How to Revise Your Novel Manuscript
Post written by Katie Wall.
Well, you've completed drafting your manuscript and are now faced with the task of revising. How do you feel?
- Unsure of how to begin?
There are a lot of books out there that can help you learn how to edit better (The Artful Edit is one of them—see my review of it here), I wanted to create an overview of the process for you in this post. I find that when I break down the Edit-An-Entire-Manuscript task into more focused, smaller tasks I am more inclined to do the work and feel less overwhelmed. Breaking it up into separate passes also helps ensure that I don’t miss things.
Step 1: Celebrate finishing your draft!
No, really. Step away from the computer (after creating a backup of your file if you don't have one already). Tell at least a few supportive people about your accomplishment. Eat something you love, read a good book, or watch your favorite show. Take time to revel in the fact that you've written a novel.
Tempted to skip this step? Don't. Taking this time away from your manuscript will help you do better in your revision process. It's called getting mental space; this will allow you to see your manuscript with clearer eyes in the following steps. What does “clearer eyes” mean in this context? It means that you will be better able to read the words on the page and see your story as a reader instead of subconsciously filling in the gaps in your story based on what you meant to write. Your reader can’t read your mind, they can only access the story based on what you’ve actually written.
I recommend that you step away from your manuscript for at least a few weeks, but perhaps not more than a month or two. You want to hold the tension between enough time passing that you can come back to the manuscript with fresh eyes and not so much time passing that you lose momentum on this project. While you wait for the time to pass, you can:
- Fill your creative cup: read, paint, go for walks, take a trip, etc.
- Fill your social cup: spend quality time with friends and family you might have neglected in the rush to The End of your manuscript.
- Fill your sleep cup: you’re going to need it!
- Consider your editing priorities: see the next step.
Step 2: Get your editing priorities straight.
While it might be tempting to go through your manuscript for typos and word choice and all of the other little things that are sure to be in your draft, that's actually not the right thing to focus on in this phase. The journey from first to second draft should focus on the big things. In other words, you should focus on the foundation of your story.
Why? Because if you fix all of the little things but ignore the big things, that's like putting a new coat of paint on a house that might be falling down.
So get yourself into a mental space where you can step back from obsessing over typos and word choice. It really won’t matter if you describe a rose as “crimson” instead of “vermillion” if the heart of your story isn’t on the page.
Once you’re ready, and enough time has passed, it’s time for step 3.
Step 3: Editing pass #1
In order to resist the temptation to get sucked into making line edits, I recommend that you promise yourself to only make comments in the document at this stage. Don’t change anything in the text right now, you’re just trying to get an overall sense of what is and isn’t working in the story. You will make the necessary changes later. My preferred method is using Track Changes in Word, but you could also print out a copy of your manuscript with extra-large margins and write comments on the hard copy. If you opt to use sticky notes attached to the manuscript pages, I highly recommend numbering the notes and writing a number on the manuscript itself so that when your sticky note (inevitably) falls off you will be able to find exactly where that note goes.
In this pass you should focus on considering the following questions:
- Does the protagonist have a clear desire they are working toward?
- Does the protagonist have a clear obstacle standing in the way of them achieving their desire?
- Is the underlying emotional desire or belief behind why the protagonist is striving for their goal clear?
- Is there a clear arc of change for the protagonist?
- Is your story’s world both logical and believable?
- What do you come away from the manuscript believing about life/humanity? In other words, what is the point you are conveying by telling this story? Is that point clear?
- Does the plot progress logically—is there clear cause and effect from one event to the next?
- Does the character arc progress logically—is there clear cause and effect from one emotional reaction to the next?
- Does your protagonist take action instead of things happening to them passively?
- If your protagonist does take action, are there consequences to those actions?
This may seem like a lot… because it is. You’re evaluating if the story is working and identifying places that it doesn’t. Remember, do NOT fix things as you go. You want to read through your manuscript like a reader would—to get the whole scope of the story. You are NOT editing right now, you’re making tons of notes so that future you can go back and fix the mess.
You might feel discouraged about how much of a mess you find in this pass. But fear not! First drafts are supposed to be at least a little messy. No one writes a perfect book in the first draft, not even plotters who plan out every single detail before they start drafting. There is absolutely nothing wrong with your draft being a mess.
Once you’ve finished your read-through and made your final note(s) on the manuscript, take some time to write down your initial thoughts. I don’t mean thoughts about how to fix the problems you’ve identified, but more thoughts that someone might write in a book review. For example:
Wow, I really liked how character X changed over the course of the book. But man, their relationship with character Y was really confusing. I didn’t really buy their love story, it felt sudden and contrived. And what was character Z doing for the first half of the book?? They became so important at the end but I have no idea what they were up to before the middle. Also, the end of the book was pretty good, but there were some threads the author forgot to tie up, like A, B, and C.
Make sense? Just download your reaction, trying to see this story through the reader’s eyes.
Then take at least a couple of hours to let the dust settle in your brain.
Step 4: Make the changes you identified in pass #1
Ok, you’ve done a great job holding back from fixing things until you’re done with your pass #1 read-through and note taking. Next is the difficult task of triaging the problems you’ve identified and deciding how to fix them.
Since I don’t know exactly what problems you’ll be dealing with, I can’t really write out a cookie cutter plan of attack for you. However, I can recommend that you tackle the issues from biggest to smallest.
Yes, that’s right. Biggest to smallest.
I know many writers would rather deal with the small issues first, that way those things are out of the way. However, I think this is just a method of procrastination. Why? Because what if that scene you work so hard to fix first actually gets deleted when you evaluate the cause and effect trajectory of your manuscript? Then you’ve wasted time on the now-deleted scene you could have used to work on the scenes that are staying in your book.
So, after taking your break at the end of Step 3, it’s time to review your questions and notes. Assess the problems you’ve identified. Write a list of them and then prioritize them in some way so that you will have a clear checklist with the biggest issues at the top and the smallest at the bottom. You can do this on the computer, on notecards, on a whiteboard, or in a journal. It really doesn’t matter, as long as you have a way to make your priorities really clear. This will help keep you from getting sidetracked by small issues.
After you have your priority list made, then it’s time to make those changes! Take your time. If you encounter additional issues—or create some!—simply add those to your priority list where they fit (in terms of big issue vs. small issue). Once you’ve checked every item off your list, it’s time for Step 5.
Step 5: Editing pass #2
What? Another editing pass?
Yep. Editing a manuscript is a long and multi-step process. That’s why we are breaking it down into steps with particular questions to focus on with each pass. This time, read through and ask yourself the following questions:
- If I have more than one point of view (POV) character, do the viewpoints of the POV characters fill a necessary role? Or could that role be combined with someone else’s?
- Are my characters’ emotional reactions written in the manuscript? Or do I assume that my readers will fill in those blanks?
- Do I tell my readers information, summarizing what happens? Or do I really show the scene (on both event/plot and emotional levels), allowing my reader to be immersed?
- Do I clearly communicate where the story is in time? Where my characters are in space (both in a setting and in relation to other people)?
Just like in pass #1, you need to make notes on your manuscript either digitally or on the hard copy. Don’t make the changes yet; try to soak in your manuscript with fresh eyes yet again. See what your reader’s experience might be like, and try to identify issues from that perspective.
Once you’ve made it through the whole manuscript, do another download of your overall impressions. See if you can get a sense of if there are any pieces of your manuscript that will jolt your reader out of being immersed in the story.
Step 6: Make the changes you identified in pass #2
It’s time to come up with and apply solutions to the issues you identified in pass #2. If you make big changes—such as rewriting chunks in order to change POV—you’ll want to make sure you do pass #1 and pass #2 all over again to ensure that new problems aren’t cropping up with these changes.
If most of your changes are small, that’s ok. It can be really challenging to identify potential problems in our own work. It’s hard to take off our writer hat and step into our reader’s shoes. That’s why I’m including step 7...
Step 7: Get someone else to read your manuscript
This could be a critique partner, an alpha reader (that’s right, we’re not quite at beta readers yet!), or a professional.
While critique partners are wonderful resources—as are alpha readers—I am going to make a case for hiring a professional to perform a manuscript evaluation on your book.
Of course you are, you might be thinking. You’re exactly this kind of professional and you want my business.
Yes, that may be true. But the reason I got into this business in the first place is that I firmly believe in the value someone who is trained in story—someone who wants to be your cheerleader in crafting better books—can bring to the writing process.
As I said at the end of the last step, it can be really hard to see the holes in our own work. We are so immersed in the world and story we’ve created that we can subconsciously fill in material or answers that aren’t on the page as we read through it ourselves.
So what can a professional bring to this work that a critique partner or alpha reader can’t?
While there are always exceptions, in general professionals bring a deeper understanding of story and a honed skill at analyzing it. We have dedicated our professional lives (and sometimes our personal lives too!) to understanding what makes a story work and how to help writers figure out how to make their stories work better. We also have practice at delivering feedback in a constructive way—honest and yet supportive. We know how to assess which problems need to be addressed first and what problems can wait for a later stage. We can walk with writers through fixing foundational issues and give them a plan to continue to revise. We can also give honest feedback without fear of how that feedback might affect our personal relationship with the writer we are working with.
If this sounds like support you would like, you can view the details of my manuscript evaluation service here. Even if you decide not to make the investment of hiring a professional, at least make sure you have someone else read your book and give you feedback before you move on to the next phase.
Step 8: Review and apply the feedback
If you hired a professional to read your manuscript, chances are good that they gave you a plan for revision. (If they didn’t, they should have.) Take the time to make those changes before you move on to pass #3.
If you did not hire a professional and instead got feedback from a critique partner or alpha reader, then your job is a little harder. Most of the time, you will receive a lot of feedback from these types of readers, but all of the levels of feedback are mixed together. You now must do the triage for yourself—ranking the feedback from larger concepts to smaller details—so that you can approach applying the feedback similarly to how I have outlined the phases of this process. Once you have your list from this feedback you can use it to revise your manuscript.
Feedback can be so valuable but also overwhelming, disheartening, and even hurtful. Give yourself time to process your feelings. If you are trying to revise or to triage your feedback while you are still steeped in those feelings you will not be able to have the perspective you need. So: Feel deeply. Take the time you need. Then get to work.
Note: If you are confused by the feedback you receive and/or if the person giving you the feedback tells you exactly how to change things to fix it, remember that you are the author of the story. You get to decide how to revise it and move forward. This doesn’t mean you can ignore problems that are pointed out, but it does mean that you should use your intuition and deep knowledge of your story, characters, and world to solve them. And if you need to find a second or third person to give you feedback so you can see if the feedback you received the first time was based on individual bias, then do so.
Step 9: Editing pass #3
Now that you have a solid story you can start evaluating your manuscript in a different way. For this pass you’ll want to read through and ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I need to include every line of dialogue that I have?
- Are there areas that I can make stronger by converting dialogue to narration or vice-versa?
- Are scene and chapter breaks in the best places they can be?
- Do I include extraneous details?
- Does the story’s pace and building tension feel right? Or are there areas that are faster and areas that are slower?
Do you know that you struggle with dialogue? Now is a perfect time to study that particular area of the craft and apply what you learn while you revise. Not sure if a detail is important to keep or not? Study that aspect of writing. Taking the time to learn more as you revise will help you become a better writer in the long run, which will mean that with later projects you might not have to revise quite so much.
For this editing pass you can make comments to come back to later and also make some quick revisions as you go. Don’t spend large amounts of time trying to rewrite things—that’s the kind of change you want to flag for after you’re done reading. But if you notice a line of dialogue isn’t necessary, feel free to delete it. If you have a brilliant idea for a new setting detail to throw in, by all means add it. Just don’t get too bogged down as you do this pass through the manuscript because if you do then you won’t be able to really get a sense of the tension and pace of the story.
Step 10: Make the revisions from pass #3
By now you are familiar with this process. Take the time now to make those revisions from pass #3. Again, if you decide to make major changes you will want to restart at the beginning of the editing process so that you can reevaluate the revised manuscript all over again.
Step 11: Work with a developmental editor
Yes, I’m recommending hiring a professional for another service: this time, developmental editing. Why? Because a good developmental editor can work at both the story level and at the line level. They will help you figure out what is serving your story and what isn’t.
You could skip this step, but you will again lose out on a ton of perspective that is so hard to have as the writer. We all bring our own lens to what we read, and your lens is the story you are trying to tell. Hiring an objective professional to help you identify areas that need to be strengthened, tightened, or otherwise changed can be extremely helpful.
Alternatively, you could hire a book coach and have someone do this with you as you write or as you revise. A manuscript that has been drafted while the writer is being coached often needs fewer revision passes. And that can also be true for an already-drafted manuscript that is revised in conjunction with coaching. But book coaching doesn’t just have benefits for your current work in progress—being coached accelerates your growth as a writer because you have someone in your corner who will teach you more about the craft and push you to become a better writer overall.
Step 12: Apply the revisions and feedback from the developmental editor
As I mentioned before, feedback can be so valuable—but it can also be hard to receive. Let yourself feel all of your feelings, then get up and dust yourself off. Your manuscript is so much better than it was before you started the revision process and this is yet one more step toward publication. You can do it!
Step 13: Editing pass #4
Run your manuscript through a spell check and grammar check. You can use Word spell check or some other software that is dedicated to this. However, keep in mind that a computer cannot check all of the nuances of language, and sometimes spell check/grammar checks can be wrong.
Read through the manuscript to check for typos. Look again for places where you might want to adjust word choice or for extraneous details. Tighten things up as much as you can.
And now… what’s next?
Your manuscript is in as good of shape as you can get it. There are a couple of steps you could take next, but which step to take depends on what your goals are for publication. Someone who wants to self-publish might have some beta readers take a look, revise based on their feedback, and then have a copy editor or proofreader give a final look before publishing their book. Someone who wants to traditionally publish, on the other hand, will need to start preparing for the querying process. Unsure if you need more professional editing help with your manuscript? Read this post here about how to choose an appropriate editing service.
Not sure how to choose the best publishing path for your novel? I have a free e-book guide to help you do just that.
If you know you want to traditionally publish but don’t want to figure out all of that on your own, I can walk you through the whole process after we make sure your manuscript is ready for querying!
I hope this post is helpful to you in your revision process. Happy writing!
P.S. I'm now offering a group coaching course specifically focused on how to make your first pages shine, but the course covers many of the elements listed here. This course will help you learn and apply these key concepts to your first pages, and give you the skills to revise the rest of your manuscript too! You can join the waitlist here.
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