Tackling Revisions

NaNoWriMo is OVER. Many of you find yourselves with a finished novel in hand–perhaps a product of a grueling November or perhaps a novel written some other time. Either way, if you need help  knowing what to do next, then this post might just be for you.

The purpose of this post (and the revisions workshop on my personal site) is to help writers avoid feeling overwhelmed, daunted, or just plain lost. I’m offering a starting point for you to bounce off of; I’m showing you how I avoid feeling overwhelmed, daunted, and lost; and I’m hoping you can use this info to ultimately find your own revising rhythm.

Please realize that while this method works for me, it may not work for you.  There is no “perfect solution” to writing or revising, and it’s up to you to fine-tune your own approach.  I don’t even follow this method anymore (not to the letter at least). I have worked out a natural groove that uses the bones of this method, and I want to teach YOU the bones so YOU can eventually find your own groove.

Now let’s get started, shall we?

Revising a Novel

You’ve written a novel. Yay! Good job!

Now what…? You revise, right?  And, er…how do you that? For some (probably most), the task is knee-shaking scary. Stomach-twisting terrifying. In a word, yikes.

But it doesn’t have to be! In fact, revisions can be FUN. Revising is my favorite step of the novel-creating-process because I am 100% in control.

Tackling revisions requires two things:

  1. Having a very clear, specific end goal in mind.
  2. Breaking it all into small, manageable chunks.

Setting Your Goal

You can’t reach a goal if you don’t know what the goal is. In other words, unless you know what you want to have at the end of your revisions, then you’ll simply be revising aimlessly and wasting time. You need to have a very clear, very specific idea of the book you want to have at the end of your revisions.  That way, when you work, you will always be working toward a clear, measurable objective.

To establish what you WANT to have, you have to first know what you ACTUALLY have.  And to know what you actually have, you have to first read your entire novel.  Yes, the whole thing from start to finish.

Don’t worry if your first reaction is to cry DISAPPOINTED! a là Hercules. Very few people are pleased with their first drafts. You will likely find a lot of Very Good Parts and a lot of Very Bad Parts.

This is okay; this is normal.

Our goal is to now figure out exactly why those Very Bad Parts are bad.

Thus, as you read, you should take notes on a sheet of notebook paper. Do NOT write on the manuscript or edit—seriously. You don’t want to mess with anything yet.  I learned (after wasting MONTHS) that editing small things now is useless. You might end up rewriting a scene or even cutting it, so why line-edit it now?  Just like working with an editor, you will do line-edits and small stuff LAST.

When you finish reading and determining where the big stuff falls apart, you will then figure out what category those problems fall under. So, you see that there’s this GIANT ISSUE with the villain—he’s not that bad on page 24 and then he’s kinda goofy on page 87…then he’s just downright horrible on page 226. This would (as I’m sure you can guess) qualify as a character issue.

Actually, when I receive a revision letter from my editor, I always break things apart in the same way. I literally cut the letter apart by issue, then I tape it all back together under the appropriate category. This way, I can see ALL my plot issues at once, all my character issues at once, and so on. I make a Master List.

Once you’ve got your master list, you need to boil down what your novel would be like if it were perfect. If you had just bought it in stores and none of those problems were there, what would it be like?  This was a trick I learned in Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel Crash Course.  As she says, you can’t hit a target you can’t see.

This is your goal.  That perfect novel is what you WANT, and that is what you will guide your revisions toward.1

Breaking It Apart

Now that you know what you WANT, you’re going to break that apart  too. As the famous advice from Anne Lamott goes: take it word by word. In this case, we want to take it scene by scene—bite-sized, manageable pieces. I always—ALWAYS—create an outline of my novel before I edit.  I used to do this by hand, but now I use the index card portion of Scrivener.

You can, of course, use whatever you want to make an outline. The important thing is to write a single sentence for EACH scene in your novel.  This way, you can always have a clear idea of the story without having to scour through it constantly.

(I do this even if it’s my 20th round of revisions.  I ALWAYS have an outline of the current book.  It saves time and helps me stay organized.  When it comes to revising on deadlines, it’s a lifesaver! Also, if you use Scrivener, it does all this for you. This program is AMAZO, in case you aren’t already aware.)

Now that you know your big picture problems and your perfect book goal, you are going to set up a Plan of Attack.  This plan will allow you to:

  1. Form solutions to solve your big problems.
  2. Execute said solutions in an organized, logical fashion.

So start by making solutions. Brainstorm, mull, and stew for as long as it takes (but also be willing to let new ideas and solutions come as you actually revise). For example, if I know my villain is inconsistent, then my goal is to automatically make him consistent. And, since he’s also SUPER dark in my Perfect Book, then I need to make sure to “darken his character” every time he’s on the page. Et voilà! Problem : solution :: inconsistent villain : darkening every time he appears. Now write it down and figure out the solutions to all your other Big Problems.

Once you know your solutions, they should be organized by plot, character, setting, etc. Now we look at the “scale” of each problem/solution. Typically plot issues are the largest scale, followed by character, setting, pacing/conflict, and finally line-level.

If you go to your outline (or index cards), you can now make notations on little post-its (or a pen in the margins or whatever). For example, on the scene 2 card, when the villain is introduced, you might write, “Make darker!! Cut the nice stuff.”

Now, if you were me, you would color code the post-it/pens. That way you know at a glance what sort of problems you’re dealing with in a scene. For example, I know all my index cards with blue post-its have plot issues and should be tackled first. Make sense?

Even now that I have my own, looser revising “groove”, I still color code like crazy (and Scrivener makes it really easy to do!).

Once I take my index cards and separate them by post-it color. I will pull out all the scenes with blue post-its first and work through those. Then the ones with pink are next.  I always know what each scene needs because it’s on my index card, and because I’m working on one big problems one at a time (and not moving chronologically through every, I can make sure the solution holds together.

I hand-write all my edits on the printed version, and then I double-check my edits when I type everything in at the end. It’s time-consuming, but effective! I am also a “visual learner”, and it’s the only way I can work.

In Summary

I realize this is dense…and probably confusing. But hopefully you can see that, when you don’t travel in the dark and you take the journey one step at a time, revising is really quite manageable.  It can even be easy (I find it easier than writing first drafts!). Sometimes it might even be fun.

You’re 100% in control, and rather than creating something from nothing, you’re refining what you already have.

Now go revise, and good luck!

What about you—do you have a revisions process you follow? Do you have any questions about this method?

NOTE: My entire revising method (with worksheets and lessons) is available as printable PDFs. To print it all, head here.
  1. If you want more detail, check out my main blog, you’ll find worksheets and a more in-depth explanation of how to find problems and how to define your goals.

32 Responses to Tackling Revisions

  1. Triona Dolan Dec 7 2012 at 5:37 am #

    Hi Sooz,

    Thank you so much for this post. I did a brief outline for my current WIP using Scrivener and I really like it also. I’m over halfway through my first draft but I’m hoping to start revising in 2013.

    I am thinking about taking the Holly Lisle Revision course (which you recommended on the NaNo blog) but your blog has so many useful tips also. I will look at them both I think.

    I always assumed writers hated the revision process and I dreaded it but now I’m looking forward to it. You have broken it down into logical chunks which makes it a lot less daunting!

    Ever thought of writing a ‘writing book’? I follow a lot of websites and yours is definitely one of my favorites for writing information (along with all the other stuff of course).

    Thanks again.

    • Sooz Dec 8 2012 at 8:16 pm #

      Holly Lisle’s course is AMAZING, but…it ain’t cheap. I truly believe it can help writers turn their books into actual BOOKS, but it’s also not an easy expense (I couldn’t afford it, so my kind, kind mother helped me pay for it).

      And yes! I so thought writers all hated revising too! But…turns out, most of us enjoy it. It’s just so very In Control. You’re no longer staring at a blank page, but instead you’re dealing with something that’s already written. You may need to rewrite most of it, but for some reason, that’s far less intimidating!

      And thank you so much for appreciating my posts! <3 I HAVE thought about making a writing book--maybe just compiling my writing posts, adding in some other exclusive content chapters, and then self-pubbing it as an ebook. Something cheap ($0.99 or so--just enough to cover the cost of MAKING the book) since my whole goal is to help other writers get where they want to be. 😀

      • Triona Dolan Dec 9 2012 at 12:04 pm #

        Ooooh! The ebook is such a great idea! I’ve my fingers and toes crossed that it might happen someday if you’ve time to do it. I’d say loads of other people would be interested in it too! 🙂

        Thanks for the Holly Lisle course recommendation. I think I might save up for it and go for it in the New Year.

  2. Emmy Neal Dec 7 2012 at 9:13 am #

    Love this post!!! I do the same thing (or almost). As I’m drafting I make a note of where I feel my novels weak, when I added something that needs to be hinted at earlier, etc. Plot is always the easiest for me, so I get all that out of the way first. THEN I usually ground the setting, fixing the characters after that. But otherwise, it looks like we’re close to the same! Having my draft in paper in front of me definitely helps me keep track of edits–and Scrivener is a LIFE SAVER when it comes to all things writing.

    • Sooz Dec 8 2012 at 8:21 pm #

      Plot tends to be the BIGGEST change for me–and easiest. It’ll require new scenes, new threads introduced earlier, cut scenes, rewritten scenes, etc. Then characters might require adjusted dialogue or different actions…and then setting usually just requires “drawing it out more”. Then again, the SS&D series happens in the real world, so that might explain why setting doesn’t have much that needs changing. I bet when I start revising my epic fantasy series, I’ll have to do a lot more setting tweaks to get it all “perfect”. 🙂

  3. PK Hrezo Dec 7 2012 at 9:20 am #

    Right in the middle of revision trenches and I agree, I like better than drafting. But only after I’ve let it sit for awhile and distance myself. I have to have an outline too!

    Thanks for the pep talk and advice! 🙂

    • Sooz Dec 8 2012 at 8:24 pm #

      Gosh, I love having time and distance too… Deadlines usually keep that from happening. In fact, I am freaking out because I’m not nearly done with book 3, and I will need to finish drafting + revise into an actual, cohesive story by February. AAAAAAH. Where did 2012 GO?! I can’t wait for after that book is turned in. Then I can take all the time I want between drafts and revising…and I can take as long as I want to draft too. Ah, it sounds like heaven. *makes dreamy eyes*

  4. stephanie garber Dec 7 2012 at 6:35 pm #

    Great post!

    I actually really like doing revisions as well, but I still don’t feel as if I’ve figured out the best way to tackle them. I totally do some of the same things you do (make line edits on paper before typing them out, color coding…), but I don’t think I’m half as organized. This post was really helpful. And thanks for much for including worksheets!

    • Sooz Dec 8 2012 at 8:24 pm #

      Oh gosh, line edits on paper is key for me. Even BIG edits I like to do on paper–I think and write totally differently by hand. It’s so odd, but I love it. 🙂 Most of my writer friends think I’m crazy, though.

      • stephanie garber Dec 10 2012 at 3:10 pm #

        I don’t think you’re crazy, I’m the same way! I also love any excuse to bust out my ultra fine point pink sharpie 🙂

  5. JQ Trotter Dec 7 2012 at 6:57 pm #

    Whoa, you have a very thought out revision process. I’ve never thought about breaking it down as thoroughly as you suggest, but it does seem like a good idea. I’m right about to start revision — and really not looking forward to it — so this post came at just the right time! I also just got Scrivener, it’s great so far.

    Even though I hate to start revising, it’s always my favorite part. It just takes time for me to remember that…

    • Sooz Dec 8 2012 at 8:29 pm #

      Hahaha–it’s only this thought out because I wanted to help other writers. I had never THOUGHT about all my steps until after people started asking me for help/guidance (and I certainly never used worksheets–I just made those to help people). And like I said in the post, I don’t really follow this any more–not to the letter, at least. I’m still SUPER organized and I still take EVERYTHING in bite-size pieces…and I still color-code like mad, but I also combine some steps or skip some entirely. Everyone eventually gets a writing groove, and mine is a sort of streamlined, internalized version of this left-brained, worksheet insanity.

      BUT, just like Holly Lisle’s guide helped me “learn to revise”, I do think it’s something people have to learn to do. So many writers think it’s scary or yucky…or they just don’t know what is required, so I wanted to help them by teaching them the nitty-gritty of my method. 🙂 I don’t expect people to USE my method, but maybe it’ll help them get a feel for the basics. Because–like you say–it’s always your favorite part, and all it takes is a little time to remember it. Maybe other people will realize that too! 😀

  6. Renate Dec 8 2012 at 6:29 am #

    I love your thorough approach, but I’m not quite this organized when I revise…but probs need to change that! I haven’t tried Scrivener, but it sounds as though it’s a pretty useful tool; I’m just a really tactile person, and I prefer to write things out by hand when I’m processing what needs to be changed. (Then again, you said that you do that as well…) This is such great material – thanks! 🙂

    • Sooz Dec 8 2012 at 8:31 pm #

      I still write EVERYTHING by hand, Renate. But Scrivener is still amazing. I use it for writing first drafts, and then when I edit, I type-in my handwritten changes to Scrivener. It helps me constantly see the structure of my story, and that’s something that I find SUPER helpful when drafting AND revising. 🙂

  7. Claudia McCarron Dec 8 2012 at 4:10 pm #

    I haven’t finished a first draft of my WIP yet, but I want to be prepared, so this post was very helpful. I love outlining and organizing, so I will definetly be trying this method.
    I tend to make notes on my manuscript while I write, how would you suggest dealing with those using your method?

    • Sooz Dec 8 2012 at 8:33 pm #

      Oh, just collect all your notes at the end and sort of “qualify” them by type. Setting problem? Write it on your setting issues Master List. Plot problem? Write it on your plot issues Master List. 🙂 Or, if they’re just tiny comments, keep them written in the margin and when you revise, you can address them when you hit them. If they’re SUPER tiny (i.e. line-edit scale), then just leave them in your margins until the very end. If the section is still even in your new version of the story, then you can address it. 😉

      Does that help?

      • Claudia McCarron Dec 9 2012 at 2:31 pm #

        Yes, thank you! Making notes on the manuscript as I go along works for me, but I was wondering how to deal with them in a calm, organized, and sane way. Figuring out this method has really taken care of a lot of my fears about rewriting.

  8. Q Dec 9 2012 at 12:56 am #

    I think I’m a little in love with you. ^_^

    I’ve read A LOT of editing methods, and this is the first one that clicked in my brain as a more efficient way for ME to revise. Everyone has a different ‘fool-proof editing plan,’ but none of them mesh with my own process. This is beautiful and comprehensive. The color coding is a simple idea, but such a graceful editing solution.

    /fan girl gushing.

    Thanks for this. You’re pretty much made of awesome.

    • Sooz Dec 9 2012 at 6:23 pm #

      Awww. Pffft. *swats air and blushes* I’m so glad it works for you. Like you said–everyone’s different. I think the main thing people have to realize when revising is how a story even WORKS–from plot to character to pacing–and that was what I wanted my revisions guide to really help people with. 🙂

  9. Linda Budzinski Dec 9 2012 at 9:43 am #

    Wow, that is impressive. Thank you for sharing your method! What is “white room”?

    • Sooz Dec 9 2012 at 6:29 pm #

      A “white room” would just mean that you’ve got characters doing stuff…but you never say how they interact with the setting. For all you know, they’re in a white room:

      “Hey, Barb.” I waved. She paused her walking and glanced back toward me.
      She whirled around. “David! How are you?”
      “Did you hear what happened to Dino?” I asked. “It’s…well, scary is puttin’ it mild.”
      “Oh goodness.” She clapped her hands to her cheeks, shaking her head. “And his wife being on the most wanted list too–it’s just dreadful.”

      You can’t imagine where they are…but if you make a few of the action tags interact with the setting, then you’re good to go:

      “Hey Barb.” I leaned out my car window, waving. She paused her walking and glanced back toward the intersection.
      She whirled around. “David! How are you?”
      “Did you hear what happened to Dino?” I asked. A quick check in my rear view showed knowing coming up behind. “It’s…well, scary is puttin’ it mild.”
      “Oh goodness.” She clapped her hands to her cheeks, walking toward me. “And his wife being on the most wanted list too–it’s just dreadful.”

      Hope that helps. 🙂 I am actually dealing with a white room scene right now. I have set up where the characters are, but I could make their actions much more vivid I have them interact a bit more with what’s around them.

    • Q Dec 10 2012 at 12:59 am #

      White room (as I understand it) is when you don’t really describe setting so it seems like your characters are interacting in a void or a big white room. ^_^

  10. Lori T. Dec 9 2012 at 8:41 pm #

    I can certainly attest to how great your blog is for writers. I’ve printed and used so many of your worksheets for my own writing. They’ve definitely helped me in ways I cannot even begin to describe. I’ve found easier, better ways for plotting and character development, and certainly with revisions. Revising can be so tough, but when you find the way that works best for you, it absolutely eases some of the stress. And many of your worksheets have done that for me. Your blog is such a blessed source for writers! 🙂

    • Sooz Dec 10 2012 at 2:23 pm #

      Awwww. Thanks, Lori. <3 I am so glad you find some of my random ramblings helpful. This idea of compiling it all into an ebook is starting to sound more and more appealing... 🙂

  11. Alexa Y. Dec 12 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    As always, you’ve come up with an incredibly helpful post! It’s also one that appeals to my happy little organized heart 😉 I tried Scrivener during NaNo but started to forget to use it, since I alternated between working on a personal computer and my work computer. I am, however, going to use it to revise, revise, revise!

    Sad part is – there is no way my NaNo WIP/current WIP is even near HALFWAY done, lol. I have to write some more first!

  12. Kessie Carroll Dec 14 2012 at 2:43 pm #

    Oooh, good advice here! I’m knee-deep in revisions right now from my critique group–I’m hoping it’ll make the Big Editorial edits less … Big. But who knows? I read through it, made notes of what my critique group wanted, and of what my instincts wanted, as a reader. Also if my heroes are going to save the day the way I have planned, I have to do some more setup work, which means writing some scenes that will actually be pretty funny. I’m looking forward to that. 🙂

    Anyway, thanks for the advice! My editing isn’t quite as organized as yours, but it’s definitely along the same lines. 🙂

  13. Trisha Jan 15 2013 at 7:20 pm #

    I love your little post-it up there with the plot, characters, etc.

  14. Dana Atkins Jan 25 2015 at 3:56 pm #

    Oh, my goodness. I need help. I am 37-years-old, have three kids, and have started writing my first book. I have taught high school for the past 16 years, and it isn’t wonder why kids hate to read. The literature forced upon them by the bureaucrats of America pretty much would turn anyone off to the world of reading. So, for the past two years or so, I have been toying with the idea of writing my own YA book. I have written 156, and I still see another 156 pages before I start the revision process. And then, I have to write a letter to see if an editor will even pick up my book, is that correct?

    I guess I just need encouragement and ideas of what to expect in terms of the future of this book. I know it is worth pursing, but I feel like I am at the foot of Mount Everest looking up!

  15. Dana Atkins Jan 25 2015 at 3:59 pm #

    Oh, my goodness. I need help. I am 37-years-old, have three kids, and have started writing my first book. I have taught high school for the past 16 years, and it isn’t any wonder why kids hate to read. The literature forced upon them by the bureaucrats of America pretty much would turn anyone off to the world of reading. So, for the past two years or so, I have been toying with the idea of writing my own YA book. I have written 156 pages, and I still see another 156 pages before I even start the revision process. And then, I have to write a letter to see if an editor will even pick up my book, is that correct?

    I guess I just need encouragement and ideas of what to expect in terms of the future of this book. I know it is worth pursing, but I feel like I am at the foot of Mount Everest looking up!

    P.S. I hit post comment before I proofread the initial post. I warned you that I was older! 🙂

  16. lisa ciarfella Jan 7 2016 at 11:23 am #

    great post here. Could really use your feedback here on a few questions….

    Right now, I don’t really have a revision process, but because Im in school, (MFA program) I’m about half way into my first novel and have been revising as I go according to the feedback i get in workshop. classes at school.

    But what I’m finding is that doing this is taking a lot of time and also is super draining as I’m constantly tweaking the same pages over and over based on their comments. But It seems like the long way around, and I’m starting to think there must be a better way…..

    Would you suggest finishing the novel first completely, and then starting in on the revision process?? I think maybe, that might move me along a lot quicker and also be more productive and lead to less self second guessing….Ive already reworked the darn thing from 1st person to 3rd, then back to 1st again because of their feedback and I’m not moving forward because of it….

    I’m also a pantser, not a plotter, so following your tips could be challenging, but I downloaded Scrivener and it seems like it could be a great tool, but a little daunting as well. Any tips for learning how to use it quickly and efficiently??

    Look forward to your feedback

  17. JJ Jan 8 2016 at 8:00 am #

    Hi Lisa:

    This is JJ responding, as Sooz is an alumna and no longer actively checking comments. 🙂

    Personally, both as a former editor and as an author, I don’t think “feedback as you go” is useful when you are writing a novel. As a critique partner, I prefer to read an entire manuscript before giving my comments because the big picture must be seen before you can make a decision about smaller things (grammar, dialogue, even POV). As a writer, I find that “too many cooks spoil the broth”, or I must work in silence and solitude until the novel is finished before allowing outside voices to come in.

    As you are in an MFA program, my advice would be to take your workshop advice, make note of it, and set it aside to review once you have finished your novel. At that point, you can review the comments, discard the ones that are no longer relevant, and focus on consistent feedback that you’ve received. Look forward, do not keep treading the same waters. Bring new pages to each session. Keep going.

    I am also a pantser, so you may find my Revision for Pantsers post useful, but that post assumes you have already finished a manuscript. (I also use Scrivener, which I love. I haven’t unlocked its full potential, but it’s infinitely adaptable to all sorts of writing styles. Our alumna Erin Bowman as some tips and tricks for the program on her blog!)

    • lisa ciarfella Jan 8 2016 at 10:30 am #

      Thanks much JJ.
      Your insight is spot on and kind of mimics exactly how I’ve been feeling about the topic too.
      I will take your advice and run with it.

      And thanks for sharing Erin’s site.

      Cheers to the new year, all around!

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