Basic Techniques of the Self Revision Process
Completing a manuscript can feel like conquering Mt. Everest. Whether your work is fiction or nonfiction, minimalist or detailed, short-term or long, you want to raise your flag and shout to the world, “It’s done!”
At Dog Ear Publishing, we say go ahead and celebrate! Pop that bottle of champagne you’ve been saving, turn up your favorite song obnoxiously loud and dance around the house, or involve yourself in any other merrymaking that allows the enormity of your accomplishment to sink in.
When you’re done, however, it’s time to take a breath and remind yourself that although the first big hurdle is past, the journey is not over.
What could possibly be left? Revision. We know: Even hearing the word is enough to make authors groan. But try to look at revision as an opportunity to fine-tune your manuscript, making it even stronger and more reader-friendly. That is exactly what focused revision will accomplish—and who better to begin the process than you?
First things first: Put the manuscript away—out of sight and out of mind. The more we read something, the more our minds remember. When it comes to revision, however, what we want is to forget: to clear enough memory that when we return to the manuscript in a month or two, it looks new, and we’re better able to spot mistakes.
When you come back to the manuscript after your break, it’s time to make the first revision pass, which focuses on the big picture. Ask yourself the following questions, and revise accordingly.
For fiction and nonfiction narrative:
- Plot: Does the plot hook readers and keep them engaged? Does it move at a steady pace? Are there unnecessary subplots?
- Conflict: Is there too much conflict, which exhausts readers? Too little, making the story drag? Is the resolution satisfying?
- Characters: Do the characters change over the course of the novel or remain stagnant? Are their goals and motivations clear? Is the dialogue between them realistic and relevant to the time period? Are there too many minor characters?
- Tense and Point of View: Are these consistent? Are they used properly? (See these articles for ways to handle the inclusion of the past and future, as well as tips on how to keep the same point of view throughout the manuscript.)
- Word Count: Is it close to the standard for the genre of the book?
- Organization: Do the topics progress logically? Are the ideas clear and concise? Have you provided definitions for unusual terms?
- Fact-checking: Have you triple-checked your research, including spelling, dates, quotes, and sources?
- Citations: Have you cited sources for all quotes, whether paraphrased or direct? Have you included citations either in footnotes or endnotes, remembering that consistency in style is vital?
Next, use the second revision pass to catch tinier details: repeated or missing words, misspelled names, improper capitalization, etc.
On the third pass, check grammar and punctuation, preferably using a style guide to keep everything consistent (Dog Ear recommends The Chicago Manual of Style (16th Edition).
- Use only one space between sentences.
- Employ serial commas (e.g., this, that, and those).
- Spell out numbers 1–100 (see CMS 9.2 for more detailed explanations and exceptions).
- Format thoughts in italics.
- Format dialogue in quotation marks, with the punctuation inside the quotation marks (e.g., “Like this,” she said. “Or this.”).
- Italicize album titles, book titles, magazine names, and television shows.
- Place chapter titles and song titles that you mention in your text in quotation marks.
Once all three passes are complete (and yes, it can take months), your next mission is to find beta, or test, readers. Seek out trusted friends, family, and colleagues with whom you have a strong relationship—those you know will be both honest and tactful. If they are members of your target audience, even better!
Send them a copy of the manuscript in their preferred format (usually a .pdf or printout), along with a checklist to be completed once they’ve finished reading. Sample questions on your checklist might include the following:
- How many pages did it take you to get interested in the story?
- Was there enough description to pull you in without becoming bored?
- Were the characters believable? Did you understand why they did what they did and said what they said?
- Did the flashbacks make sense?
- What made you laugh? Feel sad?
- Did you find any inconsistencies (a character with blue eyes being described as having brown eyes, for example)?
- Did you enjoy the ending or feel it was too pat or rushed?
The questions you send are up to you, but remember that beta readers are doing you a favor, so don’t overdo it. Also remember that longer manuscripts may take readers a month or more to complete. Lastly, try to return the favor in some way. For example, if a test reader also happens to be a writer, offer to look over his/her next project.
Once you have collected all the checklists, it’s time to sift through the suggestions. Be honest with yourself and try not to take anything personally. Use the best suggestions to begin the revision process once more—reading, editing, and improving your manuscript again and again until you can no longer find anything to change or correct.
Finally, it’s time to send your manuscript to a professional editor. After all the work you and your beta readers have done, you might wonder why any more editing is necessary. The reason is that no matter how many passes you make, no matter how much helpful feedback you receive, and no matter how up to date your word-processing program is, you’re still going to miss something. Why? Because you’re human and your test readers are human—and your spellcheck is only as good as its programming.
Editors are only human, too (depending on who you ask), but we also have a very particular set of skills—which we have acquired over long careers—including a meticulous passion for detail. In short, we can and do make a difference.
The good news is that the hard work you’ve already put into revisions will save you both time and money during the professional editing process. The more polished your manuscript, the less time it takes a professional to go through it. Less clutter to wade through means your editor can focus on important things like plot, character development, and story arc, taking your manuscript to a higher level.
If you think you can’t afford an editor, ask yourself if you can afford the bad reviews that come when readers find mistakes in books. They aren’t shy about letting others know if a book doesn’t pass muster, and the reviews will reflect that, which is no way for an author to get started.
In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King summed up the process of revision nicely: “When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.”
Revision is not a quick or easy road to travel. It takes time, of course, but most of all, it takes patience. The characters you so loving crafted, the statistics you spent months researching, and the memories you worked so diligently to bring to life—all deserve the chance to make their biggest possible impact. Revision can help that happen.
And when it all gets to be a little too overwhelming, remember this: You wrote a book. You wrote a book! And in doing so, you achieved a milestone that even famous authors like Jack London and Franz Kafka couldn’t always match.(1) So, revision? You’ve got this.