An Intro to The Art of Revision

I got asked recently on twitter for advice on how to begin revisions on the first draft of a novel. The topic is a bit much to address in chunks of 140 characters, here’s a blog post on it.

First off, I do have to give a disclaimer and say that I can only talk about MY process, which won’t apply to, or work for, everyone. Honestly, I’m still figuring it out myself. So if you read this and think, “Hm, that doesn’t sound like something I’d like to do at all,” that’s perfectly fine. But I do hope it helps, even a little!

Admission number 1: My first drafts are awful, awful things. They can’t even really be called first drafts. They have big gaping gaps in them where I’ve skipped over scenes I didn’t want to write, or didn’t know how to write (i.e. Character needs to run away from home? Why? Big fight with parents? Older sister in trouble? Both? No idea right now, so I’m just gonna skip the impetus scene and jump right into her hitch-hiking). They have characters whose personalities suddenly do a 180 as I figure out that my bad-boy rockstar is more of a sensitive, emo-poet. Hints as to possible plot threads (there IS a monster under her bed!) exist but then lead to nowhere as I decide said plot thread is going to get cut (no monsters in this book after all).

The rather pathetic thing about all this is that I DO outline. I DO brainstorm. I come up with whole character backstories and world-building documents…but have come to terms with the fact that nothing is set until I actually try it out in-story, on the page.

And even not then.

This, I think, is one of the most important parts of revising a first draft. You have to see it as malleable. A first draft is cloth. Revision is what makes it into a dress or a blouse or a nice trench coat.

During a first draft, you figure out What Is My Story About. Also importantly, you figure out What Is My Story NOT About. During my first revision, I go back through my first draft and figure out what stays, and what goes, and what order the things that stay are going to happen in.

This sort of questioning trickles down to the chapter-level. What needs to be in this chapter? What is essential? Which characters needed to be introduced now, and which could wait? Which conflicts needed to be hinted at now? Which settings needed to be explored?

If it’s not essential, it gets cut. (by “cut,” I don’t mean wiped off the face of the earth. I usually save each draft as a new file, so anything I cut in draft 2 still exists in my draft 1 file. You never know when it might be useful again). Basically, your first step is going back to this mass of words you have and figure out the bones of your story. Make sure everything adheres to these bones. Make sure everything is needed.

That’s the bare bones of revision. Next post, I’ll go more into the details 🙂

How do you approach revisions?

20 Responses to An Intro to The Art of Revision

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Jun 30 2014 at 10:46 am #

    “During a first draft, you figure out What Is My Story About.”
    I wish. For me the first draft is the only draft, no scenes can be skipped. I need the story logic of what has gone before in order to get to what comes next. If I come up with some brilliant idea in chapter 10 I have to go back right then and there to all the places I need to go to in the prior text, to add whatever elements I need to add to support that brilliant idea. So I revise as I go. Anything I do after I reach that final ‘The End’ is usually small, a word, maybe a line, to enhance whatever is there, but it’s not new plot-wise.
    But I never know what my story is about. I wish I did, it would make query-writing easier.

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Jun 30 2014 at 1:42 pm #

      I’ve known other people who write the way you do, as well! I don’t think I’d ever finish anything if I wrote like that, but that’s one of the cool parts about writing—everyone does it differently 🙂

  2. Nita Jun 30 2014 at 11:54 am #

    Thank you for this! I have stories that never get written because I don’t have the entire thing pre-written in my head. I am so relieved to hear your process! I can do that! In fact, maybe I will go write a few things down today! 🙂

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Jun 30 2014 at 1:45 pm #

      I hope you do! 🙂 I often let stories percolate inside my head for extended periods of time before taking a whole draft, but sometimes you just can’t pin down the particulars until you actually start working your way through the thing, you know?

  3. Heather Dunn Jun 30 2014 at 12:36 pm #

    As usual, Kat, your advice is useful, thoughtfully delivered, and something I wish I’d read months ago.

    I’d describe my writing and revision process as groping my way through a cave system with a weak flashlight, constantly delighted there’s another safe step to take, and sometimes a new chamber. Lacking a defined process, my revision method has been repetition and persistence, plus lots of help from friends. Eight drafts in, I think my novel is finally taking good shape. I suspect this post will help me consolidate the revision process, or, at least, give me a stronger flashlight.

    Heading over to Twitter now to become your newest follower.

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Jun 30 2014 at 1:46 pm #

      Aw, thanks, Heather! 🙂 I’m glad the post was useful.

      I definitely have a really, really messy writing/revision process. Perhaps it’ll get more streamlined in the years to come, but for right now, I’ve mostly just come to accept and work with it 😛 Best of luck with your revisions, and see you on twitter!

  4. Chris Bailey Jun 30 2014 at 2:55 pm #

    Thanks for this post! With every story I write, I get more determined not to waste time zig-zagging all over the place. But no matter how much time I spend planning and outlining, I write by zig-zagging all over the place. I loved my last outline. I believed in it. I thought it was so very logical and complete. And now I’m writing, and. . .well, you can guess. Some of the outlined ideas work, and some belong in an alternate universe.

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Jun 30 2014 at 3:33 pm #

      You’re welcome, Chris 🙂 I totally understand what you mean by your outlined ideas either working or belonging in an alternate universe, haha. I think even the ones that end up belonging in an alternate universe were helpful to think through and write down, though. They’re all building blocks 🙂

  5. Traci Krites Jun 30 2014 at 8:46 pm #

    My own process is similar. It’s nice to see no matter how we all work, certain aspects are the same. It encourages me.

  6. Deanna Damon Jun 30 2014 at 9:44 pm #

    I’ve kind of started combining two or three styles of revisions together, and because of this process I have finally finished my first draft and will be working on it for NaNo next month.

    First I would write out the chapter outline with the characters, point of view, plot or sub-plot, setting, summary, and then the plot points for that chapter. Once I have this all figured out for each chapter, I can begin writing. I also commence using big, bold words that state something about the section of the scene I’m in are highlighted for those moments I don’t know how to begin, or even have an idea for, to write down. With that all in progress, I take advantage of the finish line and cross it with a breeze.

    Now, as far as revisions go, I am currently just rewriting my story like there’s no tomorrow. And from what I described in the above paragraph, is also used for this method, but I go back through and add the scenes I didn’t write in. Once I’m completely satisfied with how my story has gone, I will start to go back through and Grammar Nazi the story.

    This process of mine has really saved my life because I never thought would actually finish a novel in this lifetime. I usually have to write a story with every scene and piece of logic I can throw in there. I can officially say I am so much closer to finishing my story’s editing process and changing whatever needs to be changed.

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Jul 1 2014 at 11:18 am #

      That sounds like a great way of going about things! Best of luck working on the story 🙂

  7. PinkQueen Jul 2 2014 at 4:11 am #

    Thank you for this! My own process is similar. It’s nice to see no matter how we all work, certain aspects are the same. It encourages me.

  8. Stacey Campbell Jul 2 2014 at 5:01 am #

    My first draft is usually such a mess, I have heaps of highlighted bits saying (more setting here), I have POV scenes that I know I won’t end up using but I write them to get a sense of a character and what they are thinking at the point in the story, I have big info dumps that I highlight with “disperse through story” highlighted by it. Its a real mess. Thank god for the rewriting process, and the ability to learn what-on-earth it is that I wrote.

    Thanks for the article, looking forward to your next one!

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Jul 2 2014 at 12:28 pm #

      You definitely sound like me, haha!

  9. Alexa S. Jul 6 2014 at 5:51 am #

    Oh, I very much like thinking of first drafts this way! They’re much easier to work with if you remember that they’re unfinished, still not shaped properly or well put-together. I had a hard time with this before, since I’m a bit of a perfectionist, but it’s getting easier the more I practice. Can’t wait to see the continuation of your revision tips!

  10. Caitlin Vanasse Jul 10 2014 at 4:07 pm #

    Thanks Kat! I find your writing so beautiful that it’s nice to know it doesn’t just pour out of you that way.

  11. Catchfad Nov 18 2014 at 2:59 am #

    My own process is similar. It’s nice to see no matter how we all work, certain aspects are the same. It encourages me.

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