When to start revising?
For me there’s no absolute cut off between drafting and revising, but they exist on a continuum. I revise constantly, almost from the word go, but the first few months involve more drafting than revising, and the latter months involve more revising until there’s nothing left to draft, only revisions and edits to the text.
Some writers say you should absolutely not revise anything until you have completed the first draft. But I say, why not? It’s incredibly hard to just plough on to the end of a draft without ever once looking back and thinking about your plot and characters. I think this iterative style of drafting/revising can help you go deeper into your story because you’re taking the time to explore each scene as you go.
The First Full Read-through
After a few months of “mainly drafting” I’ll find that I have something that looks more or less like a book and that I’m starting to tinker with it. That’s when it’s time for me to print it off, take the paper copy to my favourite reading chair, sit back and start reading through. Whenever I do that, I always see things far more clearly, for example, this happens too quickly, this passage is dull, this paragraph is clunky etc. So I scribble all over the manuscript in red ink and then I go back to the computer and start making the necessary changes.
Plot and Structural Changes
What if I see (or am told by my husband later!) that the novel needs plot and structural changes, for example, these two characters need to spend more time together in order for their relationship to better develop? Well I don’t shy away from such big changes because if that’s what’s needed then I just have to bite the bullet and get on with it. My first two novels were written entirely in Word and my method for analysing and making structural changes was to take a copy of the document and reduce each chapter to a few bullet points. That way, I had a bird’s eye view of the whole story. It’s like producing an outline after you’ve written the book. Then I could play with the outline and work out what scenes to add, merge, split or delete.
One very famous author says that you should cut 10% from each draft. Well maybe he’s right for certain types of writers, but that method just doesn’t work for me. (Sorry, Mr. King.) It seems to me that with each subsequent draft, word counts can go up as well as down. It depends what you’re doing. Your word count will go down if you:
- Cut out unnecessary scenes and paragraphs.
- Merge scenes.
- Tidy up flabby prose.
But your word count will go up if you:
- Add scenes and paragraphs.
- Elaborate on sparse prose that isn’t doing its job.
- Build up big scenes for maximum effect, drawing out the tension and making sure that the action isn’t over before it’s begun.
It all depends on what sort of first drafts you write. I do all six things listed above, but I tend to do more of the latter three than the first three. My first drafts are always much shorter than the finished novels.
My First Reader
When I’ve read through and revised a few times, I give the novel to my husband to read. I don’t waste his time with something that I know has plot holes or where the prose isn’t polished. He will still find lots to change but it’s important for him to give me his visceral reaction to the story and in order for him to do that he needs to be not distracted by obvious things that I could have fixed myself. Once he’s read it and written all over the text, we sit down together and go through it. He gives me his overall opinion and points out where something needs cutting or building up or making more dramatic. He’s very good at spotting nuances in the prose that don’t ring true to the character or situation. He also pinpoints any spelling or punctuation errors. Then it’s back to the computer and I work through his changes one page at a time. Then I read through the whole thing and make my own changes. Then back to the computer… I think you get the picture! Sometimes I make substantial changes based on Steve’s comments, or based on my own readings. If necessary, I give him a second (or even a third version) of the manuscript to read through.
I have another writer who helps me with proof reading. She’s very good at spotting things that Steve or I may have missed. You need someone really pernickety for this. English is not always an easy language to get right.
And that’s about it. At some point you have stop revising and be brave and publish. But that’s another story!
Follow these links to read the other posts in this series: