When I was planning this post, the scene from the movie Shrek came to mind where Shrek explains that ogres are like onions. It applies to revisions as well.
Yes, revising can stink (metaphorically).
Yes, revising can make you cry (literally).
More accurately, it has many layers.
When you finish the first draft of your manuscript, that’s only the beginning. It’s a huge and important beginning though. You should celebrate and prepare for more work. It doesn’t matter if you are a plotter or a pantser (a person who doesn’t plan the entire story out before writing it), that draft will need to be revised...many times.
It can take me about a month to write a first draft. That’s usually followed by at least three rounds of revisions before I give it to my critique partner(s). Using their feedback, I do another couple rounds of revisions. Then it may be ready for some beta readers. I believe the manuscript I’m currently querying took me about four months to revise. Then I decided to work with a freelance editor and it was another few months in revisions.
It’s impossible to make everything work if you only revise once or twice. There are so many aspects to focus on that you can’t hit every one without multiple passes. This is why it’s important to pick a couple things to look for during each pass. Some people do specific passes in their manuscripts to check dialogue, or an edit for each story line/sub-plot, or a read to focus on a specific character.
By the time you’re in the middle of the editing process there’s a good chance you hate your manuscript and are ready to burn it. I’ve hit that point several times over.
First, when you finish your initial draft, put it away. Don’t look at it for at least a week. A month or more is better. This allows you to distance yourself from your work.
When I go back to revise a first draft, I look at the overall story and scenes. This is especially important for me because I’m a pantser—though I prefer the term exploratory writer. I write all my scenes or major events on cue cards and lay them out in chronological order by day. I look for scenes and events that don’t work or can be melded together. I check the timing. If something was done on Monday in the story, how soon is it wrapped up? If I come up with a new scene, I write a new cue card and add it in. I shuffle events around until I’m happy with everything, then I put it in a blank calendar to keep me on track.
Once I’m happy with the chain of events, it’s time to make it happen. I set to work adding, deleting, or blending scenes. I make tons of notes using Word’s comment feature if smaller details comes to mind or I need to remind myself to fix a transition between scenes. I attempt to fix continuity and repercussions of events as I go but things get missed, so I worry about that on the next pass. It can take two or three passes to get everything smoothed out.
With a smoothed out manuscript as far as events go, I start focusing on adding more details to scenes and life to the world I’ve created. This pass fills out the story, adding in explanations, a little backstory, more emotion and body language, ensuring I’m showing more than telling. My first draft can fall short of my target word count because I’m focusing on getting the skeleton of the story laid out. At this step, it’s time to elaborate. This is the part where I edit a section on the computer, print it to edit it again, then, as I’m putting the paper edits into the computer, I edit again.
After this round, it’s usually ready for a critique partner to have a look and point out any lingering problems. I find my critique partners give me a totally different view on things. When I go through their suggestions, I’m able to flesh out sections that still aren’t where they need to be or change scenes.
Next, I send it to a few beta readers who can tell me what they like or don’t like, what they understand and what’s still missing. Their feedback leads to another round of revisions. I have a critique partner who will read the story again for any lingering issues that I missed.
One of the final passes I do is to check wording. Are verbs strong enough? Are there overused words? Clichés? Weak sentences?
The last edit I do is for lingering spelling mistakes and grammar. Much of this is caught in the previous passes, but not all. I used a feature on my tablet that reads me the manuscript, which is very helpful. I also read the manuscript aloud. Yes, it’s time consuming, but it also helps you catch mistakes and ensures flow.
Basically when you start editing your manuscript, start with the big issues (story, plot, characters) and work your way down to the nitty-gritty (word choice, sentences). Revisions take time—a lot of time. Try to find others who are also going through the process so you have support and a shoulder to cry on.
Though I love the writing process, editing is just as important. Editing is where you
make the story shine.