Efficient revising: what order is best?

The four faces of revising.

Yesterday, I completed a first draft of rewrites to my novel manuscript. It’s been three months since I began, thirteen chapters of new material, and copious reworking of the existing. It’s a celebration, to be sure, and I’m content to bask in the glory of a milestone passed for a day or so. But before me now stretches another task: the careful revision of the story as a whole, the combing-through for inconsistencies and errors, and the final preparation for renewed querying.

Last autumn I worked through this process, and as I prepare to undertake it once more myself, I’ll share here my broad process for revision and editing. I’d also love to hear your own techniques for moving from the first draft to the final. Do share in comments below.

First, a bit of theory:

In the high school creative writing courses I taught in Minnesota, an early lesson focused on the idea of higher- and lower-order concerns. This is the idea, simply, that some elements of our writing have a greater impact on the text as a whole than others. Obviously, to some extent, this division is arbitrary, and the reality can vary from text to text and might be more a continuum than a strict set of categories. However, as a starting point, let’s take a look at this model [note that, within each category, elements are listed in no particular order]:

Higher-order concernsLower-order concerns
Point of view – am I telling the story from the perspective of the right character(s)?

Story structure/ordering of material – would re-ordering story elements help readers better engage/heighten conflict?

Changes in plot (rewriting, deleting, or adding new material) – are there missing/needed scenes? Are there plot holes or major inconsistencies?

Thematic concerns – does the story send the overall message I intend?

Conflict and stakes – is the conflict high-stakes enough? Does it effectively carry readers through the story?

Pacing – does the story move at the right pace to achieve the effects I want?

Tone & mood – does each section of the text evoke the emotion I intend?

Character arc – do characters develop coherently and believably over the text as a whole?

Salability – if you’re planning to publish, is the text of an appropriate length for its genre? Are there other elements that might make the story a difficult sell?
Word choice – does each word have the effect I intend? Are connotations appropriate?

Spelling, grammar, punctuation (conventions)

Tense (present or past) – does my choice of tense achieve the effect I want?

Language artistry (rhythm, flow of individual sentences, etc.)

Consistency of details – do characters’ physical descriptions, world-building elements, etc. remain consistent over the course of the story?

Dialogue – is characters’ speech believable, purposeful, and its speaker clearly identified?

Paragraphing – are paragraphs broken at appropriate places that enhance pacing, clarity, and theme?
Tea can help too.

We can usefully ascribe the term revising to work with higher-order concerns, editing to the lower-order. Revision, quite literally a “re-vision,” a seeing-again, is where we examine the story as a whole and its component parts in relation to the whole. Editing, then, is when we enter the nitty-gritty of the text, the word-, sentence-, and paragraph-level impacts of our choices.

As we explore the revision and editing process in the following sections, I’ll refer to the above ideas. Remember, however, that it might be worth making your own lists of higher- and lower-order concerns based on the particular project you’re working on.

Begin with higher-order concerns

Although it can be tempting to begin our revision with small changes (they’re easier to make decisions about and faster to complete), it’s best to begin with revision as opposed to editing. Making higher-order changes first is in your best interest because of…

  • Impact: these elements have the biggest effect on our readers’ experience with the text, which is our ultimate goal.
  • Efficiency: if we meticulously edit a scene only to later realize it must be cut or reworked, our editing has been for naught. Save close attention to lower-order concerns for a later stage.
  • Coherence: the decisions we ultimately make in terms of lower-order concerns (think word choice) follow from the arc and ideas of the text as a whole. Poring over a paragraph before understanding its larger function may lead to inconsistency of effect.

So how do we do it? In a large text like a novel, what can we do to effectively engage with whole-story concerns before moving down the ladder?

Step 1: assess the draft

As eager as we might be to dive directly into making changes, our results will be better if we first conduct a thoughtful assessment of the existing draft. Make a list of higher-order changes before you actually carry them out.

To make these assessments, I use two techniques:

First, consult (or create) the outline

Outlines are helpful because they give the overview of the story as a whole, especially if we have been crafting a text for months or years, in which case our memory of precisely what happens may be shaky. A first potential step in the revision process is to update an existing outline or, for the pantsers among us, create one [see this post about reverse outlining]. The outline can help in identifying plot holes, broad structural concerns, and conflict issues. I start here, and if there is obvious need for cuts, additions, or changes evident in the outline, I’ll often go ahead and complete those before moving on to the following (more time-intensive) technique.

Second, the speed-through

I deepen my awareness of the text by reading through, beginning to end, at speed. I do this because core elements like theme, tone, and character arc are often not visible in the outline, and because, while the outline shows our intentions, it’s the text itself that shows effect. Much of good revision lies in recognizing how our intentions differ from the actual results, then realigning the text to make them match.

Making in through.

During the speed-readthrough I resist the (oh so powerful) urge to stop and tinker. Doing so breaks the flow of the reading, and our goal here is to examine the text as a whole. We should keep notes as we read about all of the higher-order concerns – track character development, notice dragging scenes, trace the slow reveal of mystery. Look at the text with a bird’s-eye view, and upon completion, comb the notes for the changes that need making.

One of the most interesting observations we might make on the speed-through is our over-reliance on particular types of scenes. For me, I have learned that the cathartic, solitary, self-revelation scene is ubiquitous. I find it everywhere, each iteration as emotional as the last, and I know that in reality, with these scenes that are intended to be dramatic, meaningful, empathy-building moments for the reader, less is more. The speed-through helps me recognize the over-use that escaped notice in the more disjointed drafting process, so that I can make thoughtful choices about how to modify, combine, or select.

Bonus: work with beta readers

Beta readers, kind souls who agree to inflict upon themselves an unfinished manuscript and provide feedback, can be valuable at any stage in the revision process. My friend Lauren volunteered to read my first completed draft last summer, and her feedback was invaluable in considering major cuts and plot adjustments. Beta readers are so helpful because of their different perspective on the text: we who have been living in this story for months or years can have a skewed vision of its effects on readers; beta readers, especially those who have not seen an outline or heard us wax poetical about our writing, can help identify points of confusion, areas where engagement flags, and the unintended consequences of our words.

At some point in the future this may need to receive its own post, but here is a bit of beta-reading etiquette to help make the relationship as smooth and mutually beneficial as possible: do offer to beta-read for them in return. Do be gracious and grateful for their work. Avoid pressuring and hurrying a beta reader along–kind reminders and nudges are the way to go, but in the end, let them read at their pace. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, accept the feedback as a valuable data point, whatever it may contain. If the beta reader has wildly misinterpreted something in your story, this is a signal that the text needs some change in order to bring the effect back in sync with your intentions, rather than the time to despair or to defend.

There does exist out there a cadre of paid critique and editing services. Some of these focus on lower-order concern proofreading; others offer broader feedback. I have never used these services and know very little about them, but they are an option.

Step 2: large-scale revision

The outline, speed-through, and any critiques from beta-readers will probably leaves you with an overwhelming list of large-scale revisions to complete. This can feel daunting, but remember always that we are making these changes for a reason. The resulting story will be stronger, more in line with our original intentions, engaging, and coherent.

Take the revisions one at a time, and each time you write a new scene, complete a round of cuts, or restructure a chapter, pause and celebrate. Looking at the revisions as individual steps can help the project as a whole feel more manageable and the work more satisfying.

As you jump from one part of the draft to another, beware of revising out of context. It’s always a good idea to reread the scenes (or at least a few paragraphs) directly preceding and following an area of significant revision, to make sure that the rewrites mesh well with the surrounding narrative. I like to think of this as “putting myself into the mood” of this portion of the story, enabling me to maintain (or modify, as the task requires) tone and style.

When you’ve worked through your revision list, it may be worth completing another speed-read. For me, whether I do this depends on how significant the changes were and how confident I am feeling of their success. You might complete a few rounds of readthrough and revision, but whatever you do, resist losing yourself in the weeds of your words until you are reasonably confident the story as a whole will no longer change.

Step 3: the read-through as a reader

What this means and why I do it:

I treat this as a middle stage, where I’ve dealt with the highest-order concerns, but I’m not quite ready to dig into grammar and word choice. As our ultimate goal is to reach readers, I think it’s a good idea to conduct at least one readthrough as authentically as possible. For this, I like to get off the computer, printing a hardcopy or transferring my draft to an e-reader (I use Calibre freeware to convert the file). The purpose here is 1) again to avoid the temptation to start editing right there, which breaks the reader-mindset and 2) to encourage a more real-life reading experience, which will help us to see the manuscript as it actually functions for readers.

Comments on my e-reader from my last round of revision.

I space my reading out over a month or so, again trying to put myself in the position of a real reader. I read in bed, on the porch, on the sofa, at breakfast. My one deviation from the role of reader is, and I think it is important to do this, to make comments on potential revisions as I go. I use the comment feature on my e-reader, and this seems to work well, although it does require paging back through to transfer the comments to the Word document later (I think the inconvenience is worth it for the payoff I get in terms of useful perspective).

What to comment on:

Whereas the goal of the speed-through was to see the text as a whole, this next reading seeks to show us what a realistic experience of reading the text might be like. Sometimes, we find that what functioned as a cohesive character arc in a fast perusal is too spread out in a slower reading; perhaps we need to add foreshadowing or reminders. Sometimes, we discover faltering energy that needs to be heightened.

At this point, I am no longer restricting myself to higher-order concerns: I am marking everything from paragraphs in need of cutting to misspellings to inconsistent tense to inconsistent hair color. In order to avoid breaking the flow, I usually try to make my comments as brief as possible.

Making the revisions/edits:

Unlike the highest-order concerns, the changes we identify here tend to go more quickly. A lot are convention-, word choice-, or sentence-level changes; a few will require larger-scale attention. I do choose to transfer the comments from my e-reader or paper into the document, so that I can easily see what I have already fixed by resolving the comment (it can quickly become overwhelming to see a list of five-hundred comments and not know which you have already dealt with).

We’re almost done. Keep going. Keep celebrating. You can do it!

Step 4: a final speed-through

When I think I am done, when all of those comments are resolved, when the manuscript is shining and just waiting to jump out of my hands, I pull back. I do one more speed-readthrough, combing now for grammatical errors, word choice changes, that last awkward phrase, the music of the language.

When I reach this stage, I am anxious to finish. Somehow my energy doubles, and I keep going for hours at a time. It’s the final sprint, although truthfully I think there would be value, as ever, in being a bit more deliberate here.

Whatever you do, make every effort to be thorough. Read what is on the page; not what is in your mind. It can help to read aloud. Check your commas, your capitalization, your theres and theirs. Polish. Make it professional. Make it sing. When you’re finished, call it done. You’ve worked so hard. You’ve put so much in. Step back. Marvel. Thank yourself.

Last thoughts

During a book-making class at college years ago, I printed this quatrain for a letterpress assignment. When I consider writing, when I consider revision, I think they’re fitting words. Revision is a long process. It can intimidate. But the results are beautiful. Keep going.

Revising and editing are skills. They take time, practice, foresight, and attention. What I’ve provided here is, I think, a good way to proceed, but as ever, tailor all advice to what works for you and for your story.

What are your best recommendations for revising? What resources have helped you? What sticky points have you found solutions for? I too am about to embark on a round of revisions: I would love to hear your thoughts.

Best wishes for the coming week. Happy writing,

Jimmy

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