned its place in the story.
After your first read through, it’s time to begin a structural assessment. Here we look at the big story elements: Character arcs, plot, conflict, world building, story structure, pacing, and narrative drive (cause and effect) to see what needs to change.
A structural edit requires the writer to elevate themselves above the prose and see the story as a working whole. A scene outline is the best way to start. So read your story again. This time, take notes on what needs to be fixed. Then make a scene-by-scene outline. Use one or two sentences to describe what happens in each scene, why it matters, and how it moves the story forward. Now you can see your story at a glance and track character development, pinpoint where the major conflict occurs, spot plot holes, and grasp the flow of the story.
Revising Takes Patience and Perseverance.
For most, revising a manuscript will take longer than drafting. Instead of rushing into a revision and racing line by line toward the finish, a writer is better off taking a metered approach.
After you’ve completed the first draft, taking a creative rest will help form a fresh perspective and enhance objectivity. Creating a scene outline will allow you to make the structural assessment necessary to uncover where the manuscript breaks down.
Remember, revising a book is like piecing together a gigantic puzzle. Slowing down and using the systematic approach of read, re-read, and outline will help you see the story as a whole and identify the fatal flaws that keep good books broken. If you want more help to revise your novel, check out Revision Clarity: a free workbook and resource guide for revising fiction writers.
Stacy Frazer is a formerly repressed creative soul turned speculative fiction writer, YA fantasy author, Author Accelerator certified book coach, and the founder of Write It Scared. Her mission is to help fiction writers let go of the self-doubt spiral and find clarity and confidence in their stories so they can finish their books. Stacy firmly believes that the only creative license required to write a novel is one’s lived experience and that you can learn all the tools to craft a book that makes you proud!
When not writing, reading, or working with writers, you can find Stacy hanging with her daughter or on the trail with her big goofy labrador, Gus Gus. To connect with Stacy, please visit her website.
You can also email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Instagram.