Monday, February 3, 2014

How to Revise Like a Boss In Five Easy Steps

Let's use your brain today!
Image courtesy of Mr. Lighthead/

So, you are ready to revise? Let me make a distinction first before we go any further: I am talking about revising the content of your writing. I am not discussing editing (that will come at a later date). Editing is grammar, word choice, sentence structure and the like, while revision is POV (point of view) dialog, descriptions, theme, character and plot development. This is NOT how to make your paper pretty. This is the meat and bones of your writing; how you connect with your audience. Keep in mind that I am writing this post for creative writing, while much of it can be used for academic writing it is certainly not the same. I am currently developing a few posts specifically for academic and research writing, but if you are in a pinch these steps can certainly be of use.

One of the main questions I have heard about revision is when do I do revision? I know it is a dreaded endeavor for many, but the answer is: as often as possible. I know when you are in school, you are told that the revision process occurs after the writing is complete, and this may very well be the case when writing short stories or an academic piece or even a blog post. But, I am here to tell you that when writing a novel you need to revise often, otherwise you will be doing yourself a disservice. I personally revise after every chapter, and I'll tell you why: I have a terrible memory. Call it a symptom of childbearing or laziness on my part, but I simply cannot remember things I wrote weeks or months ago. What does this have to do with revision you might ask? Well, everything. Because one of the first things readers (including agents) will notice is if you are inconsistent. If your character is wearing a red shirt in chapter 1 but has magically changed into a tuxedo in chapter 3 without any explanation, your readers will be confused, obviously. These are the small things that will make a difference, but are very difficult to catch in a huge piece of work on your own. You will have to go back and revise the piece as a whole, but smaller revisions help make that process much easier as you won't be flipping through hundreds of pages to find the places that need fixed. That is why I am here today. We will work on this together and break it down into manageable portions. I'm feeling very helpful today and you should take advantage. You should also consider an organization routine to help you prevent these little inconsistencies from the get-go. You can read about my organization techniques here.

Ok, let's get started.

Step 1: Put your manuscript away for at least a few days.

Getting some distance from your work will help you look at it with fresh eyes, which will allow you to be able to find problems much easier. If this is absolutely not an option (high-five procrastinator) then you should read your work out loud, preferably to a live person or record yourself. Mark any places you stumble over or that don't make sense. Or if you are working on a novel you can start writing a new chapter and then go back to previous one when you are ready to revise. This may not seem like a crucial step, but gaining some perspective on your writing is harder than it seems right after you finish. Everything sounds good when you are exhausted or feverishly writing an exciting scene. Take some time. You will find out I am right eventually.

Step 2: Track all changes.

Before you even start hacking your work, you need to set up the "track all changes" feature in Word. It can be a lifesaver. You should also have what I call an "out file." This is a document where you can paste cut bits of dialog, description, paragraphs or even whole chapters. I like to mark what chapter they were removed from as well. I do this because you may find these little nuggets have a place later in the story or even the sequel. You never want to completely erase anything, just in case. It may seem like crap now, but you might be crying in your coffee over it later. Just don't do that to yourself. Work smarter, not harder.

Step 3: Find all the places that need further research and get to work.

If you have followed my organization tips, you will know that I am a proponent of coloring text that needs further research. These are the easy fixes because you already know they are there. Find those colored sections and do the research. Make notes or print things out that you will need later and fix the text to your liking. This will also prevent you from having tons of changes in later chapters if you go ahead and do the research as needed. If you think you will need more extensive research later mark it down on your print outs or notes. Okay, easy so far.

Step 4: Check your chapter notes and locate and fix the inconsistencies.

You should be keeping chapter notes on all the basic physical information about your characters and the setting for each chapter or scene. This includes things like what they are wearing, time of day, weather, location of each major character (on or off scene) and any other pertinent information. You want to reconcile your new work with your old notes. Make sure your character hasn't switched from a red shirt to a tuxedo in the same hour without explanation. Check to see if a hot summer day hasn't suddenly switched to a dreary fall mist. These inconsistencies will catch up with you if you do not check them regularly. You are building a world that the reader can only see with your words. They don't have the mental advantage you have, and while these changes may not seem like a big deal now, but you will lose a reader completely if they are not on point. If you are self-publishing, this step is so much more important that grammar editing. Readers may be annoyed by a split infinitive but they will stop cold if they can't follow your imagery. Be careful and be thorough. Gah, I sound like an old school marm.

Step 5: Take the time to answer ALL of these questions to the best your abilities.

I think reflection is one of the most important tools we can use in the revision process. I personally like to answer questions about my writing. It makes me feel like I am in school again and will get a good grade. Yes, I was kind of a dork. I mean did you really expect anything else? Any who, I have adapted this list of questions from a peer review sheet I created for a class I taught. You could in fact do this with a partner, but I still maintain that you should do it for yourself as well. It will help you look at your work much more critically.
  1. What do you think is the strongest portion of this selection and why?
  2. What are the blaring questions left by this selection?
  3. How do you plan to reconcile those questions in future selections?
  4. Are there any portions that no longer make sense to you? Which?
  5. Are there any portions that do not further the plot or character development?  Which?
  6. How can the writing be made more clear? Use of more power words or combined sentences for example?
  7. Are there any portions that are unintentionally vague? Do you need more research? 
  8. What is your favorite part and why?
  9. Could you write a stronger lead sentence to draw the reader in?
  10. How do you feel about your ending? Does it clarify anything important?
  11. Could you include a cliff hanger to entice the reader to keep going?
  12. Does your dialog sound natural when spoken aloud? If not, how could you change it?
  13. Are the paragraphs in the best order? Can anything be moved or removed for clarification or conciseness?
  14. What was your least favorite passage to write and why?
  15. After you have made your changes reread your selection again. How does it make you feel now?
After you complete your questions you should make changes or brainstorm ideas that reflect your feelings on the selection. Revision is about making your piece as strong as possible, so don't underestimate the power of a good revision session. Do it as often as you can and then do it again. It will make you a better writer. Trust me, I have an MFA. Ha! I couldn't resist, that made myself laugh.

 If you want the downloadable version of my question worksheet, you can find it here. Or search it on I am also embedding it in the Resources tab on my home page.

As always, stay classy internet,

-Jami Lynn