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Revising and Editing Manuscripts

A reader, Jeff Vehige, who co-writes a blog with Jeff Woodward called Thursday Night Gumbo, asked me how I revise (he was interested too in how I find the time to edit and revise since he also is a father of several children and has a busy life).  He mentioned Stephen Koch's A Writer's Workshop, which advises "three drafts: one to get the story down, the second to make it coherent, and the third to make it shine."

Here's what I shared about my approach to revision.  I know this truly is a YMMV issue, so anyone who wants to throw in their two cents worth is welcome.

I wish my revision technique sounded as organized as Koch's, and I'll bet his isn't quite as tidy sounding as he says.
In general, here's how it goes for me:
1)    I edit on the fly all during the composition of the story.  When I open the file, I reread everything I've written to that point, making changes as I go.  Often the changes are just wording ones, but sometimes I'll realize I'm a scene short or a scene long and then spend that writing day adding the new material.  If I'm stuck on where the story is going next, occasionally, adding new work in the interior will be my writing day.  The story will be larger, but it will be because I deepened what was already there rather than adding new stuff to where I quit the day before.  Because of this, the beginnings of my stories get way more total reads and edits than the ends of my stories.  Fortunately, this is a good thing since it takes a lot of thinking about the beginning for me to understand my end.  The end generally needs less revision because I've been working my way toward it all along.
Reading everything from the beginning doesn't work when I'm writing a novel (by the time I reached 20,000 words or so, I'd spend all my writing time rereading), so I do the same technique except I limit it to each chapter.  When I finish the chapter, I do a light edit, move on, and don't look back.  I know writers who I respect a lot who suggest that you don't even do a light edit.  Their belief is that they have to get the story out first.  Either way, the goal is to get to a rough draft so you can start the real editing work.  If revision slows or bogs the story, don't do any at all until you get to the end.  For me, the editing before I start is like a warm up to proceed.  It helps me, but everyone is different.
2)    Once I finish the draft, I'll do a "check the beginning for the end" edit, which means I make sure my first page is truly setting up the last one.  This might mean making sure there is an echo effect.  I can do this with repeated imagery or dialog, but mostly it just means that whatever the last page resolves needs to be introduced in some way on the first page.  Since I don't know the last page when I write the first, my first pages sometimes change quite a bit on this revision.
3)  I do an "out loud" edit, which just means speaking the text.  I catch all kinds of mistakes that way.  A poet I like named Lew Welch once wrote an entire essay about writing entitled, "The Basic Tool is Speech."  I believe him.
4)  By this time, I'm starting to have a lot of confidence in the piece, so I'll move to Ken Rand's 10% Solution edit (I still find a ton of errors this way--bless Ken Rand).
5)  Occasionally I will mail a piece at this point, but I almost always run the story by readers I respect so I can get initial reactions.  My wife is a great first reader, and I'm also in a writing group who I've learned to pay attention to.
And that's it, sort of, in general, on average, most of the time.
Hope that helps.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 2nd, 2008 07:09 pm (UTC)
It just so happens YA author Justine Larbalestier has written a post on rewriting.


Her experience is much like mine.

Jan. 3rd, 2008 01:47 am (UTC)
Thanks, Carrie. I'll check it out.
Jan. 2nd, 2008 08:21 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for this post! I can't tell you how much I needed it. I tend to get sucked into the endless revision loop because I can't stand comparing my rough drafts to the expectations I hold in my head. Seeing how established authors handle the mess is reassuring, motivating, and inspiring. Thanks.
Jan. 3rd, 2008 01:48 am (UTC)
You're welcome. I know a fair number of writers who have a tough time calling a manuscript done.
Jan. 2nd, 2008 08:58 pm (UTC)
I agree, rewriting (and even light edits) tend to kill my momentum. Heck, even my aversion to rewriting kills the momentum, since I know the moment I'm done writing, the rewrites will soon follow.

Jim, I think I might try your suggestion to go chapter by chapter instead of the very beginning clear through to the end. Great stuff. Thanks!
Jan. 3rd, 2008 01:49 am (UTC)
You're welcome! I have to get more novels under my belt before I feel really confident with advice from personal experience, but I talk to a lot of novelists about their strategies too.
Jan. 2nd, 2008 09:53 pm (UTC)
Rand's books has greatly improved my writing. I bought the book and immediately used it on a story I thought had promise but was too long. While Rand states you can cut 10%, whenever I use it, it's closer to 15%.
Jan. 3rd, 2008 01:50 am (UTC)
Yes, I think Ken has done a great service by writing that little book. I end up giving away several copies a year.
Jan. 4th, 2008 03:57 am (UTC)
Hi Jim --

Thanks for another very useful post! I'm keeping this one around, and will be checking out Ken Rand's book which (to my shame) I had not heard of before now.

So much to learn, there is.

- yeff
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )