As a book editor, I have a front-row seat to an author’s revision process. The biggest mistake I see first-time authors make when they revise a manuscript: They go through draft after draft only “fixing” things here and there. They add some lines to clarify, insert a few details to a character description, sharpen verbs, delete sluggish passages, and—the most time-sucking culprit—tinker with typos and grammatical errors. Really, they’re procrastinating on big issues that need attention, like character arc or story structure.
While all of this is essential in polishing a manuscript, these edits are superficial until later drafts. This method won’t lead the writer to a marketable story.
So, what’s the best way to revise a novel? Focus on the craft, not the draft. Read on for five tips on crafting your way through a revision.
How to revise a manuscript when your editor says…
1. “The characters need more development.”
Avoid: Only adding a few details to descriptions of your characters. Appearance is just part of what makes a character realistic and compelling.
Try this: Put a character on the therapist’s couch and ask deep-dive questions about her deepest, darkest secrets: What does she most desire? What is she most afraid of? What are her greatest strengths? Biggest weakness? When you get to know your characters as real flesh-and-blood people, rather than a collection of descriptions and tics, they come alive. The reader will have a real stake in their fates.
2. “The pacing is too slow.”
Avoid: Indiscriminately hacking away at scenes to try and speed up the story.
Try this: Dig deep into the nuts and bolts of a scene and review how it flows from beginning to end. Ask yourself: Is there too much dialog that should be rewritten as internal thought or exposition? Am I including details or tangents that aren’t necessary? Am I repeating details that are already clear? Am I using too much passive voice? Most importantly: How can I get to the most vital part of scenes quicker?
3. “You need more tension.”
Avoid: Inserting a random conflict or argument into a scene, or adding more plot twists and turns to up the ante.
Try this: Think of releasing key bits of information as playing with breadcrumbs. Look at your novel’s entire story arc and list all the vital information that you reveal. Does the most of it emerge in the first half of your novel? Find ways to hold off this information, or end chapters on a question or cliffhanger. When upping tension in individual scenes, don’t be afraid to have shorter paragraphs.
4. “The plot is a bit convoluted.”
Avoid: Packing on more to make confusing passages or events tie together. Or, trying to make your plot “work” instead of letting go of some aspects.
Try this: Reexamine your protagonist’s journey. Ensure you’ve provided a solid arc that that challenges him. This helps your story unfold smoothly and clearly. Is an aspect of the plot unnecessary to his transformation? Are there plot holes? Is there a random tangent that doesn’t add anything? Am I packing too many events into one point? Do readers need to take a big leap of faith?
5.“There’s a lot of mechanical errors.”
Avoid: Tackling any of this before addressing issues with your big picture. Besides distracting you from more pressing needs, it often ends up being a waste of time.
Try this: Before you revise a manuscript, keep a running list of your common errors so you can turn back to them while editing the final draft. Resist the urge to refine until your story structure and character development are solid.
For more in-depth advice on revising your manuscript, read this article: 5 Steps to Become Your Own Best Editor.
Do you have questions about revising a manuscript? Ask me below.