How to Revise a Novel (Before You Waste a Year Fixing 300 Pages That Never Get Any Better)

Writing is rewriting is rewriting is rewriting.

After years of reading craft books about how to shape hooky opening chapters and structure A+ plots and experimenting with nearly every revision process an author has ever posted on the internet—handwritten index scene cards taped to the wall, printed out chapters sorted like puzzle pieces on the floor, color-coded highlighters, color-coded sticky notes, red ink markup on hardcopy, tracked changes in Word, dozens of chunks rearranged digitally in Scrivener, leaving my laptop open when I went to bed in the hopes writing elves might revise it overnight (no luck there)—to finally come up with a process that works for me.

Having a go-to revision process was a writing game changer. Firstly, the quality of my writing leveled up as I became better at executing my story vision during revision, ultimately reducing the number of rounds of revisions I’d need to circle through from first to final draft. Secondly, my precious writing time efficiency and turnarounds skyrocketed. Rather than an entire writing session spent trying to figure out how to revise and puzzling out where to even start, I could spend the time executing my revision action plan and actually revising. Rather than taking a year to do a revision, I was able to execute a major revision in a few months, a smaller one in weeks. 

So, in the hopes it helps develop your own efficient and customized revision process, I thought I’d share details of mine.

Revision is not a small thing. It’s not a tweak here or there. It is a deep review and reshaping of story, character, and plot. In my early writing days, I thought my revision attempts were significant. I deleted an entire chapter! I added an entire 1,000-word scene! How many darlings can there be left to kill? Those were important steps towards a better manuscript, true, but often it was just addressing surface problems and window dressing. I added three scenes and deleted two chapters. And polished every sentence from beginning to end. Done! (Right?) And then I’d cycle through rounds and rounds of “revisions” that continued to poke and tweak, but never ultimately addressed the bigger, underlying problems that demanded an entire overhaul.

With time I realized that with true revision, especially early rounds, no word is left unturned. Revision looks a lot like this:

A recent revision on the WIP based on my agent’s amazing feedback. It took 3+ months and ultimately added 16,000 words! The story was SO MUCH STRONGER as a result.

Once a draft is done, I set it aside to rest for 2 weeks. Distance and a brain break is critical.

At the two week mark, I reformat the document in Word with a new font that’s appealing to read but also makes it look different from the “drafting font,” fuss with the margins and change the spacing to 1.5 so it looks a little like a typeset book page (about 250 words-per-page). I heard Markus Zusak mention this at an author event years ago as his own personal revision brain hack and I immediately went home and tried it and have been doing it ever since. I make the Word document full screen so I read in spreads, just like a book. These things might seem simple and a little silly, but it tricks my brain into reading the rough manuscript like it’s a book. Not only does it look like a book, but it feels like one too when I “turn” (scroll) the pages at the same pace. It results in a more immersive, objective, and critical reading experience.

I read the entire manuscript, as much in one sitting as possible, to keep it fresh in my mind, and only make margin comments. I do not allow myself to get sidetracked actually fixing anything at this point.

I read over all my comments and write myself an edit letterthat revision action plan I mentioned earlier. An edit letter is a big-picture strategy to-do list of what needs to be revised and how, usually 2-3 pages. It’s a great point of reference every time I sit back down to revise. It’s useful (and satisfying) to see what’s been done and what’s left to do, and keeps me on track.

I organize it, and tackle it, from biggest issues to smallest. Hallie Ephron describes this really welland in greater detailin her book Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel (though, as a craft book, I think the entire book is useful no matter what genre you’re writing and worth a read), as “flying high” for the big-picture changes (plot holes, global character issues, missing pieces, timeline issues) and “flying low” for the more prose-level improvements and polish.

Why biggest to smallest? It’s another revision efficiency. If you’ve decided to change the POV from third person to first person, for example, it’s tempting to do that first. Fix it everywhere, it’s a global improvement, right? A worthy investment of time? Well, imagine you do that, then get to work on the big picture issues: deleting and rearrange scenes, rewriting a subplot, anything major that will have ripple effects throughout the manuscript. After spending all that time addressing the POV and polishing sentences…you ended up deleting five of the chapters anyway. Thousands of words that didn’t need all that fussing! What a waste! 

Rinse & repeat until the manuscript is as good as I can make it by myself. Revision isn’t over yet—far from it—but at this point I’ve done a ton of work and I’m book blind. The next step is to send the book to beta readers for a fresh perspective. What I send doesn’t have to be perfectit’s a judgement free, constructive criticism zonebut before I hit send it needs to be thoroughly combed through, book shaped, but has some known weaknesses. For example, I often know that the ending on an early draft isn’t right, but I’m at a loss about how to fix it. So, when I send it to beta readers, I mention as much and ask them specifically to provide feedback on that and other weak spots.

Next post, I’ll talk more about revising in response to reader feedback.





Published by hannahkarena

author & book publishing person.

2 thoughts on “How to Revise a Novel (Before You Waste a Year Fixing 300 Pages That Never Get Any Better)

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