Finishing the first draft of a novel is a great feeling. You’ve done a lot of hard work and you can kick back and relax a bit, right? Well, yes, absolutely, but not for long because the first draft is just that. There’s still a bit of work to do, and the next process is revising it.
A revision can be dreaded because there’s usually a lot more to do, to fix, to restructure, and even rewrite. Before you put it off too long or sink into procrastination, let’s help you develop a plan so you can get to work with some strategy in mind.
When revising a novel, it’s always good to think of working from big to small. That means tackling the larger aspects of the novel first, such as plot structure, characterization or setting elements, before getting into the nitty gritty of punctuation, grammar, word choice and other language elements. Here are some steps to help in this process.
Steps to revise a novel
Create some distance first
After you’ve written your first draft, take a short break. Give yourself a few weeks or even a few months of breathing space so that when you come back to the manuscript, you’re looking at it with fresh eyes and far more objectivity. You should be able to see things that aren’t working far clearer.
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First read through
When you first pick up your novel again, don’t get bogged down in the nitty gritty. It should literally be a read-through assessing plot, characters, and setting elements. Think about plot holes that emerge, any character storylines or motivations that need to be stronger, anywhere the story lacks lags and pacing needs to pick up the tempo, or perhaps more description is needed to paint the scene. Make notes in the margins or somewhere so you can come back to it.
Once you’ve done this, you should be read to start work. Many of the first edits should be structural, on a story-wide basis, while others will work more scene by scene.
Plot: timeline and pacing
You should have accumulated a few notes from your read through, but let’s tackle plot elements first. First, consider the main plot points of the story. Do these come at the right point in the story and are they clear so readers understand what is happening? Does the plot make sense? Are there any holes you need to fill, contradictions or other issues? Does it have the right tension or pacing in scenes where there are moments or terror or action? Are romantic elements established so there are escalating feelings that build throughout?
From here, you can move to your characters and consider their role in the story. Are they interesting to readers, are their motivations clear, do they have distinct features, and are at least some of them likeable? Round out any flat characters and make sure each has a defined arc so they all experience change (for the good or bad) throughout the story. Characters should grow in some way and this should be clear and evident to readers, along with the reasons they have changed. While not all characters have the same screen time, each should have a distinct personality and behaviour.
Have you painted the world of your story well enough? A great story can be let down without enough sensory elements or description for it to play out in. Certain kinds of stories need more world-building than others. For example, a sci-fi story or something set in another world or era should be described in enough detail that readers understand it.
It can be helpful to think of the five sensory elements—touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing—to help describe your scenes.
However, don’t get bogged down in these details when perhaps there is something happening that is more important. Is there too much detail? Are you distracting the reader with long expositions when something else is more important? For example, you might not want to spend time too much describing the weather when characters are about to have their first kiss.
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Once you’ve handled the elements above, you would have worked on both the overall structure and individual scenes. You can now work on the page by page, or line by line elements such as spelling, grammar, tenses, and punctuation and even formatting. It can be helpful to consider the tense in which your story is told, or even the point of view. You may want to rewrite elements of passive voice into active sentences, cut unnecessary details, or just look at how scenes open and close and try to rewrite them into something more powerful. Much of this process can lead to some rewriting and take time, so make sure you’ve set additional time in the revision process for them.
Most common mistakes when revising a novel
Fixate on the details
As previously mentioned, revisions should start big and end small. The big picture editing is what has been described above. If you get caught up in word choices, spelling, and other minutiae first before you’ve tackled the big picture elements of it, you can lose track of what the revision process is about. You should tackle all of the elements above, before doing any other editing for style, grammar, punctuation, and formatting.
Not having a deadline and getting distracted
Setting yourself a deadline for your work can be useful, otherwise the revision process can be never ending. Perhaps give yourself a set time for each of the main editing elements above to help you keep on track. If you’re a procrastinator or find there are interruptions that could distract you from your writing, try to clear a time of the day when you are most efficient.
Not leaving enough time
The revision process takes as long as the first draft, if not far longer. Writers often think they’ve done all the when the first draft is completed, when actually this is more like the start of the process.
No story is perfect
When we invest a lot of time into anything, we can get emotionally attached. If you find the revision process is going on too long or you’re too invested in every change, take another short break, or engage your energy somewhere else for a while. Come back to it again, fresh, and have another go.
However, while we can think of a manuscript as our baby, there is a point at which you have to let it go. No story is every perfect and at some point, you will have to accept that you have done all you can on it and send it off for the next step. Remember, that if you’re publishing on an e-platform there may still be an opportunity to edit it again after its been published.
Once you’ve done all you can with your story, it can be helpful to seek further help. Beta readers, reader groups, and professional editing help are all useful resources. This might lead to the need for even more revising once you get feedback back from them. Remember they also seek to improve your story and while feedback can be hard to take, it ultimately should be used to better your story. Keep going and don’t give up.