Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Revision Tips for Writers

Around the end of last month, I posted about the importance of revision, but I didn't really share any revision techniques. This post should help remedy that deficiency.

All writers have their own writing strengths and weaknesses. For instance, I tend to use the word "that" too often in my first drafts. As a result, I look for ways to remove "that" from my writing more than about any other word.

Here are some other big revision tips for writers:
  1. Revise big stuff first, make small edits later. This doesn't mean you should not correct obvious typos and grammar errors as you notice them. However, you shouldn't be actively tinkering with word choice until after you've nailed down the structure of your piece. To make this process much easier, I recommend using an outline for your fiction and nonfiction.
  2. Put the manuscript down and walk away. Writers need at least a little distance from their manuscripts before jumping into revision. Sometimes it takes a good night's sleep or a weekend-long vacation. Some writers require months of separation before they can look at a manuscript with fresh (and hopefully objective) eyes.
  3. Scan the whole manuscript without reading. I recommend doing this at the beginning and at the ending of the revision process. Scanning can make big problems more obvious that a writer might not notice when reading closely. For instance, maybe most sections are the same general length--except for one section that is significantly longer or shorter than the rest.
  4. Read carefully. Take your time and read every word. Then, read it out loud too. This will help you catch obvious errors. In particular, pay attention to transitions from paragraph to paragraph, scene to scene, stanza to stanza, etc. Check for repetition and consistency.
  5. Look for ways to be more concise with your language. Can you turn a 15-word sentence into a 8-word sentence? Can you turn an 8-sentence paragraph into a 5-sentence paragraph? And so on. Less almost always means more for the reader.
  6. Use active voice over passive voice. There may be occasions for using passive voice, but don't let yourself get drunk on the stuff. Passive writing makes for passive reading.
  7. Vary sentence structure. Don't fall into the trap of always writing: Noun + Verb + Noun = Sentence. Even if it's grammatically correct, using the same pattern over and over again will make your manuscript boring. Don't feel like you have to get crazy creative with your sentence structure; just check that you're not falling into a monotonous pattern.
  8. Save each round of revisions as its own file. Start with the first draft. Then, the second draft. Then, the third draft. Then, well, you get the idea. Saving these files may help if you realize a path you chose in revision ultimately leads to a cliff without a rope bridge to cross.
  9. Have someone read the manuscript. The more eyes (otherwise known as "readers") the better, because they'll be more objective when reading, and they're less likely to make "leaps of logic" that a writer might. Ask them for feedback on how the piece reads (fast, slow, awkward, etc.) and if there are any places that didn't make sense.
  10. Print the manuscript for a final edit. I edit Writer's Market, which is a huge book, and I love that I waste far less paper now than I did in the year 2000. Most of my edits are on the computer screen. That said, I do have a print out made for me and my proofers when it's time to do the final editing, because there are things I catch on paper that I don't on the screen.
If you use these revision tips, you'll be ahead of the game in your revision process. However, I'd love to hear any other tips or rules writers live by when tackling revision. Share them in the comments below.


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Annette Gendler said...

Revision is different from editing, at least according to what I get to teach in composition. Revision is big picture stuff - figuring out what belongs where, what needs to go, what needs to be expanded. Only when all that is done should one worry about editing, i.e. the detail stuff - sentence structure, word ticks, awkward phrases, grammar issues, etc. See your point #1.

J. R. McLemore said...

I always try to reread my manuscripts after a month or two of distancing myself from them, as you said, to give myself more objectivity. Once, that is complete, I try to get more granular and look for misspellings, etc. However, for me, the most valuable asset during the revision process is the feedback of beta readers. They've never heard the story, are not as intimate as I am with the piece, and therefore, can spot the holes that I may have taken for granted when getting it from my head to the page. I don't know what I'd do without them.

Awesome post, Robert!

SM Johnson said...

During my final edit of the final draft, I use the "find" feature of MS Word to look for words that end in -ly, and determine individually if an -ly adverb adds to the sentence. I also do this for cuss words, character-specific phrases, or any phrase I suspect I might have over-used.

Who am I? said...

This post has been very helpful and I plan to keep it at hand.
As for myself, I keep a list of words or such that I know, or have been told, I overuse. I also keep a list of words I'm prone to spelling wrong at the wrong time, ex, through and though. Big difference in the word. Then, once I have walked away for a bit, I run the Find button, reading each sentence out loud. Too many, too often, pick, choose, change. When in doubt, get a second, third, fourth, opinion. Thus far, this method is working.
Elizabeth =^,,^=

Anonymous said...

A great list, Robert. "Put the manuscript down and walk away" is a huge one for me. I'm often guilty of death!


Something About the Joy said...

I also use the "find" tool. For many kinds of revisions. To change a character's name, to find sneaky typos ("our" for "out"), to find passive voice (look for "was" or "were"). Putting "space-there" into the find tool leads me to all sentences that begin with "There." I also look for "they" to show me where I'm telling instead of showing. The "find" tool is invaluable.

Anonymous said...

Part of my revision process is making sure every scene has a reason to exist. Does it move the story forward by showing a change? This can be done when a discovery or a decision is made, when something emotional or exciting happens, or when there's conflict between characters.

Unknown said...

I use find for: was, just, even,-ings, very, to be & being. These are weak words. I also do a scene check: does each scene have a start, offer conflict, cross dialogue,engage the senses, and finish. Is the scene in one POV and does it move the story forward or develop the character. A spiral notebook, couple of pens, and an area to spread the MS around is my workplace until I get revisions completed-well at least the first time.

Marleen Gagnon said...

Great list. I think you've hit on pretty much everything I do. One thing that has saved me a lot of time and effort is to save each update with a different file name (usually numbered to tell them apart). I find if I print the chapters out before I edit or revise and set it down for a couple days I like some of the changes and not other changes.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

I use the find key for 'they, it, and was/were' to make sure the it is explained and to see if I can replace was/were. An editor's advice once was to look up these words and get rid of them if you can. It really makes you think about reworking a sentence and I've been happy with each change. It's my personal challenge I guess.

I'll be keeping your list. Thanks.

Book Club Reviewer said...

Giving yourself space from your manuscript is DEFINITLY encouraged. It's like a relationship. Yeah, you love the person, you want to spend time with him, yadda-yadda-yadda; but, eventually, you get sick of looking at the person and need some space to gain a clearer perspective. Works for me.

Ann Littlewood said...

Great post. I've also discovered the power of reading the ms. aloud, which slows me down and let's me notice more. It's also helpful when I need to read a passage at an event since it's not the first time! I'm impressed by the creative ways people are using "find."

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Thanks for sharing your tips, everyone! I love learning new things to consider.

Mary, "it" is definitely a good word to re-write as something else when possible.

Anonymous said...

It's a good list and great post .it will must help me thanks to share this

Revision Tips