A common mistake writers make when editing their fiction is to start with the details first. They — er, we — adjust our words and our commas, our dialogue and our transitions, our passive voice and our adverbs. But if we start our revisions process here, we’re going to end up doing a lot of extra work in the long revision-run.

Trust me; I’ve been there. In fact, everyone has been there.

The smartest place to begin our revisions is with our story. Find the gaping holes in our plot, our character, our conflict, and fix those first. Here’s why:

If we try to tweak our prose first, and then when we go back through and cut/replace/switch scenes, we’ve just wasted all our prose-revision work — we’re gonna have to edit those darn words all over again with the new stuff. Scenes that we spent an hour improving end up getting cut. Scenes we spent two hours improving end up being moved around and requiring new transitions.

You get the idea. Extra work = wasted time.

Actually, to be most efficient in our revisions, we should insert another first step: our revisions need to truly begin with reading. Before we do any scene-switcheroos, pull new scenes from a hat, or wave the wand to make scenes disappear, we need to be in touch with our manuscript in its entirety.

Okay, I can see what you’re thinking — something along the lines of, “but I just wrote the darn thing in its entirety, and I am familiar with this sucker inside and out.”

Yeah, that’s what you think, but I bet you’re wrong. (Okay, unless you’ve already been massively revising an unfinished manuscript or you’re writing short fiction. Then I’ll give you the benefit of my enormous doubt.) Even if we just spent a NaNoWriMo month of torturous typing, what we wrote one month ago is not fresh in our minds, and when we go back to read all that delicious (or, more likely, horrifying) prose, we’re gonna find we don’t remember a lot of it.

That’s fine. That’s normal. Some of our surprise when we read the complete MS for the first time will transform into delight.

“Eeee — I wrote that!? I’m amazing. I’m totally the next Hemingway.”

Some of our surprise will become horror and embarrassment. Our first reaction will be to grab that big red pen and make this MS better, make it what we intended all along. But DON’T!

STOP! PUT DOWN THE PEN. STEP AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER, AND DO AS FOLLOWS:

  1. Print out the MS, and read the whole story from the beginning to the end without adjusting a single word in your story.
  2. As you read, look for areas where your story falls apart. Look for inconsistencies in plot/character/conflict/setting. Maybe it took you forty pages to finally understand that the villain wasn’t actually a villain…and so you made him the love interest instead. That’s quite a big change and it’s gonna require quite a lot of work to smooth out the entire story accordingly.
  3. With a pen and some notebook paper, take notes on what falls apart and where. If you want to, scribble references in the margin of your work. (Ex: #4 goes in the margin, and #4 in your notebook paper corresponds to “Weren’t her eyes blue on the page before?”)
  4. When you finish reading the entire MS, then and only then are you ready to start editing — but remember, you’re still leaving all the fine-tuning and details alone. This round of editing should be entirely devoted to fixing the story.
  5. After you’ve adjusted your MS so that everything that should happen does, everything remains consistent, any new scenes you might need have been written in, and any scenes you don’t need have been cut, then you can start to tweak your words.

(Note: If you can’t print your MS, then read the whole darn thing out loud. Printed words are much easier on our eyes and allow you to read and absorb much more quickly than screen-words. I find that reading aloud from the computer — though much slower — is the only way I can absorb the non-printed words.)

Do you see now how we waste time in our revisions? How we tend to start at the wrong step? It’s easy to do — natural, even. Our fingers itch to fix that awkward sentence or correct that typo when we see it. BUT, we must remember that the most efficient approach to our revisions is to start with the story, and in order to fix the story, we need to be familiar our MS as a whole.

Happy writing (or revising),

-S.