How to Tackle A Major Revision

There are tons of theories, tricks, and methods for how to revise a novel. But sometimes novel revisions can seem so huge that it’s impossible to apply any strategy. Major plot reconstruction, new or different points of view, changes in setting, cutting or deleting characters, or any kind of alteration to the core of the novel can feel less like improving and more like breaking it—which makes it incredibly daunting to start!

Make a list.
No good revision starts without a battle plan. Pantsing may work for drafting (and, okay, for some revising), but if you’re doing some major alterations, keeping track of your to-dos in writing is immensely useful. If you’re working with a freelance editor or good beta reader, you may already have an edit letter with your book’s issues spelled out, so you’ve got a jump start on making a list of things to address in your revision. If not, think hard about what you know you need to fix first, and write all that down—then reorder as you see fit. Chances are, the thing that’s bugging you the most will be the biggest problem to tackle.

Save everything.
The beauty of working digitally is that you can have almost unlimited versions of the same story. Make sure to keep your drafts distinct—save a copy of “draft 2” and make any changes there. That way, you can always revert to the “original” version if you don’t like the changes you made (which hopefully will make you feel bolder in terms of risk-taking!). You can even draft up alternate versions of single scenes or entire endings. If you use Scrivener, use the “snapshot” feature to save different versions of scenes and avoid the headache of multiple project files.

Tackle one problem at a time.
And do your best to do them in order of biggest/most major to smallest/least significant. Major, universal changes—to things like setting, narrator character, point of view (i.e., first person to third person or vice versa) or verb tense—should be up first, since they’ll affect the revisions of anything else you’ll write. Then, once you have your priorities, work on one issue at once, and get it as completed/resolved as possible before moving on. Too much jumping from problem to problem can lead to loose ends, dropped threads, or inconsistencies—which ultimately just means more revision. If you absolutely must change it up while you’re revising, make some kind of note so you know where you left off on one issue.

Diagram everything.
Okay, maybe not everything. But if you feel yourself slipping into a creative vortex of words and paragraphs, changing gears to a more left-brained approach can help you refocus. Big revisions require bird’s eye views of the entirety of your novel, not just individual scenes. So get some quantifiable stats on your manuscript to inform your revision process. You can count up words—for example, in a novel with multiple narrators or protagonists, figure out how many words (or what percentage) of the manuscript each one takes up. You can make charts, like rating the tension of each scene on a scale of 1 to 10 and plotting it on a graph—then tweaking where it looks like things are lagging. You can make a character sheet mind-map style, with characters connected based on their relationships, or you can make a simple family tree. You can even just draw a map of your novel’s setting—sometimes visualizing the world of your book really snaps everything into place.

Get to the heart of your story.
Not all of revision is about the words that end up on the actual page. When revising, don’t get so caught up in doing the major overhauls that you lose sight of the themes and meaning behind your story. What big questions does it answer? What’s the point of what you’re trying to write? What inspired you to start it in the first place? Knowing the answers to these questions will keep you from flagging when the going gets tough.

Don’t copy edit too soon.
Good copy editing is important—there’s no doubt about that. When revising, it’s tempting to start tinkering with proofreading mechanics, but resist the urge! Clean, grammatically-correct prose is important, of course, but if you’re doing a major overhaul, the little changes you make might be wiped out entirely when you delete a scene. So don’t waste your time—and don’t get suckered into thinking that deleting commas and fixing typos is “revising” when it’s really procrastinating making the bigger, more necessary changes.

Track your progress.
It’s easy to feel like your revisions are going in circles—or even backwards. Keep a log of all the progress you’ve made to maintain enthusiasm and momentum—it can be as simple as a journal-style entry about the day’s work, or as visual as a bar graph you gradually fill up, or a list that you scribble on every time you knock out another task. And don’t forget to reward yourself!

Take breaks.
Overworking your brain when revising your novel can cause serious diminishing returns. You can just tap out of energy, and start repeating yourself, rushing, or just doing generally shoddy work. Worse, there is such a thing as too much revisionwork that actually weakens your novel. Revision is a marathon, not a sprint, and rushing it doesn’t do you or your book any favors.

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