The Fine Art of Revision Preparation

Writing is a multi-step process. A first draft is rarely of sufficient quality to publish, but the art of getting from first draft to flight-ready content is more than just reading through something a second time.

That might suffice for a humble text, but for more complex works like a book, the revision process is itself an ordeal.

This is where the idea of revision preparation comes from. Instead of launching straight into a re-read and line edit, the writer prioritizes the necessary changes to their work.

Making a Plan

I’m not dogmatic about how you plan your novel, but good revision requires more thought. I wrote a novel by the seat of my pants for NaNoWriMo this year, and while it wasn’t as good as my planned-out novel I think it was still an achievement.

However, it’s fruitless to revise without a plan. Even if one can pull off the original creative process without a plan, revision has a different goal.

Revision preparation is readying yourself to produce a better text. A writer may make incremental improvements on the fly, but they’re too limited to be substantial.

And the purpose of revision isn’t to change individual sentences for a better flow. That’s something that might happen along the way, but it’s a fruitless endeavor. Playing with grammar doesn’t give a clear enough goal to guide progress, and the resulting text could still have structural flaws.

Instead, it’s worth considering strengths and weaknesses.

I’m using two books to help guide me through this as I am entering the revision process myself, and they’re focused on different parts of the progress. Both came recommended to me during my MFA.

There are two real things you want to think about in the revision process: how you’d revise as an editor, and how you’d revise as a storyteller.

Revising as an Editor

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King, is a tremendous book. It feels shorter than it is, at a lean 288 pages, but it walks through a bunch of common problems.

Further, this isn’t a book on grammar–though it might help with that too. It’s a book about technical issues as they are likely to happen within chapters and sections of a manuscript.

When you’re revising as an editor you’re looking for sticky passages, places where your prose doesn’t live up to standards.

In revision preparation, thinking like an editor means taking stock of your strengths and weaknesses. I write a lot of dialogue, and people seem to feel like it’s natural. But it also means that there’s a large break between actions in many portions of my text.

When I look at my text, I need to plan around looking at those places where dialogue bogs down and figure out tangible ways to fix it.

This could apply anywhere. Have a propensity to ramble about unimportant things? Make a note to edit so that only symbolic or plot significant things get long visual descriptions. Only write a single sense? Make a note to fix that in revision. Explain too much? Ditto.

Revising as a Storyteller

The second part of revision preparation is revising as a storyteller. Right now I’m using Steven James’ Troubleshooting Your Novel to guide my revision.

In my experience, this is one place where you’re going to see more people give advice in different ways, and having a good technical grasp of stories may be more important than any single dogmatic method.

The important question to ask here is “Have I told a good story?”

And then you can break this down into different categories.

This will depend on the genre, format, and personal preferences and aptitudes of a writer.

The goal of a storyteller is to make sure:

  1. Audiences emotionally invest in the characters by the time the plot begins.
  2. The central plot picks up before the audience loses interest.
  3. Increasing stakes in the plot force character development and retain audience engagement.
  4. A climax illustrates the point of the story and gives the characters a part to play.
  5. The resolution provides the audience with a chance to have their connection to the characters pay off.

How a writer achieves these goals is up to them, but they should include ways to ensure that each of these elements will be assessed during the revision process and bolstered if needed.

Feedback or No Feedback

One decision a writer needs to make is whether to seek feedback on the first draft of their manuscript or perform revision first.

To put my bias upfront, all my first drafts are just for me. The one exception to this is workshopping with other writers, which is valuable for getting to see others’ work process and borrow helpful bits and also for some quick feedback that can shape future revision.

The absolute rule here is that you shouldn’t pay for an editor to look over your first draft. If they’re good, you’re paying extra money for them to waste their skills on issues you’ll probably catch. If they’re not good, you’re giving them an impossible task of trying to predict what feedback will be helpful and what you could fix on your own.

If you’re looking for a developmental editor, you might do so after you begin the revision process. Even in this case, sending a polished draft instead of a rough draft can be helpful to ensure that the text is clear and not inadvertently limiting the editor’s insights.

A trusted beta reader might get involved at this step of the process to give feedback. Again, think about whether you’re asking an unreasonable amount from them and make sure they have a manuscript that lives up to your standards.

Wrapping Up

Revision preparation is a plan for the revision process. It’s the best way to make sure that revision gives a tangible improvement, instead of a manuscript that is of similar value to the one you started with.

Considering the craft that goes into a text is the best way to make sure that the next draft is an improvement. Thinking like an editor and addressing issues with the prose within each section is important. It requires you to know your own strengths and weaknesses.

Then, think like a storyteller and look for areas where the plot or characters don’t live up to their promises. Find places where you could add or remove content to make your readers stay on the edge of their seat.

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