How to Revise a Draft

We’re in the home stretch. This is the 29th post in a row, and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I’m feeling a little bit time displaced with this one, because I came up with all my topics about a month ago, and I’m writing this essay a few days before posting it. With my upcoming travel to L.A., it seemed a good idea to get the rest of the posts written in advance. That way, the rest of my writing time this month could be dedicated to Synthetic Dreams.

All of this is to say that, here at the beginning, I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to say on this subject. It’s exactly the same experience as writing a novel, where the real writing happens during revision.

Know When to Revise

Before you crack open your freshly minted manuscript, determine if it’s time yet to touch it. If you just wrote “THE END” on your 100,000 word SciFi novel, it’s too early. Give the story some space. Let it breathe. Go work on something else.

On the other hand, if the novel has been sitting on your hard drive or in a drawer for the last several months, and you can barely remember how you even started the blasted thing, you might be ready. The best you can do is approach revisions with fresh eyes. If you just spent the last 3 to 6 months staring at the same words, you will be blind to your mistakes because you needed the blindness in order to reach the end.

Having time and distance between yourself and your novel applies even if you’ve already received feedback from your critique group. They are going to be bringing their own unique perspectives, and if you haven’t had a chance to wash the story out of your hair yet, you’re going to argue from the position of the early draft, reinforcing your mistakes rather than acknowledging them.

Before you revise, go on a vacation from the story. It’ll still be there later, and you’ll be better equipped to give it the kind of attention it deserves.

Revise for a Purpose

It may be that you are fully aware of a recurring problem in your drafts. Perhaps you are like me, and you use a lot of distancing language or extraneous blocking. It is purposely acceptable to declare, “during this revision, I’m only focusing on tightening the prose.”

Perhaps your critique group has helped you find a deep flaw in the manuscript that can only be resolved by making major structural changes. That is a perfect time to limit the scope of your revision to only focus on the parts of your manuscript pertinent to that change.

There is nothing wrong with taking multiple passes. Writers have a lot to remember. You don’t have to juggle all of the ideas at the same time while drafting or revising. Take each pass one at a time if you have to. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

Pay Attention to Your Emotions

Sometimes while drafting, I feel like the greatest writer in the world. In my head, I’m laying down an award worthy story that is bold, interesting, provocative, and brilliant. I experience the fantasy of being a great writer while writing the fantasy that is the story of my characters.

During revision, cold reality creeps in. For the first time since I started the first draft, I’m seeing past my bullshit and experiencing the story as it is, rather than as I wish it were. Sometimes, it IS brilliant! And sometimes it is not.

This is a dangerous point, because this is where we see how far away the story is from being done. We typed “THE END” with the secret hope that we actually stuck the landing and won’t have to work it anymore. We emerge from the tunnel of creation into daylight, only to be presented with another tunnel of unknown length and darkness.

When you get feedback from your critique group, or when you start consuming your story for the next draft, pay attention to how your feel. If it’s good, celebrate! Pump your fists and cheer because at least part of your story works!

On the other hand, when you see the parts of your story that don’t work, be kind to yourself. Try to find the positive joy in the prospect of making the story better. Forgive yourself the mistakes you made, and look ahead to where you can make amends and turn the story into something that satisfies your vision. It’s during revision that you truly demonstrate your artistry, so the mistakes you find are opportunities to shine.

Techniques for Revision

There are lots of different ways to revise, so I’ll go through some of the techniques I use.

Read it out loud

In order to read a story aloud, you have to pass the story through different parts of your brain. There is a mechanical process as you work your jaw and your lips to form the words. You’re also forced to slow down a little, as you probably can’t talk as fast as you can read in your head. Also, your ear will hear things that your eye skips over.

One of the first things I do with each story is read it to Melissa. She likes me reading to her, and I like making my draft better by clearing up the simple mistakes revealed by simple vocalization.

Change your font

I draft in Scrivener, but I critique in Word. In Scrivener, I’m using 12pt Courier New. In Word, it’s either Times New Roman or Calibri.

Changing the font changes the shapes of the words and the spacing, which helps me see the work with different eyes.

I’ve heard some people swear by drafting in Comic Sans, but I’m not ready for that type of insanity yet. I’ve never been so blocked that I needed to punish my eyes with that font.

Find critique partners or Alpha/Beta readers

For both of my last novels, I wound up sharing first drafts of my story with people. I didn’t know any better with The Repossessed Ghost, and I didn’t realize that Spin City was still first draft when I sent it to my friends.

I am not going to share Synthetic Dreams with anyone until after it’s gone through a second draft. I do not enjoy sharing first draft pain with my friends. That’s a bad experience for me. You might feel differently, and maybe your first drafts are cleaner than mine.

Also, when you find early readers, make sure that you know what you’re getting into.

Parting Thoughts

Your story needs more than one draft. It’s possible you knocked it out of the park on the first draft, but it is highly unlikely. Do not deny your humanity. You will make mistakes, your perspective will change, and your original vision will change. The best thing you can do for your story is give it all of the time and work it deserves.

People talk about revising as they go. That is valid. I do it to a degree, because if I write something that really doesn’t work, it’s difficult for me to move on until I’ve cleared the jam. I don’t consider that a revision, though. That’s just fixing an early mistake. It might mean that my first draft is cleaner when I get to the end, but it will still be a first draft.

Tomorrow, I’m going to talk about salvaging a lost story which gets a little bit deeper into the idea of revising as you go.