I coach other people on how to deeply revise all the time, so I thought I'd show you what my own revision looks like this time around (each story is different, each writer is different, and yet there are commonalities!).
If I could go back in time and give 26-year-old Julie one tip as she struggled to write that first novel, it would be "Learn to revise deeply." Because I came from a business writing background, I went into creative writing thinking that nailing it at the sentence level was enough. I was very, very wrong and that showed in my first couple of books.
Even once I figured out how to revise an entire story for character arc or voice or plot structure, or all three (thank you, Pitch Wars!), I still thought/hoped I could get through a draft - developmental edit - line edit cycle in two revisions, only one of which was deep (the developmental edit).
There may be a writer out there who can do that. But that has not been my experience. Nor has it been something I've seen my clients, critique partners, or other writing pals achieve. Most of the working writers I know are doing multiple rounds of developmental edits--that deep revision--before their stories even go to their agents or editors. And you know the agents/editors are going to have significant notes as well, especially on your first few books.
So get used to revision. It's where the magic happens. And that's a very good thing because whoever said it first was correct: writing is revising.
I've been working on this manuscript since I first came up with the idea in November of 2018 and although I've written a handful of short stories, plotted out a full book and part of another one, and revised another entire novel during that time, I've been mostly focused on this story for more than four years.
So this revision will be at least my fourth deep revision. And even though I'm pretty sure I'm nailing it, I also know this is just the revision that will earn my next one...with that dream editor!
Plan Deeply to Revise Deeply
As I mentioned last week, I've been on a week-long writing retreat with hopes of completing a full revision of my novel in verse. But I've actually been planning this revision for a little over a month ( I got some most excellent notes in early December).
Since those notes indicated that I'd mostly nailed the plot arc and the main character's arc (although they had some great notes for deepening), this revision was not particuarly structural, although previous ones had been.
I definite a structural edit as one where you're adding, removing, or moving major story beats, characters, or aspects of the world building. Have a soggy middle? That's a structural fix. Starting the novel too early/too late? That's structural. Adding a second main POV? Cutting or adding a main character...you get the picture.
So although this was not a structural revision, I wanted to make sure it was a deep one. One that carefully considered each flaw that had been pointed out and revised it in a way that really enhanced what I was trying to do with this story.
I had three main things I was trying to achieve:
- Make the settings in the second half of the book as vivid as the opening setting.
- Clarify and deepen the world building, the magic system, and the sense of history of the three groups of people in the book.
- Add backstory/depth to one of the non-POV main characters to make her motivations more clear.
There were other smaller things like clarifying/deepening an image system I used throughout to give the final poem extra punch, changing the breadcrumbs leading to a major plot twist, and adding a subplot to make the villain even more diabolical.
So although these changes weren't really altering the high level structure, they were things that needed to be woven into nearly every chapter in the book.
Tip #1: Use a Spreadsheet
To track all of this, I used a revision spreadsheet I call the Thematic Threads Spreadsheet. I start on the first tab, by dumping everything in it that I know needs to change and don't want to lose track of: line level things like changing a name, altering how I describe something, or adding more sensory details/setting details/character description...
...but it can also include larger issues need to be carried throughout. That's when I use the Themes tab. You can color code however makes sense, but also use the other columns to track which chapters you've implemented the change in to make sure themes, sub plots, and side characters are carried all the way through and don't unintentionally get dropped or disappear for huge sections of your story.
Tip #2: Brainstorm
For this particular revision, I have an edit letter I'm working off of, but I'm also adding in changes of my own to support the suggestions they've made. Often you'll get the "what needs to change" in a good edit letter, then you've got to figure out the "how."
There are multiple (infinite?) ways to address that "how" and finding the one that is best for your story can take time. Trying in short form via a synopsis, outline, or a brainstorming session with your critique group is much less painful than trying it out in the manuscript and deciding it doesn't work.
Tip #3: Break into Passes
Now that you've planned out the what and the how, decide if you need multiple passes. It can be tempting to go through each scene and make every change you've got planned for this revision. And for a light revision that can work. But for deep revision, especially one that involves plot structure and character changes...
I love Author Accelerator's Hierarchy of Editorial Concerns for breaking this down. But for revision, I recommend starting at the bottom of the pyramid and doing three passes: one for world-building, one for narrative drive (plot), and one for character.
For this revision, which is on a fairly mature draft, I'm working on things across several of these levels of the pyramid. But it wouldn't make sense to do the sentence-level tightening and polishing (level four) at the same time I'm working on the lower levels.
So this week, I've been workingon the world-building and character motivation (bottom level), the logic around passage of time (third level), and the pacing (fourth level). Breaking things out this way helps ensure you don't run out of steam before you've addressed each issue in a revision.
I'm guilty of this too. I get tired of revising, shiny new story ideas tempt me away, so I'm constantly fighting the urge to say "eh, it's good enough" and move on. Please, please, please don't do this! Good enough rarely is.
Even though I'm thrilled with what I've achieved this week, the manuscript is now going to readers for a sanity check and I've got time blocked for a final polishing pass next month before I consider this revision "done." And like I said above, this is a revision that I know won't be the last--but I'm hoping it will be the one that earns my way to the next round in the publishing cycle.
I understand feeling like you've been revising forever. I totally get the temptation to just be done. Remember how I said I wrote the first chapter of this project in November of 2018?
Each pass is really making it a better manuscript. Even the major changes are bringing it closer to the original vision I had when I was laying on the floor in the middle of the night during the Kavanaugh hearings plotting to either burn down the world for real or on paper.
If you're struggling to revise deeply, maybe it's time to call in a pro. In February and March, I'm offering 30 free coaching sessions to help writers who are struggling identify the next step on their writing journey. Let me help you make a plan for success: https://julieartz.17hats.com/p#/lcf/zgdwvrxvkdgfprpkdhszcsxsvcfhbxdg