The manuscript from scratch: Beginning revisions

I’m about to do something most writers hate, but all writers must do. I am about to willingly sacrifice my own brain to torture. Because in order to create, we must destroy.

Revision is a long road to hell and back. Writers hate it because to engage in our own work critically, we are subjecting ourselves to a kind of self-destruction, switching off certain parts of our mind so the others can better function in this process. We must take ourselves out of the picture. Wipe our memories. Insert new ones.

Put simply, we’ve slaved over our writing for months, and now we must become a slave to it for at least the same stretch of time. It’s a mental test of patience, discipline, and stamina.

Where to begin? That varies for everyone, of course. Personally, I’ve made a step-by-step checklist and done a lot of homework, and this is some of my best advice. You’re going to need the right tools, after all.

  • Take reader critiques with a grain of salt. Identify those you agree with, and those that aren’t essential.
  • Pay attention to your gut reactions to each. Highlight overlapping themes like clarity or pacing issues. If it sounds harsh to hear, it’s probably true.
  • Put the cart before the horse. In my method, there are three steps of revision: First for story, second for character, third for technicalities (line edits). Story always comes before prose.
  • Go outside your comfort zone. Read at a cafe, library, etc. to remove yourself from your workplace. Do a complete read-through, making notes with comments in Word or on paper, but not changes (yet).
  • Read it as a reader, not as the writer. Ask, “Who is this written for?” When you’re seeing with the fresh perspective of the audience, it’s as though you’re picking up the story for the first time. You should be critical of the story itself, not of yourself as a writer.
  • Look at the big picture, then the pieces of the manuscript, then how they fit together. Take it slowly.
  • Show no mercy. Detach yourself from sentiment toward characters, scenes, and so on. Look at the facts. Think of it as detective work.
  • What sucks about it? What is confusing, boring, repetitive, cliched, obvious? Pinpoint the most common mistakes, then scrap them.
  • Watch your step. Stumbling blocks include inconsistencies, redundant passages, ineffective transitions, sentence structure issues, pacing lags, and things that are too subtle or not subtle enough. Which narrative choices feel embarrassing or clunky?
  • Make your writing speak. On the second read-through, read it aloud, and listen for rough, verbose, or inauthentic voice.
  • Map out the plot trajectory. After reading from beginning to end, sketch an outline of the rearranged plot to get an idea of what it could look like.
  • In medias res. Consider beginning the story in the middle. Deleting the opening is a common edit, and therefore can be the easiest darling to kill (if there is such a thing). If the manuscript starts too early or goes into too much detail, you’re spoon-feeding information to your readers. Determine what they can figure out at the beginning with the least amount of detail.
  • Live in the moment. Keep exposition clear of the story beginning. Hook the reader with the story itself, not the backstory. Take tips from screenwriters: How does a pilot episode introduce characters and backstories effectively?
  • Handle exposition delicately. If any backstory needs to be told, tell it quickly and move on. Determine the most creative and interesting ways to present facts without boring the reader, allowing them to be absorbed naturally. Facts can be prompted through snippets of dialogue or character thoughts, but there must be a purpose for them.
  • Map scenes. Any backstory longer than a few lines should be written as a scene (dramatized flashback), and “triggered” by a character’s memory or sense, but only if it can’t be avoided. Continue to brainstorm ways you can move it to the chronological timeline and reveal it through a conversation between characters.
  • Keep them on their toes. Ratchet up the tension and pace! Introduce more conflicts and sprinkle them throughout the plot.
  • Don’t tell me how to feel. Look for red flags that tell the reader how to feel instead of showing, or characters that tell how they feel instead of showing.
  • Make your characters unforgettable. Multilayered characters — those with seemingly conflicting motives, or secret desires or pains — are the most interesting to follow. Begin with the outermost layer and “peel back” those underneath at turning points of his/her journey.
  • They’re not a hivemind. Differentiate characters’ dialogue. Don’t let them just sit around; add action between lines. Don’t use dialogue if it can be shown through action instead. Picture actual conversations.
  • Interrogate your characters. Was my protagonist dimensional, complex, and transformed by the end of the story? Is she not a passive and reactive character, but one with motivations and goals that drive the plot? Did the supporting characters have necessary arcs in which they changed, and were these arcs “revealed” to the reader at opportune increments? Do characters act their age, and do they have believable actions and reactions? Are they useful? How?
  • Backtrack. Look for areas of improvement in tone. Where can you foreshadow an event? Where can a theme be made stronger?
  • This is heavy, Doc. Make sure the timeline is absolutely clear. List ways to tie up loose threads more neatly and logically. Mark where natural chapter and scene breaks should occur, and rearrange as needed.
  • Make it pretty and sparkly. Figure out your style and enhance it. Describe setting more dynamically. For vivid descriptive writing, use precise verbs and research unique ones.
  • Make line edits. Save this for the very last revisions. Look critically at each sentence under a microscope. Ask, “could I say this any better?” Vary its structure. Avoid subordinate clauses. Eliminate or reword anything that could be misunderstood.
  • Remember your value. Remember this manuscript is better than you think it is. Within it is a story worth telling. Your work will be worth it — if you make it the best it can be.
  • Don’t give up. You may feel lost, but you must go forward. Let your instinct be your compass. Know that it takes time, but you’ll get there.
  • Changes are not permanent. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Now is the time to experiment.
  • Learn to love it. Or at least, to enjoy it. Take creative liberties, keep an open mind, and explore your world! If you can do that, it doesn’t have to be torture.

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