When I first started out writing novels, the hardest part was figuring out how to finish. I had to write a few novels just to get a feel for the shape of a novel in my head: a sense of how much story goes into one, and where I’m at during any phase in the story.
What I didn’t anticipate was how difficult learning how to edit would be. The first time I sat down to edit a novel, I had no idea what I was doing or even where to begin. There is a lot of information online on how to write, but not quite as much about how to edit.
Revising has taken longest learning curve. It’s hard work, but it’s also worth it. It helps you close the gap between the story you truly set out to write, and what is actually on the page.
Some revision tips to try out
If you aren’t a linear thinker, try working from big to small. Start with examining the structure of the plot, before attempting to look at the sentence level edits your story requires. Do your chapters make sense in their current order? Are you missing any scenes? Are your character motivations believable? Is your world building complete? All of this happens before… does this paragraph express the emotion I want? Does this sentence need to be in the book? Is this redundant? There’s no point in making it pretty if you’re just going to cut the scene, or change something major. Grammar fixes go last.
If you, like me, can’t keep an entire novel in your head at one time, you might find it easier to do multiple drafts. I try to only focus on one or two aspects of the story per draft. An aspect could be anything: getting the romantic beats right, fixing the character development, fixing the dialog, etc.
Keep organized, or get organized after you complete your first draft (it’s never too late)! I keep a reference guide for myself which includes character names, their physical description, personality quirks. Also world building info, such as what the currency is called, what countries are named, the political or religious structures of the world. If you set your manuscript aside for a while between edits, you’re likely going to forget some things, so this helps you jump back in faster.
Print out an undated calendar and write in when key scenes in your story happen. This is especially helpful if you are writing on a compressed timeline.
Make a scene by scene outline. I’d be lost without mine, seriously, I never remember where or when something happens (sense a theme?). This is how I do my outline, and I’ve provided a template you can download. Super handy if you want to find a scene quickly, for example, what chapter did that first kiss happen in?
When you no longer know what else needs fixing, or you know something is broken, but not how to fix it, it’s time to get an outside perspective. Cue critique partners, and beta readers.
Dealing with feedback
First of all, take a deep breath. Remember, these are all suggestions, and hopefully come from people you trust, and whose opinions you respect.
If I have feedback from multiple people, I prefer waiting until all the feedback is in and reading it at once. This allows you to find common themes. If multiple people point out the same problem, it’s probably a problem that needs to be addressed rather than personal opinion.
After you read the feedback, and squelch down that anger that your story wasn’t perfect, let the feedback sit with you a few days. The major points that need addressing will probably needle you over that time. If a particular bit of feedback keeps bothering you, it’s probably something you need to fix.
Come up with your own summary of the problems your readers pointed out, this gets you back into your head, and parsing it in a way that you understand best.
Make a new revision plan. For example, if the notes show you you need to work on a character’s backstory, figure out where a new scenes or flashbacks could be inserted. If you have a scene by scene outline like mine, I just insert a new row into the excel spreadsheet with where these should go, and move around scene rows so that they fit a better order. Just like before it helps to go from biggest to smallest issues. There’s no avoiding another draft, sorry to say.
Remember, everything is just a suggestion. You know the story best. Stick to your gut. It is your story. You don’t have to do anything you don’t feel is right for your story.
And don’t forget to thank the people that have given their time to read your messy draft!
Other helpful resources:
If you have tips, or more methods to this madness, I’d love to hear them! Comment below.