Revision Tips for Writers

Revision is difficult, necessary, and terrifying work. Few people can write publishable stuff on the first draft. Those who say they can are on the same wavelength as the flat earth crown. You can believe it, but most people will think you’re crazy…and your sloppy first drafts will prove them right.

Remember that revision is more than proofreading. To be most efficient in your revisions, divide the process into two parts: do the big, macro, structural stuff first. Save the copy editing and proofreading for last. I speak from experience; I used to focus mostly on copy editing and proofreading (at the expense of structural editing). The result was a disorganized collection of pretty sentences. This is like putting a new coat of paint on an engine-less car.

While I’m not a ninja editor, I’ve learned a couple tricks. Let’s see what they are.

Structural Editing

  • Save yourself time by starting your draft with a well thought-out outline.
  • Time and distance will give you a better perspective on your work. Whenever possible, wait at least one night before you begin revisions. Start your revisions with clear eyes and a fresh brain.
  • Don’t worry about phrasing at this point; save that for the copy editing & proofreading stage.
  • Set a deadline for completion. Without a deadline, you can tweak for weeks but never actually finish.
  • Use a different font for editing and drafting. The text will seem less familiar and easier to edit.
  • On screen, scan the whole piece, especially the opening sentences of each paragraph. Be sure that each paragraph adds something and supports the title/main idea.
  • Between paragraphs, check for smooth transitions and logical flow. Note any sections that need clarification or rewording. Watch out for excessive repetition of ideas and phrases.
  • If the flow seems strange, make a storyboard by putting each paragraph on an index card. Lay the cards out on a desk. Try a few different arrangements and sequences.
  • Enter your structural revisions. Move paragraphs around. Rewrite transitions, introductions, and conclusions where necessary.

Copy Editing & Proofreading

  • Print out a double-spaced paper copy. Sorry, environment. Marking up your work is easier with paper and pen. You’ll catch more little mistakes when reading on paper.
  • As you read, look for ways to say the same thing with less words. Your aim is precision and economy of language, not word count.
  • Use a word frequency counter. After you plug in your text, look at the top of the list for words unrelated to the topic. I like this word counter. For a visual representation of word frequency, try Wordle.
  • After you’ve read the copy once or twice, read the piece aloud. Circle any sentences that sound strange.
  • Ask a friend (or spouse) to read your piece. Reward them with chocolate. Other eyes will usually catch mistakes you missed.
  • Correct any misspellings, typos, and/or grammatical errors.

Tips for Fiction Revision

  • Keep a log of character data: motivation, physical description, personal history, diction quirks. Do the same for the setting and environment. This will ensure consistency throughout your story.
  • After your first draft, identify all the themes in the story. As you’re editing, look for sections that either add to or detract from the theme. Revise accordingly.
  • Look for places to improve characterization. You can do this through action, interaction, speech, internal monologue.
  • Check for consistency and continuity; does everything make sense in space-time?
  • In longer works, ensure each scene has a purpose. Is there action, conflict, characterization? Or just description? If the latter, cut or combine it with another scene.
  • Be a thespian. Read all dialog aloud. Get inside the minds of your characters. Whenever something comes across as wooden, stilted, awkward, or unnecessarily weird, change it.

Other things to ask yourself

  • Does each character have a purpose? Are they more than a useful appendage to your plot? Does each have a clear motivation?
  • Does the point of view remain consistent throughout?
  • Does the main character follow a believable story arc? Do they change or learn?
  • Have you avoided cliches and stereotypes in characterization and plotting?
  • Is the pacing varied enough to keep readers interested?

Last thoughts

  • Be ruthless when you’re cutting and trimming. Aim to remove 15-30% of your first draft. If you want to save any precious phrases or sections from the chopping block, cut and paste them onto another document.
  • Don’t be afraid to abandon a piece. Some pieces don’t work, and at some point you’ve just got to cut your losses.
  • Make sure each sentence is clear, punchy, and direct. Use the active voice.
  • No work is ever perfect, only polished and proofed. The law of diminishing returns applies to writing as well as engine manufacturing.
  • Save each major round of revisions as a separate document. Later on you might find something you changed just doesn’t work.

Over to You

  • Do you have any special tricks for revision?
  • I’d like to hear from people who use storyboards for fiction writing. Has this helped you write tighter scenes?

Photo credit: wwworks