Revise Your View of Revision
Some writers love revision. In fact, for many, the rough draft is something to be rushed through to get to the real “fun,” the revision.
I’m not one of those writers.
I do a lot of revising, but it’s not the part I most enjoy. And since I’m not as much of a workaholic as folks tend to think, revision can be something I would skimp on if I didn’t enter into revision with a plan.
Create the Plan as Your Write
When I’m writing, I’ll often think of things that would make the plot work better. Or I’ll wish I’d made a character act a little differently early on, to clue the reader in on something so that a later action will feel more believable. Those kinds of thoughts are in my head a lot. And what I used to do is stop and make the change, and then try to get back in the flow at the point I’d left off. Sometimes that worked, but a lot of times, it didn’t. I’d lose the thread of where I was when I stopped. And I would often end up slowing a book down so much that I’d give up on it before it was done. I needed a new method. Of course, I also didn’t want to leave those corrections undone as they would show up as glaring errors to an editor.
So what I do now is to begin the revision plan while I’m writing. In this plan, I include those ideas that pop in my head as I’m writing. I keep track of all those things that need fixing, in a bulleted list.
This same list also contains the name of every single character in the book. As soon as I add a new character, I jot the name in the revision plan. That sets the character’s name and spelling. Then a character named Philip in the beginning of the book won’t become Phillip in the end of the book simply because I forget what I called him and how I spelled it.
List My Weaknesses
Some things are always in my revision plan because they’re always in my writing. I have a definite writer’s voice that has strong similarities to my speaking voice. So I will overuse some perfectly good words (like “lovely”). And I will tend to overuse some gestures (nodding, for instance). I will pick up temporary pet words that plague a book or two (like “actually”). And then there are all the little words that are commonly overused by everyone (such as “so” and “just” and “very”). All of these things go into my revision plan. When the time comes to do the revision, I will use my writing program’s search function to find all the instances of these overused bits and I’ll curb them down to a less obtrusive number. We’re not talking about things that are wrong, just overused. An overused word pulls the reader’s attention away from my story and onto my technique. I want my technique to be invisible, and revision plays a part in that.
List Common Mistakes
Some things always need to be fixed. Typos need cleaning up. Verb tenses need to be checked for consistency (and to be certain of using the right tense in the right spot.) If it’s a book with chapters, I need to make sure my format for starting new chapters (or giving chapter titles) is consistent. If it’s a shorter nonfiction book with headings, I need to be sure my format for handling headers is consistent. As I add these items to my revision plan, I help ensure my book will be clean. (Or as clean as I can make it. I’m human, and I will always miss things.)
Pet sentence structures need to be varied. I tend to write very direct sentences, which can be good for very young readers, but more than a little dull when it’s the only sentence structure in a book for fluent readers. So I need to check into that. Many writers fall in love with starting sentences with an -ing phrase like this: “Ringing the bell, the teacher called the students in from play.” That structure is wonderful to use for variety, but if it appears in every paragraph (or even more than once in every paragraph), then you have a pet sentence structure that will eventually pull attention away from the story and onto the mechanics.
Working the Plan
When my rough draft is done, I begin to work my revision plan. I work from the big things to the little things. So I’ll begin with all those notes about changes I need to make to motivation or action or other such things that would require rewriting of sentences, paragraphs, or even whole scenes. This is really the only fun part of revision for me since I’m still writing and not just checking for mistakes.
Once I have the big things, then I begin my focused revision “passes.” This is where I go down my list and fix them one at a time for the whole book. I don’t try to fix all the things in one pass, because I’ll nearly always forget things if I do that. So I just do my revising in pass after pass after pass. By the time the revision process is done, I will have read the manuscript dozens of times as I work through the revision steps.
Getting a Change of View
The final thing I do in any revision is change the font for the whole thing to something VERY different. Then I read though the manuscript in this “new look.” This sometimes allows me to fix mistakes that I’ve somehow overlooked during all the other passes. Of course, after I finish this final pass, I switch back to the “correct” font and read the book one last time.
Does that sound like a lot of work? It is. And it’s not work I particularly enjoy. But I do enjoy selling books. So, I do the work.
So what’s your plan look like?
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.