Post-Nano Tips for Revising Your Writing

Valentine's Day Book

by Carla Douglas and C.K. MacLeod
@CarlaJDouglas @CKmacleodwriter

This post appeared first at TheBookDesigner.com on November 19, 2014.

If you participated in National Novel Writing Month, and you took our advice, below, to rest your manuscript, it’ll soon be time to revise your first draft. How you revise your writing will depend on

  1. your prewriting and planning style
  2. the kind of book you’re writing

But first, an explanation of what we mean by revise.

What is Revising?

The prefix “re” means again. To revise is to re-vision—to look at your writing again, hopefully from the perspective of a reader. To bring something new to your writing, you need to give it time to breathe. Revision involves waiting.

In How to Make a Living as a Writer, James Scott Bell recommends airing your writing for three weeks. That means sticking your NaNo draft in a drawer on November 30, and vowing not to look at it again until the winter solstice. If you take Stephen King’s advice, you’ll be pulling out that first draft on Valentine’s Day.

After the recommended period of rest, you’re ready to work on your first draft.

What’s Involved in Revising

Depending on what you’re able accomplish in a first draft, revising might entail

  • restructuring your story or book
  • removing “noise”—sections, paragraphs and sentences that slow the story’s pace
  • relocating paragraphs and chapters
  • rewriting sections or sentences for clarity and flow
  • replacing weak words with stronger words

Is Revising the Same as Editing?

Yes and no. The items you address in a revision are similar to the range of issues an editor might focus on in an edit. But to borrow from the definition in Idea to Ebook: How to Write a Quality Book Fast: “Revising is the best you can do with your own writing with some or no feedback. Editing is the best that someone else can do with your writing.”

In the editing process, an editor will suggest changes you might accept and implement to improve any number of features of your book. Making those changes—going into the manuscript and deleting, rewriting or moving text—is revising. Only you (or perhaps a ghostwriter) can revise your work.

So revising is the same as self-editing, but it’s different from editing in the traditional sense.

Three Kinds of Writers

Writers approach the writing process in a variety of ways. Often, writers are characterized by their prewriting or planning style (see below). A writer’s planning style can influence the kinds of tasks that will need to be addressed later, during revision.

Plotter

Plotters engage in a great deal of detailed, and often extensively documented, prewriting. Prewriting can take the form of a traditional outline, plot points, story beats or detailed chapter summaries. Plotters generally know how a story ends before they write. It’s not uncommon for plotters to have every scene worked out in advance.

Because plotters do much of their work beforehand, it’s likely that their plot is watertight. So when it comes time to revise the first draft, plotters may spend less time tweaking plot or structure and more time working on elements of story (character, dialogue, etc.) or rewriting sections or sentences for clarity and flow.

Overdoing it at the prewriting stage can show up in the finished first draft. A too-carefully structured plot risks confusing the reader. Remember, you’ve spent a long time with this book idea, plot and characters. The intricacies and sub-plots you’ve introduced might serve the plot, but they might not serve the novel.

Tips for plotters: Don’t be afraid to deviate from your outline if the story carries you in a new direction. If you’re surprised by what happens next, there’s a good chance your readers will be surprised, too. Look for signs that you’re telling and explaining ideas that readers might like to infer themselves. Good writing feels vigorous and lively. Rigidly adhering to your plan—no matter how clever and well-intentioned it was—can make your writing feel contrived, or worse, wooden and dead.

If you’re writing in a genre with specific rules (mystery, for example), studying craft books on the genre will be time well spent. And nothing beats reading extensively in a genre to understand better how it works.

Pantser

Pansters have a tendency to write episodically or non-chronologically. They’re least likely to use an outline or to formally capture a book’s structure before writing, either because they can hold that structure in their heads as they write (as Michael Ondaatje reportedly does) or because they’re open to allowing a book’s structure to emerge through the writing process.

After the first draft, pantsers may find themselves engaging in several rewrites in order to finetune a plot line or the book’s structure. They may need to remove the noise in places where the story deviates or drags. (Indeed, they may need to remove more than noise. In a recent panel discussion about the writing process, author Nancy Lee confirmed that, unhappy with her manuscript, she had thrown out an entire draft of her new novel, The Age, and rewritten it from a different point of view. And while she didn’t indicate whether or not she used an outline for the draft she discarded, she did display her willingness to throw it all away at the revision stage.)

So “pantsing,” or writing without an outline, almost certainly guarantees more work for the writer post-first-draft. This kind of writing is exploratory, and likely describes the process of many literary fiction writers.

Tips for pantsers: Pantsers can benefit from writing software that allows them to write episodically and then reorganize their writing later. The Binder feature in Scrivener is designed for this purpose. You can also tweak Microsoft Word so that it’s possible to move around sections and chapters more easily.

Because pantsers may find themselves writing several drafts before publication, they’ll need a method for keeping track of revisions. Using colour-coded labels in Scrivener, or Scrivener’s Snapshot feature can help pantsers keep track of several drafts in one place.

Keep in mind: If one of your writing goals is to write fast, then pantsing probably isn’t the best path to take. Many writers who achieve their NaNoWriMo goals engage in extensive prewriting before Halloween arrives. The skeleton’s there—they just have to flesh it out, probably with the details they’ve already documented. Plotters hit the ground running; pantsers may not actually hit the ground at all.

Plotser/Tweener

Plotsers, or tweeners, document a book’s structure in advance, but not in as detailed a way as plotters. Where plotters write detailed chapter summaries, plotsers might be inclined to sketch a mind map or flowchart, or dash off a one-page point-form plot or book outline.

There’s also the plotser who will dash off a very quick first draft and then sketch an outline. As editors, this method makes sense to us—we’ve often said that it’s easier to work with an existing text (edit) than it is to create a text (write).

At the revision stage, plotsers may find themselves revising big-picture items, while at the same time addressing the finer details of word choice. You might have to do a little of everything, and working from a checklist will help. The elements you have the most fun writing and are the easiest are probably those that you’ll need the least help with later. In other words, if you keep getting stuck on dialogue or if it’s that part of writing you dread, then paying careful attention to it in revisions is a good idea.

Tips for tweeners: Tools like Scapple or MindMeister can help to design mind maps with moveable parts. Try this: create a separate mind map for three or four story elements you are not especially confident about. Mind maps are helpful in the planning phase, but they can also be instrumental in helping you work out a problem in your manuscript visually. Trouble with pacing, dialogue or description, for instance, often becomes clear with a visual representation.

Tips for all Writers

Regardless of your prewriting and planning style, there are several things that writers of all stripes can address during the revision stage. We’d recommend proceeding in the following order:

  • focus on big-picture items, such as plot structure, point of view, and pacing, first
  • focus on characterization and dialogue next
  • read for plausibility and consistency
  • use automated revision tools to point out ways to clarify and smooth your writing

You’ll find other tips for applying feedback here.

Finally, experience will help you develop both the instincts for knowing when your story holds together—with fully developed characters and believable dialogue—and the confidence to trust your instincts. Until then, beta readers can be an enormous help in diagnosing any trouble spots, and we recommend bringing them on site sooner rather than later in the revising phase of your writing.

Conclusion

What we’ve outlined (pun intended) are all ways to take a book from concept to publication. Choose any method you like, but be aware of your preferences and the places you might hit a snag. Ideally, in the end, a reader or reviewer shouldn’t be able to identify which path you’ve taken—only that you’ve reached your destination in a way that satisfies.

Image by Viola