How To Revise A Novel: Taking Your Manuscript From Scruffy To Spliffy
A week after NaNoWriMo, it is time for you to go back to your novel and ruthlessly revise it. To help you with that, we asked our specialist developmental editor Maria D’Marco to share her top tips on how to revise a novel. Follow them and you might be able to turn your first draft into material worthy of submission.
The first thing to keep in mind once you have finished your first draft is that the writing process is not over. You have to accept that creating ever-improving iterations of your manuscript takes time. Your goal here is not perfection (you’ll have to work with a pro editor to get there), it is balance; so do not get hung up on minutiae and work quickly through your drafts.
How to revise a novel in 9 key stages
There is one underlying concept that should drive your revision process: the foundation of Continuity and Relationships, or how every thing relates to every other thing in the story.
Of course, you shouldn’t try to tackle everything at once; instead you should avoid mind-boggle by approaching your re-writes progressively, stage-by-stage.
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The first 4 stages of review are primarily developmental and should be tackled as individual reviews and re-writes. Each stage will potentially represent a new iteration of the draft. A novice author should expect to perform at least 3 total re-writes of their manuscript, before moving into the writing reviews (the last 2 stages). Character reviews are the most time-intensive, deservedly so.
As the author, you have a running time line or chronology for your story. It is vital to remember that the reader is not privy to this time line until you share it with them. Do not leave them to their own devices! This is your story—lead the way!
Again, consistency is your gate-keeper, so your review must ensure that your time line makes sense, supports the story, and has no “whaaa?” factors. You can also check for innovative ways to introduce your time line, which may enlighten as to the time of day, day of the week, month, year, season, etc. Using well-known events can establish multiple time points, as well as having a character who is a bit (or very) obsessed with time and checks watches and clocks regularly.
You have an intimate knowledge of all your characters—well, most likely anyway. To capture their essence on the page and ensure continuity, follow each character through the entire manuscript. Do their actions make sense? Do they contribute to every scene they occupy? Do they elicit emotion? Do they create a turn in the plot (however small)? Are they cliché? Does their dialogue add to the scene or the progression of the story?
Each character must have a purpose to the story, so perform your review by ‘seeing’ the story through their eyes and enriching their interactions, actions, and dialogue as you go.
Environments & Scenes
You ‘see’ the environment of every scene vividly, but have you created that vivid environment for the reader? You know the season, the time of day, the placement of each character (plus their mindset & importance to the scene) within the scene, what the character is wearing, how the action will progress within the scene, etc.
As you review, is every environment and scene written to engage the reader’s imagination? And are they imagining what you want and need them to imagine?
From world-building to a space the character only occupies for a moment, you must scrutinize each environmental element for opportunities to enrich your story and build a stronger draft.
Transitions & Pacing
These are related elements that can be sticky to refine. The need to identify any lack of consistency in the movement of the story is the goal.
Transitions, whether paragraph breaks, chapter breaks, or scene changes are finessed partitions that conclude or leave things hanging and set up or anticipate moves within the story. Transitions can come at the end of a paragraph, chapter, or scene, but can also occur at other times, particularly as set up or anticipatory dialogue or ‘hint dropping’.
Pacing ties to transitions, as well as to types of scenes, and can keep readers breathless and excited, bored to tears, or precariously tormented between the two. It is the engagement factor that determines the rate at which your story is absorbed. Some refer to pacing as ‘flow’, not to be confused with ‘readability’, which refers to comprehension.
Review your story transitions, re-writing to improve focus and positioning, while cementing pivotal transitions that function as story turning points. A ‘log’ of transitions can help track the movement of the story. This same log can be a complementary tool in your pacing review, allowing you to further indentify and re-write material to support story continuity.
This is, to me, the greatest pitfall in authoring any novel—or any other type of writing. We have a wealth of knowledge about our book, from personal experience and observations to careful research. We have saturated our minds with endless details, as well as visions of our story, characters, and environments. We then write from that empowered position; and often, assumption of knowledge skewers our story.
In every review, along with the foundation of continuity and relationships, be mindful of assumed knowledge. Shore up information presented to the reader when necessary so the reader can experience your story from your deeper perspective.
Sentence Starts & Structures
Strictly a writing review, with the objective of exposing repetitive writing habits. Such habits can dramatically affect your story, as they eventually become predictable to the reader, which then makes them aware of you, the author, instead of your story.
Everyone has writing habits. They are tied to our accustomed way of communicating. Some are so ingrained that they become known as our ‘style’.
This review isn’t meant to dilute your style, your special voice, or any other uniqueness in your writing. Instead, you will be checking for unimaginative sentence starts, obtuse or convoluted sentence structures, and repetitive phrases or words or use of character names, among other things.
Continuity isn’t bettered by starting nearly every sentence with a pronoun or a character’s name. Combining related concepts in a complex sentence can enrich a transition or deepen emoting. Creating 40-50 word sentences that over-explain, confuse, or present concepts at cross-purposes can tire a reader and even cause them to abandon your story.
Identify when, where, and if these lame or aggravating writing habits appear in your story, and then re-write to strengthen your story.
You probably can envision most of the conversations held between your characters, but have you framed these conversations in an engaging way, avoided using actions or reactions as dialogue tags (we can grimace, but cannot ‘grimace’ words), or ensured that a conversation actually contributes to the story?
Once again, continuity and the relationship of dialogue to the scene and story should guide you in your review and re-writes. Consider the entirety of the scene, what it is meant to accomplish, and if the dialogue promotes that goal. Does the dialogue expand and deepen the understanding of the story, the characters, and the relationships between all?
An additional review aspect is to identify any instances where dialogue is used as an info-dump, back-story or otherwise. Determine if that material is better presented as narrative. Dialogue that informs is fine, as long as it is the most appropriate and powerful way to present the information.
Are you looking for more advice on how to revise your novel? Check out some of our other editors’ advice on the Kobo blog.
Of course, nothing trumps working with an editing professional. And we happen to have the best ones (like Maria) on Reedsy, so check out our marketplace here.