Writing 101: So You Want to Write a
Part 3: Revising a Novel
By Valerie Comer
Copyright © 2009 by Valerie Comer, All Rights Reserved
You wrote an entire first
draft! Congratulations! Whether or not you ever sell this or any other
novel, you are light years ahead of the millions of people who say they
will write a book some day. It is a huge accomplishment to get to The
You may be very disappointed
in the execution of your novel. Hopefully, though, you will see at least
a few strokes of sheer genius in it. The goal of the revision process is
to polish up your story so that it more closely resembles that glorious
idea you started out with months back. You can't revise a story that
isn't written, but now that you have the bones of the text down, you can
sculpt it into a finer form.
LET IT REST
There are two schools of
thought on when you should start the revision process.
Some say you should allow a
cooling off process where you do something completely different, such as
plan another novel or revise one that you've previously written. The
reasoning is that if you go back too quickly, you will still see the
story you think you wrote rather than the one that is actually in your
document folder. A little distance gives you more objectivity in seeing
the flaws of your work.
Others say it's a good idea
to go back through right away and fix the things you already know need
fixing, such as adding in mention of that character in chapters two and
five so her arrival in chapter twelve doesn't come out of the blue. You
now know where some foreshadowing would go nicely, and you may be able
to see a stronger place to start that first chapter than where you
Even if you take time for a
quick run through your novel as soon as it's completed, you'll still
want to set it aside for at least a couple of weeks before tackling the
Many writers advise printing
out the first draft, citing the belief that it's easier to read it as a
novel that way instead of as a WIP (work in progress). I usually do my
work on-screen, so pick which works best for you.
Purchase a spiral bound
notebook (the 5.5x9 inch size is good) for making notes whether or not
you have a print-out.
Read through the entire
novel in as short a time as possible. Again, writers' methods here vary.
Some tell you to do it without a pen in hand. Just read to get your over
all impression. If you can take the time to do this step, by all means
Now you're ready for that
notebook you bought. On the first page, write Scene 1, Page 1. Read
through the scene, then in the notebook write a brief description of it
in one or two sentences.
Think about the scene. Is it
solid? Will it need a bit of rewriting, such as added description? Will
it need a lot of rewriting? Does it wander in no-mans-land and
need to be cut completely? Is the point-of-view clear? Write down what
you think will need to be done to it to make it pull its part in the
story, then move on to the second scene. In the notebook, mark what page
this scene begins on, and repeat the procedure. All the way to The End.
This process can take days
or even weeks, depending on how much time you can devote to it daily.
Remember it's best to compact the time frame so you can keep the entire
story in mind more easily. For example, don't work on it for a week,
then go on a two-week vacation, then expect to pick up where you left
off on your return.
Read through your notes and
think about how you can implement the changes you see are needed. Here
are some things to consider.
1. Are all the characters
necessary? Cut or
2. Is each scene in one
Is it clear which character it is from the first sentence? Is everything
consistent to what this character can know and deduce?
3. Does the chain of events
Too predictable? Too improbable? Perhaps you can change the order of
some scenes, or show inner motivation to cover the leaps.
4. Is there continuity?
Does the MC's eye color remain the same? Does the room/town/country
layout remain consistent? Is the timeline logical? You may want charts
for character traits, map sketches of the settings, and a timeline
scrawled into an old datebook, planner, or calendar.
5. Do you have too much
description? Too little?
Don't let the story get bogged down in details, but do provide enough
sensory input that the reader can feel a part.
6. Have you discovered the
theme? This is
what the story is intrinsically about. Are there places you could deepen
7. Is the length right for
the genre? Find
out what publishers are looking for in novels similar to yours. If your
first draft is too long, think of ways to tighten it up. If it's too
short, be on the look-out for threads you can expand to bring the word
count within range.
8. Are all the threads tied
up? Make notes of
thoughts you've introduced but never followed up on, and make plans to
either cut them out entirely or to find a way to weave them back in and
tie them off within the story. Don't leave them dangling!
Now it's time to implement
the changes you've discovered to be needed. Open the document and
re-save it with a new version title so that you can always find the
original in case you wish to revert sections.
Start with the global
issues. If scenes need to be completely ripped out or moved from one
location to another, do this first. Make notes in that spiral-bound
notebook of what you've done.
Take a close look at the
first scene. If you're sure you're starting the novel in the right
place, start into tweaking it. If you've thought of a more dynamic
opener, write a new scene from scratch.
Following your notes in your
spiral-bound notebook, go through the entire novel, first applying
general fixes to each scene, then line-by-line. Some writers do all this
in one pass, others will take two passes to implement these changes. It
may even take three or more, but the goal is to smooth the process as
much as possible so you don't get bogged down.
When the big fixes are in
place, it's time to focus on each sentence, each paragraph. Some things
to watch out for are:
1. Passive wording.
Instead of saying the character was doing something, look for
sharp, specific verbs that paint clear pictures.
2. Repeated words.
Watch out for over-used words spanning several sentences and paragraphs.
These have a way of sneaking in. Reword sentences and/or use synonyms to
break these up.
3. Confusing pronouns.
Could there be any doubt as to which she you are referring to?
4. Dialogue tags.
Watch the rhythm of dialogue. Eliminate tags (he said/she said) wherever
possible and still maintain clarity. Add action beats in place of many
sure you use a variety of sentence lengths, and that some are simple and
some complex. Likewise watch paragraph structure, so that the amount of
white space on the page varies.
6. Weasel words.
Words such as just, really, very, and suddenly are rarely needed. Look
through your own work and make a list of words that crop up as padding,
then use your word processor's find feature to locate them all and see
how many can be deleted. I'm betting at least 95% can go.
After you've made this the
best manuscript you can, it's time to get someone else's opinion. You
can find critique groups in your hometown or online. Offer to trade
someone your novel for theirs. Two to four critique partners are ample.
It's fine if half of them are readers who know what they like in a
story, but getting the input of another writer can be invaluable.
In any case, weigh the
advice of your crit partners against your vision for your story. If what
they say makes sense, make the changes. In rare occasions your reader
may be out to sabotage you, but expect that they have your best
interests at heart until proven otherwise.
Getting critiqued hurts,
even when you know the only way to strengthen your writing is to hear
the negatives as well as the positives. Know that opening that email
will be painful. Don't respond to the critiquer until your emotions have
died down and you've had a chance to absorb the information critically.
Then thank them for their time and ask any specific questions you can
REVISING VS EDITING
Revising normally refers to
massive changes such as I've discussed in this article. Editing has to
do with the fine-tuning, like rewriting a single sentence for clarity or
to improve the grammar.
Coming up in the Writing
101: So You Want to Write a Novel series is the final installment:
Submitting a Novel.