When starting revisions on a new project, there can be a huge temptation to focus on correcting fine details like word choice, sentence rhythm, spelling, and that kind of stuff. Writers do this for a number of reasons.
Newbie writers, who are still learning basic writing skills, might be using a novel as a playground to build skills. This is one case where it’s more than okay to focus on minutia. You have to learn somewhere. Everyone that publishes a novel has a first one. But only a very small amount of first novels ever get published. My first one wasn’t that great, but I loved writing it. It was how I learned how to write and revise novels, and I’m grateful for the experience. If this is you, enjoy the process. You can read on, but honestly, don’t worry.
Assuming you’ve already mastered a certain level of writing skill, this tendency to focus on micro-details can be related to perfectionism. If you’re a perfectionist, I get you. I can’t see crappy sentences and keep walking. My advice to you would be to go right ahead and correct any glaring errors if it means you can move on with more energy and confidence. Any polishing that you can do with little effort is great. But don’t get sucked into fine-tuning sentences and abusing the thesaurus just yet. There will be time for that later.
The last group of writers are those who feel completely overwhelmed looking at 300-400 pages. When you don’t know where to begin, it just feels safer to begin with the easy fixes. The problem with that approach is that it inevitably makes more work for yourself. Once you begin the complex work of revision, many of those same sentences and scenes that you streamlined will end up being cut or rearranged anyway.
So, unless you’re that brand new author who is using the novel format to learn the craft, save yourself a huge headache and put the big stuff first.
By “big stuff,” I mean the big picture things like plot, character, and structure. Here’s a quick, but certainly not complete, look at what that means:
What actually happens in your story? Is there a central question that is answered or point that is explored? Good stories take you on a journey to answer a question, solve a puzzle, explore a theme, or reach a goal. The common thread is action. Action is the foundation of plot, but the action can not be a random series of unrelated action scenes. Every scene should serve a purpose, moving the main character(s) toward the central question.
Does your beginning ramble? Or is it jumbled? We know beginnings are supposed to establish setting and main characters and conflicts. That seems simple enough, but it also needs to be interesting. A beginning that rambles risks losing readers. And so does a beginning that introduces too many characters, too many subplots, and too many problems right up front.
How about the middle? Does it drag or sag at any point? A sagging middle occurs when there isn’t enough conflict or action to keep the pages turning. Rewriting passive scenes can fix a sagging middle. Adding a subplot can work, too. But really think about your solution. No fair just throwing something unrelated in.
Does your ending resolve the main problems presented in the beginning in an organic way? It doesn’t have to be the expected way. In fact, I think sometimes it’s better if it’s not quite expected. But by organic, I mean does the ending naturally develop out of the actions leading up to it?
Are all your characters multi-dimensional? It’s not always easy to spot stereotypes, especially in our own work, because you often know things about the character that don’t appear on the page. But be on the lookout for characters that are cliché. Look at this as a fun activity to keep your work fresh and unique, rather than a chore.
Are they believable, interesting, and likable? These are the magical ingredients for sympathetic characters. I’m one to fight back against the likable bit, because what I think is likable is somewhat different from the norm, but I know I can only push so far. If no one is interested in your character, no one is going to read the story.
What about character arcs? Does each character want something unique to them in each scene and go about getting it in their own special way? Do they stay true to those wants and behaviors? Do they grow as a result of the plot and their interactions with other characters? And if some characters don’t, does that say something about them?
Is every character important? And by important, I mean necessary. If you lean toward big casts, I’m going to challenge you to go over each character and ask yourself why this character needs to be here. What purpose are they serving? How do they help the main character grow? OR how do they develop your plot. If you have a tendency to write lean like I do, you might have the opposite problem. My main characters sometimes end up being too isolated and I have to add more supporting characters to help them out.
Are you adhering to genre expectations? A lot of structural components vary based on genre expectation. It’s one thing to defy reader expectations, but you can’t really defy genre expectations if you want to be published in that genre. (Yes, I know indie publishing has sort of changed this, but the truth is, it really hasn’t. Loyal genre readers still care.)
What kind of structure did you use? Three Act? Hero’s Journey? Romantic? There are quite a few different ways to structure a novel, and like plotting and character, you can find entire books on the subject. The important things are a) that you use one that works for your genre, and b) that you are consistent with it.
I’m going to stop there. As I said, it’s by no means a complete list, but these are the kinds of questions you want to ask yourself. I definitely don’t want to discourage you, and it’s a lot to think about in one sitting. I just want to point out that revision is so much more than line-editing.
Invest in a few good self-editing books. Read them cover to cover, and then keep them handy. (I almost crossed out the cover to cover bit, but then I realized that if you aren’t interested in learning how to edit, you aren’t really interested in being a professional writer.) Make sure to buy books that focus on content editing (which is what I’ve talked about here) rather than on line-editing. I’m going to put up a resources page on the site sometime soon and share what books I can’t do without. Feel free to tell us about your own favorites in the comments. I’m always on the look out for good books about revision.
If you’re new to writing (or practically a stranger to finishing things, where’s my crowd at? *puts over-sized sunglasses on*), and attacking revisions alone kinda scares you, you can always look for a critique partner. I think most writers are kind of loners in a way, even the social butterfly types. But I really don’t believe we’re meant to take every step of this journey alone. Sometimes having a hand to hold makes unpleasant and daunting things seem a little more fun and less scary. A peer writer can point out things to you that you might not be able to see in your own work. They might have something to teach you, or you might be the teacher. If you’re lucky, it’s both! I have been very, very lucky with finding great writing partners, so I do recommend joining writing communities and reaching out to others.
And of course, if you’re a no bullshit kinda person, you can always enroll in writing classes where you can get 1:1 attention from a qualified teacher. When choosing a teacher, especially one you’re paying for, look for credentials and/or experience and listen to your gut. You want someone that can encourage you AND push you. Published novelists can be wonderful teachers, but just because someone writes well, doesn’t mean they teach well. And one more thing: you know that saying? “Those who can write, write. And those who can’t, teach.” (Or something like that. I can’t be bothered to google right now.) That’s not exactly true. Plenty of writers teach because they love teaching, and they might not be publishing as much because they are doing other things. It’s fine, really. Just listen to your gut.
The truth is: revision is never easy. But as you build self-awareness and skills, you will get better at it. This is just the beginning. Jump in.