It would be great if our first drafts were the end of the hard work of writing. Unfortunately, the first draft is often the beginning. Editor Harrison Demchick offers suggestions for making the revision process for your book easier.
Every writer dedicated to bringing out the best in their craft knows, or else will soon learn, that the revision process is every bit as important, and every bit as challenging, as completing that ever-elusive first draft.
As a book editor, it’s my job to help authors through the revision process, and few elements of what I do bring me greater joy than watching a manuscript develop in compelling and creative ways I could never have imagined.
But not every revision is so successful. Inevitably, part of my job is also working with revised drafts that have not developed to the extent my client and I had hoped. And on those occasions, we have some new questions to ask.
Namely: Why? What went wrong? And how can we do better next time?
Here are four ideas that may make the revision process a little easier.
1. Revision Isn’t Pebbles in a Stream
What happens when you throw a pebble into a brook or a stream? In fact, very little. There’s a small splash. The pebble disappears into the water. The water carries on around it.
A lot of authors try to revise this way. They address the surface of the revisions required—a line of dialogue here to establish a particular characteristic, a brief scene there to indicate some measure of conflict and tension, and so forth—but otherwise maintain more or less the same scenes in the same order start to finish.
They address the problems of the previous draft on a surface level, but endeavor to make as few substantive changes as possible.
Certainly, it’s true that some small edits can have a big impact. If the problem is a compelling payoff late in the story, an additional line or two early in the novel can make a big difference in nailing down the setup we need to make it work.
But if we’re talking about a novel that requires major overarching changes to character arc, or one with deep-seated logic issues confusing our conflict and tension, then surface-level revisions aren’t going to do it.
You can’t throw pebbles into the stream. You need to divert the course.
It’s important to keep in mind that the central driving force of narrative is cause and effect. Nearly everything that happens in a novel or a memoir, every plot beat, is in some respect the effect of what precedes it and the cause of what follows.
So when you change something, that change has ramifications. The rest of the scene may not play out exactly the same way. The next scene might not play out exactly the same way—or it might not happen at all. And that, in turn, is going to have its own set of repercussions.
So relying on pebbles as revisions is in some respects antithetical to the very idea of narrative. You need to dig and dam that stream. You need to throw stones and boulders—or at the very least to be willing to do so.
If you revise with a mind toward changing as little as possible, the quality of your manuscript isn’t going to change much either.
2. Revise Like a Renegade
Some of the most impressive revisions I’ve ever seen as a book editor are those in which major swaths of the manuscript—or even the whole thing—have been completely rewritten. Inevitably the result has been a far stronger next draft.
Does that mean that you should be expected to rewrite your novel from scratch? No. Of course not.
But you should be willing to, if necessary.
One of the great challenges of the revision process is that it feels like it should require less work than writing the first draft, because writing a complete first draft itself feels a lot like finishing a book.
Even if you recognize there’s more work ahead, isn’t revising pretty determinedly the back stretch of the process? Aren’t you almost done?
Sometimes you are. Often you’re not.
And the point is that if the best and most effective route to the changes we need to see in the next draft is to blow the whole thing up—or at least major portions of it—then that’s what you need to do.
Removing my editor hat for a moment, I can tell you that I recently won a screenwriting award by taking the previous year’s failed screenplay and gutting, then rewriting, virtually the entirety of the second act. There wasn’t a good alternative to establishing the major plot changes I knew were required.
The rule is simple: You’ve got to be willing to do whatever it takes to develop the very best version of the story you want to tell. Even if it’s a lot of work.
3. Revise with Care
All that said, we’re not just blowing things up to watch the world burn. We’re not diverting the stream just to splash around in the puddles. Our steps may be big and bold, but they’re taken toward a defined destination. So before you apply the TNT to your previous draft, it’s a good idea to have a plan.
Whether your feedback comes from a professional book editor like me or beta readers, or even if it’s just a response to your own concerns about your completed draft, it’s best not to dive right into the manuscript and start revising.
Take a step back first. Consider what exactly you want to do and why. It might be a good idea to write up a new outline, or to examine each character for motivation and character arc.
Determine your priorities too. The dialogue on page 153 may be awkward, but hold off on revising that until you’ve unraveled the inconsistent and undefined character arcs that lead to it.
In other words, don’t try to do whatever it takes until you know what you’re trying to do.
4. You’re Not Starting Over
Maybe the most important thing to understand is that however many or few revisions your manuscript requires, you’re not starting over—even if you are literally rewriting the whole thing. The rewritten draft could not exist without the one before. It’s the stream itself that informs the diversion.
And like a stream, revision always moves forward, even when the twists and turns feel like going back.
Revision is every bit as important as writing the first draft. But if you give the revision process what it deserves, you will be rewarded with a completed draft that reflects your very best work.
And you’ll be all the more proud of it knowing how much time and effort went into it.
What strategies do you use when revising your first drafts? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Harrison Demchick came up as a book editor in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than seventy published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. An expert in manuscripts as diverse as women’s fiction, literary fiction, mystery, young adult, science-fiction, fantasy, memoir, and everything in-between, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed and informative editorial letters in the industry—if not the entire universe.
Harrison is also an award-winning screenwriter whose first feature film, Ape Canyon, was completed in 2019. He’s the author of literary horror novel The Listeners (Bancroft Press, 2012), and short stories “Magicland” and “The Bead” appear, respectively, in literary magazines Phantom Drift: A Journal of New Fabulism (January 2019) and The Hunger (Winter 2019). He’s currently accepting new clients for book editing in fiction and memoir at the Writer’s Ally.