How to Revise a Manuscript
Congratulations! You’ve completed your novel. All the words are out of your head and typed up neatly in your word processing program. So by show of hands, how many of you then send it to the proofreader, editor, or bestie who reads all your stuff and then publish it? Don’t be shy. I want to see those hands.
No, I’m not going to slap them.
What I am going to do is take you by the hand and show you a way to create a better novel. And by this, I mean I’m going to explain what the revision process is.
There are lots of blogs with lots of advice on how to revise a manuscript, so keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way to do this. What’s important is that you put your manuscript through a revision process. There are some pretty great benefits to this, including a great book, and you might just learn a few things about becoming a better writer.
So, let’s talk about that novel you’ve just finished—your first draft. This first step is so simple it’s hard.
Step 1: Take a Break
Put your novel away, close up the file, hide it in a drawer, whatever you need to do to keep it out of sight so it is out of your mind. Right after you finish your novel is not the time to start editing. Take a break. You deserve it. You just finished a novel! And your brain and your creative muse need some downtime. Right now, you’re too close to the story, too in love with your words and characters. There’s nothing wrong with this, in fact, forming attachments to your characters is normal. But for now, take a break, a time out, see other people, get to know your significant other again, see how much the kids have grown… You get the idea.
The length of time for this break varies. Some people say two months; others think a week is sufficient. You’ll want to wait long enough for the afterglow of finishing your novel to wear off and you are able to read it with fresh eyes and a new perspective. The length of time is as unique as the writer is. Just don’t take so long that you lose interest. My personal preference is about a month to six weeks, but everyone has to find the right length of time for themselves.
Step 2: Revision (not a dirty word)
Now that you have taken a break, have removed the rose-colored glasses, and are no longer suffering from the euphoria of manuscriptus completus, read through your novel. This is when you pay attention to the story.
- Is it as wonderful as you remember or are there a few places that need work?
- Are there unresolved plot elements or plot holes?
- Does it make sense?
- Are your characters likable?
- Is the climax and resolution enough?
- Are there scenes that need to be expanded or reduced?
If you’re anything like me, the urge to correct as you go is a strong one. There’s nothing wrong with this, just be sure it doesn’t get in the way of the big picture. Making sure you’ve crossed your t’s and dotted your i’s could get in the way if you focus too much on the small stuff.
Don’t sweat the small stuff.
And… revise. If you have someone to bounce ideas off and talk through plot, scenes, motivations, etc., this could be a great time to give them a call.
Step 3: Feedback & Revision
You now have a 2nd draft! Congratulations. At this point you’re already aware that what you have is better than your 1st draft, and you will feel the temptation to publish what you have.
Do not run off to publish your manuscript. This step is where the fun begins! If you have an army of pre-readers, beta readers, a critique partner or someone who will give you their honest opinion, now is the time to call, email, or send a smoke signal to them. Get feedback. This part of the process can easily turn into Steps 3, 4, 5, 6… as needed, depending on the number of revisions required. If you’re not sure where to find people to do this, check out my quick tip “How to Find a Writing Critique Group.”
Give the comments and suggestions serious consideration. If you need a day to cool down before you can look at the suggestions rationally, then take a few. A word of caution about feedback. Ultimately you are responsible for your manuscript. No one knows it like you do. Chances are, you will get several suggestions that take your story in a direction you don’t want or will be something you don’t want to do but maybe should. You will also get ten different ways to fix one issue. How do you know what to take and what to leave on the table? That’s part of the fun or curse of being the one in charge. You have to decide.
Trust your instincts.
If it’s something you don’t want to do and you know in your gut that you’re right, then you’re right. The trick is knowing when to disregard suggestions and when to take them. If a reader brings up something, take it a good look at the issue. The problem might be that you simply haven’t given your reader enough information to make a connection. As the author, you are all powerful. You know every thought, action, motivation, longing, and experience of your characters. Your reader does not, so sometimes things that are obvious to you are not to your reader.
At some point during the Feedback & Revision stage you might want to consider getting a manuscript assessment from an editor. This type of feedback is different from what you will get from the group of pre-readers, beta readers, and critique partners. A manuscript assessment will give you an editor’s view of the strengths and weaknesses of your manuscript. It will also give you feedback on your writing and point out any persistent issues. For more information on manuscript assessments, you can read my article, “Divas on Editing: Manuscript Assessment.”
Step 4 or 5 or 6…: Editor
Now that you’ve tweaked, revised, asked complete strangers for feedback, had your manuscript assessed and then revised it some more, it’s time for an editor to do their magic and make your manuscript shine. This part can range from a proofread on to a content edit, depending on any issues the editor may find. Look for an editor who will provide you with a sample edit. This is a quick way for the editor to estimate what type of editing is needed and a good way for you to decide if you like the editor’s style. Your relationship with your editor is one based on trust and compatibility, so find one you like. For more tips on how to hire an editor, check out Diva Shay’s quick tip, “5 Things You Should Ask Your Potential Editor.”
I hope this article helps explain a little more what the revision process is and why you should consider putting your manuscript through one. It’s a lot of work, but the result will be a better book and something you can be proud of. If you’d like to share your experiences or add anything I may have overlooked, please add to the comment section below.
Now… go write something!