Dear Story Nurse,
I finished the first draft of my novel a few months ago, and I really want to get it published soon. But every time I try to revise it, I just end up “polishing” it—line-editing or cutting sentences within scenes. I guess at a basic level, I don’t know what writers mean when they say they “re-write” drafts. Do they literally re-write their entire novel, page by page, from scratch? Or do they only re-write the scenes that don’t work? (I know everyone is different, but I also feel like no one gets it right the first time, so I want to know how people go about fixing it).
It took me years to finish the first draft, so the idea of re-writing the entire thing feels really daunting to me. At the same time, I don’t want to simply rearrange chairs on the deck of the Titanic—I want to save the ship (to borrow from Justine Larbalestier’s metaphor on rewriting). I want to fix any major structural issues. I want the novel to be the best it can be, even before I let beta-readers see it.
What should I do? At its most basic, rudimentary level, what does re-writing a draft mean? What exercises can I do to take baby-steps towards re-writing?
—(Another) Confused Reviser (she/her)
Dear (Another) Confused Reviser,
What a wonderful question, and I’m glad you were willing to ask it! You’re absolutely right that people talk about rewriting without ever talking about what it can or should entail, and that does a real disservice to writers who are just starting out.
Every draft is different, and every draft needs a different amount and type of rewriting. It often helps to find a good beta reader or three who can point you in useful directions for your specific work. Every writer’s revision process is different too, but I can still make some general suggestions that may help you get a foothold.
0. Prepare to change gears. The key to revision is that it requires a shift in perspective, from writer to reader. What do you want your reader to experience while reading your work, and how do you want them to feel at the end? As you revise, keep this idea of the reader’s experience in your mind. All your revisions, whether you’re cutting words, adding them, rearranging them, or tweaking and polishing them, should move your work toward creating that ideal reading experience.
1. Let the draft rest before you revise it. Once you’ve finished a draft, it’s important to step away from it for a bit. Just as your eyes need a moment to refocus from near to far, your brain needs some time to refocus from words and sentences to paragraphs and scenes and chapters. I recommend somewhere between one and four weeks, depending on the length of the piece and how long you spent writing it. The break should be long enough that when you reread the manuscript, your experience of reading it won’t be overridden by your notions of what you think it is.
2. Reread your manuscript a few times, with a different focus each time. In my post on rediscovering your story’s heart, I suggest four passes: reading for enjoyment, recording emotional reactions, drawing analogies to other arts, and making an outline of the book as it is. That approach works for someone who’s got a very engineering-focused mindset and needs to move back into the intuitive space. If you’re more intuition-focused, your passes may involve creating an outline first, taking more detailed notes, or staying connected to the language and structure of the book by looking for repeated words and themes. Regardless, it’s important to start by approaching the book as a reader; to get a firm grasp of the book’s current structure while thinking about what you would like that structure to be; and to highlight the parts of the book that work for you and the parts that don’t, remembering your concept of the ideal reading experience and observing where the actual reading experience falls short.
3. Identify the story’s beginning and end. This is the most important part of structural work; everything follows from it. Very generally, most stories start when something changes in the protagonist’s mindset or situation, and most stories end at a place of rest for the protagonist, who has grappled with that initial change, come to terms with it, and found a new equilibrium. If you aren’t sure what that looks like, you can try to fit your story into an existing format like the Hero’s Journey or Dan Harmon’s story embryo, or draw parallels to other stories in your genre.
Don’t confuse the climax for the ending; after the big release of tension in the climax, you need to wind the story down and remind your readers how to breathe again (and take care of them a bit, if you’ve just put them through a very tumultuous book). The ending comes when your characters and readers have caught their breath and are ready to move on to what comes next.
As you identify your story’s beginning and end, you may realize that what you thought was your first chapter, or your first three chapters, is actually backstory. That’s okay! You can trim it and save it for future use. And remember that no words are wasted; sometimes you need to write a lot to teach yourself about the story before you can write the story itself, and words you write for yourself are worth just as much as words you write for others.
You may learn that your story stops before the end, or starts after the beginning, and you need to do a bunch of additional writing. That’s fine too. Don’t do that writing right now—make a note of it and move on.
It’s rare to find that you’ve written a lot of extra material after the thematic end of the story. If that happens, it’s probably a sign that you don’t find the thematic end satisfying and you’re trying to write your way toward one you like better. You may also find that your story doesn’t have a thematic end and just kind of peters out, or stops short. That’s useful to know, so make a note of it for later.
4. Visualize your story and look for structural flaws. (If you’re not a visual thinker, or if you’re visually impaired, it’s perfectly fine to skip this step or substitute aural or tactile mapping.) The purpose of this exercise is to help you pinpoint aspects of the book that don’t quite work, so make sure you’re visualizing the book as it currently is, with the help of the notes you took during your reread. If you have a linear plot to chart out, I like Chris Woo’s cosine-wave version of Dan Harmon’s story embryo. Lots of people swear by variations on the rising-tension thriller plot. Your visualization could end up being a bunch of pictures of your characters all connected with colored lines, or a timeline, or a series of images that evoke the key scenes. Try a few different things, focusing on the parts of the book where you think you have the most to work on, and see what clicks for you. Once you’ve got an effective visualization, you may find that your rising tension doesn’t start rising until halfway through the book, or that all the colored lines lead to someone who’s not your protagonist, or that eight of the ten key scenes have very similar vibes and start to feel repetitive. That’s vital information for when you…
5. Plan and execute your structural revision. If you’ve examined the structure of your book and you’re pretty happy with it as it stands, you can skip ahead to the next step. If not, make a copy of your outline of the book as it is, and turn that copy into the outline of the book as it should be. Decide whether you’re going to cut the unnecessary first chapter, outline the missing last chapter, and/or move some flashbacks later or trim a lot of exposition to create more tension. If your story beats don’t have the push-pull that keeps a story moving, change them up. Plot depends on character, so this is also the time to identify major character issues. Is the right person your protagonist? Does your protagonist take action to move the story forward? And it doesn’t hurt to make sure your timeline at least vaguely makes sense.
Once you’ve got your revised outline sorted, it’s time to hack and slash. Don’t be afraid to make some pretty drastic changes if they make your story better. As long as you save a copy of each version of your book, you can always go back to the previous one and try again. (Here’s more on managing the stress of revisions.) That said, you’re not required to make big changes if you don’t need to. Trust yourself as a reader, and trust the notes you made back in step 2; if the story structure didn’t feel broken, don’t fix it.
If you are making big changes, expect to spend a fair amount of time on this, especially if it’s your first time doing a structural revision. Frequently refer back to your outline (adjusting it as necessary). Once the structure feels solid, do a quick skimming reread to make sure you haven’t accidentally left out a chapter or set up a character to die before they’re born.
6. Smooth out the rough parts. There will inevitably be seams between sections that were written at different times or rearranged. Even if you wrote the book straight through, your writing style probably changed over that time as you developed your voice and got a handle on the story and setting. Do a fairly basic polishing pass to make sure that everything fits together well and sounds like part of the same book.
This is a good time to look for characterization and worldbuilding inconsistencies, as well as your most obvious bad writing habits (using “very” and “really” in every other sentence, pausing whenever a character is introduced to meticulously describe their appearance, that sort of thing). Don’t go overboard with perfectionism, but if you spot a flaw, there’s no reason not to fix it.
By the end of this pass you should have something that looks a good deal like a book. Congratulations, you have finished your first and probably hardest round of revisions!
Now your book is ready for an editor. Every writer needs one. If you’re going the traditional publishing route, run the manuscript past your beta reader(s) one last time and then send it out to your agent, or to an agent who you’d like to be your agent, or to a publisher that accepts unsolicited submissions. If you’re going to self-publish, hire a freelance editor. They’ll help you make your book even better.
If this approach doesn’t work for you, you can always create your own! These are just suggestions. Finding the places where you disagree with my proposed process is a great way to develop one that really suits you.