Revision Techniques for Self-Revision—Group/Partner Feedback—Editorial Notes
“I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve started, deleted, and restarted this post about revision. Because how can I possibly have something insightful to add when I believe revision is very much an individual process, so what works for me is useless to any other writer?”
–Fear and Revision by Elsie Chapman, 88 Cups of Tea
Elsie Chapman is right.
When it comes to revision, no one has your answers—they only have theirs. Elsie’s revision process is to begin…no matter the fear. In fact, (read her gorgeous post) because of the fear. Each of us needs to build our own approach to revision. But this doesn’t mean we can’t borrow techniques from others.
How I approach revision is how I approach learning.
Growing up, I struggled to learn to read. My younger sister (by two years) patiently taught me as we sat together in our shared bedroom. Her six-year-old technique was to sing the books to me and have me memorize the “lyrics.” Slowly, I began to see the connection between our songs and the symbols on the page. Very slowly. Learning can be a mystery, yet there are strategies that can help. Revision is the same. Although, instead of songs, I use lists. Lots and lots of lists.
Before anyone sees your work, you need to see your work.
- Read your manuscript fast. You will find yourself getting stuck over and over. When you do, start ironing. Ironing is the slow process of fixing small issues. As you iron, write down large issues (Big Wrinkles), but bypass them.
- Big Wrinkles
- When you’ve finished ironing the manuscript, take that list of Big Wrinkles and reorder it from the easy to hard. Tackle the list from the top. The revision process is tough, and you will need successes, starting out with the easy fixes will give you these.
- Character Studies
- It’s time for some side writing. Resketch all your characters…all. Who are they? What do they want? You most likely did this as you were beginning your novel. But take a second sketch now. When you finish, whittle these sketches down to a few words that capture their essence. Place these essences on a single page. With this page sitting next to you, read chapter by chapter, checking each of your characters—do they mirror who you said they were: dialogue, actions, desires? You may want to retool one or two of your character sketches or the character in the novel, either way, be sure to return to the whole novel for that character and reread.
- Iron, Again
- Read your manuscript fast, again. Fix small issues and keep a list of large issues (Secondary Big Wrinkles). Focus on a more granular level with the small issues. Where are your dull words, your repeated words, your cumbersome sentences, the overly clever words your young protagonist might not use? Don’t let anything get by you. If you don’t have the heart to change it in the moment, put it on the Secondary Big Wrinkle list.
- Secondary Big Wrinkles
- Take the list and restructure it again, easy to hard. Tackle it.
- Your novel is now ready for its first read aloud. Do not pretend to read it out loud, really read it out loud. If you find yourself not really reading out loud, stop and go back. I find this the most eye-opening moment in the revision process. Again, you’ll fix small issues as you read and keep a list of larger ones that you will re-order and fix following the read.
- The Boring Parts
- Don’t kill me, but yes, you need to read it out loud again. Although by this time, it should be a smoother ride. In this read, you’re now on the hunt for something specific – the boring parts…these are the parts you’re no longer interested in reading. Keep a list of these to work on/think about as you send it out for critique, because…it’s time for others to read your novel!
Revising to Feedback:
(Critique Partners and Critique Groups)
You won’t agree with all feedback, but you will list all feedback.
Whether your comments come from a group or from a few partners, you’ll work through them the same way.
- Make a List
- Go through your CP/CG notes and iron all small issues, creating a list of larger issues, of which you will…wait for it… rank from easy to hard.
- Find a good friend, (preferably one who does not write) and begin. It’s natural to be frustrated, sad, angry, and/or out of sorts at our CP/CG comments. They don’t get the story. They didn’t read the whole thing. They don’t have kids, or dogs, or believe in magic. They’ve never understood you. Get it all out. Your CP/CG people are plainly coconuts. Everyone knows it. Return home exhausted and with a headache. But forego the guilt over talking so badly about people you love and sleep on their comments for a bit.
- The Boring Parts (II)
- While you take the time to come to terms with your CP/CG comments, it’s time to tinker with those boring parts you picked out at the end of your own revision. Shorten them. Delete them. Rewrite them.
- Work That List
- After a week (or more if you need it) take that CP/CG list back out and (a) circle everything on it you know is just plain true, (b) cross out things you know are just plain wrong (if more than one CP/CG person mentioned something, do not cross it off, most likely it isn’t just plain wrong). Create two lists. A truth list (ranked easy to hard), and a Something May Be Wrong There (SMBWT) list of the things you didn’t circle or cross out (without ranking).
- The Truth List
- Begin revising using the Truth list. As you work, keep the SMBWT list in your mind. Often you will begin to see why your CP/CG mentioned these moments.
- SMBWT List
- Begin the SMBWT list with the things you now understand – taking the issues you don’t back to your CPs/CGs. Once you’re clear on these issues, you might need to repeat the Complaining, Working the List, The Truth List, and the SMBWT list. If so, don’t be discouraged. Just do it.
- Read Aloud
- It’s now time to read the book again, fast, out loud. At this point, all issues should be small, and you should be able to iron as you go. If you find bigger things, don’t fall apart, just write them down creating another list. I do two fast reads (ironing as I work). If they go smoothly, I hand it to my agent/editor.
Revising to Editorial Notes:
The big difference when revising for an editor is to start with the big issues.
- Read in a Safe Spot
- Begin by finding a safe place where you can read your editor’s notes without taking any of your own. Try to equally notice the compliments as you do the needed changes. Read it twice, but then close the document and walk away for the day.
- Second Read
- Read for the changes. Do not take notes. This is a sinking-in process.
- Call that Friend Again
- Seriously call on a friend and complain, thrash about, wonder about your life choices, etc.
- Time for Lists
- Make two. 1. Small Issues (ranked easy to hard). 2. Big Issues (ranked easy to hard).
- Start Big
- Start revising from the Big Issues list. (Beginning with the Small Issues list is a mistake because so often, as you revise the Big Issues, many of the small issues take care of themselves as you delete and rewrite.) If the Big Issues list requires a lot of changes, you may need to repeat portions of the Self-Revision and Feedback techniques. Editorial Revising is less structured than Self or Feedback revising. This Big Issues list may be the most difficult revising you’ll do and is often the scariest part of the writing process. You’ve come so far in this book and may now be fearful to make any big changes.
1. You wrote the book.
2. You can revise it.
Will you do it with a cold breeze of fear circling in your stomach? I know I do. And it seems that Elsie Chapman does. Most likely, you will, too.
3. Make the changes!
J. Albert Mann is an award-winning poet and the author of six published novels for children. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and is the Director of the WNDB Internship Grant Committee. Her next work, The DEGENERATES, a novel of historical fiction about the mass institutionalization of disabled children (eugenics movement), publishes this March with Simon & Schuster’s Atheneum Books for Young Readers. Visit her online, or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.