Writing Advice #51: Revision Strategy


Confession time: I hate revising. Loathe it. Would like to stab it through the eye with a barbecue fork until it’s dead. Ask any of my editors — they will tell you that getting Lyga to commit to a revision is like pulling teeth. Your own teeth, that is.

I know authors who effusively praise the revision process, who say things like, “Revising is where the real writing happens!” Or “I don’t know the story for real until I start revising.”

Me? I’m the guy who once said on a panel, “If you have to revise, it means you fucked up in the first place.”

So, yeah. Not a fan of revision, am I.

Which is not to say that I don’t need to revise. I don’t mean to imply that my first draft is some kind of literary Immaculate Conception. From conversations with other authors, I sort of get the impression that my first drafts are a bit sturdier and cleaner than most, but that doesn’t mean there are no improvements to be made.

I just hate doing them.

I love getting that story out, and when it’s over, I experience an emotional rush. It’s like eating a great meal and getting up from the table, perfectly satisfied.

Revising, to me, is like then being forced to throw up that meal, reassemble it from the vomitus, and eat it again.

Are you getting the drift? I really, really, really don’t like–

Oh, you did get the drift. Good.

Anyway, among the many authorial questions I get, revision always ranks fairly high. Usually, I have nothing to say because I feel like I’m a terrible reviser and therefore I have nothing to contribute.

But right now, I’m revising a project that I hope to be able to tell you about soon. And I realized that revising for me works best when there’s some kind of structure to it.

Not structure to the piece being revised, mind you — structure imposed on the process of revising in and of itself.

Over the past few years, I’ve sort of stumbled upon a revision method that works for me. It makes the process marginally less painful because it turns it into a sort of puzzle. So instead of bemoaning the fact that I’m revising something that I should have gotten right in the first place if I didn’t suck, I’m instead assembling pieces in the correct order.

I can’t say that this is a particularly sensible way to revise, or that it will work for you. I can’t even say that it’s the best way for me to revise. For all I know, I’m actually making it harder on myself or missing out on a lot of opportunities.

What I do know is this: I’ve used this method on five or six books at this point, which is much longer than I’ve used any other method. And I guess that has to mean something.

So, with no further ado, here you go:

Step One: Assemble your notes.

If you’re revising, then you probably have a goal in mind. You probably have comments from beta readers and/or an editor to take into account. And you probably have some thoughts of your own that have bubbled to surface in the time since you finished the first draft of the manuscript.

I take all of those thoughts, notions, notes, criticisms, questions, and comments, and I assemble them into a single document. I don’t necessarily impose any sort of order on this document, so long as it’s very obvious where one thought ends and another one begins. (Seriously — a blank line between them will suffice. No need to set up a formal structure.)

Step Two: Label your notes.

Then I print out the document, however long it happens to be. Sometimes it’s a couple of pages. In the case of one book, it was nearly twenty pages long. Whatevs.

At the top of each page, I put a sequential letter. In other words, the first page is A, the second is B, etc. If I got to Z, smart-ass, I’d move on to AA, but that’s never happened.

Step Three: Read the F*%^*&ing Book!

You’d think this would be obvious, but I’m sure someone out there has tried revising without actually reading the book. But hey, look — you gotta read it! As you do so, you’re going to do two things:

First of all, you’re going to note on the manuscript itself any goofs or hiccups. Word choice, tortured sentence logic, what-have-you. Just like the good copyeditor you’re pretending to be.

Second of all, though, is the magic. As you read, stop reading at the end of each chapter and switch over to your pile of notes. Skim through to see which notes — if any — apply to the chapter you just read. Then go back to the manuscript and find the page(s) in the chapter that should receive the goodness of the note. Mark the letter of the note page on the manuscript page where you plan to implement it, close to where on that page you’ll implement it, too. Then put the manuscript page number on the note page, next to the note.

This is what a manuscript page and note page from my current work in progress look like. (Apologies for all of the blur, but…spoilers!)

Go on, blow ’em up. The first image is a page from the manuscript. You can see that I’ve written “A” and bracketed the last paragraph. When we go to the next image, we see that it’s note page A. And somewhere on there, you’ll find page 223 written next to a note in the modern cuneiform I call my handwriting.

Step Four: Go through the Manuscript

Once I’m done reading and noting, I just page through the manuscript, looking for my corrections and for my letters. When I run across a letter, I cross-index to the proper note on the proper page and implement the revision/fix.

See? Easy!

One great thing about my method (if I do say so myself) is that the randomness and repetition reinforce the changes. What I mean by that is this: Since I don’t impose any sort of order on my notes (and you’ll see that I also add some in pen as I go along), I’m forced at the end of each chapter to skim through the entire notes document. This means that I’m constantly reading the notes, imprinting them on my brain, so that even when I’m not focusing on them, I’m subconsciously working on them as I read the manuscript itself.

Maybe you’re one of those monstrous literary goblins who actually enjoys revising. (In which case, why did you read this at all?) But if you’re at all like me and find revising to be tedious, painful, and jaw-clenchingly anxious, give this system a try. I hope it helps you!

header image courtesy Nic McPhee via Creative Commons