How I Edit and Revise my Books (Part One)

Photo by Hannah Grace on Unsplash

This topic was suggested by Brianna Gray. Auntie Kim says hi!

Editing, Rewriting, and Revising

I always approach writing advice, whether I am giving it or receiving it, as adding to one’s toolbox. Every writer has a different approach–in fact, every book may require a different approach–and I never want anyone to think there is one right way to edit/research/draft/etc. their work. If it works for you, it’s the right way.  I am merely outlining some techniques that have worked for me, so if you are looking for a new method, you can try it for yourself.

Terms

Revising, editing, and rewriting (not to mention line editing, copy editing, and proofreading, which I won’t be discussing yet) are all methods we writers use to polish our prose. What can be confusing, however, is that we define these terms in different ways. It fills me with alarm when I see newer writers on Facebook announce, “I finished my first draft! I just have to edit it, and it will be ready to go!” Now, it’s possible these writers really do produce clean drafts, structurally solid and with few plot holes, all their characters well-developed, their world building solid, and nothing left to be fixed but tightening the prose.

It is equally possible they aren’t looking at the larger picture, will throw their edited–but not revised–books upon on Amazon, and wonder why they are getting bad reviews despite having few or no grammatical errors. A satisfying story needs to have more than clean prose.

I draw a distinction between revising and editing. Before I make any large-scale effort to correct my grammar and polish my prose,[1] I take a holistic look at the manuscript to make sure it’s structurally where I need it to be. To make sure that every scene advances the protagonist’s internal and external arc. To evaluate all my characters for consistency, motivation, and necessity; to make sure my world building is clear on the page and makes sense. If any of this is lacking, and it nearly always is, I have revising to do.

Please note: much of what I call revising does fall under the category of Developmental Edits, if you are paying a professional editor to help. See how confusing it all is?

Let’s look at another hypothetical newbie writer. This one has just finished their first NaNoWriMo (congratulations, if this is you!) and wants to know how long they should wait before they rewrite their book.

See that? “Rewrite their book.”

“Rewrite” means starting over. Keeping the plot, main ideas, and/or characters of the story, but producing all new words. I have done this before; in fact, the novel that got me my agent was a complete rewrite of a novel I first wrote in 2010. I had grown a lot as a writer since then, studied my craft, matched with critique partners, all that jazz. Rewriting SIX EASY STEPS TO BECOMING AN ORACLE (since renamed FIRST MILLENNIUM PROBLEMS) was worth it; the original version allowed me to get the world building straight in my head, so that when I rewrote it, with the same premise and a totally different plot, it was a much stronger book.

Rewriting was also a lot of work.

Sometimes you really do need to completely rewrite a book. More often, you need to rewrite a paragraph, a scene, a chapter here and there. That seems like it would be less work than rewriting the entire book, but here’s the catch: when you rewrite that chapter (or, for that matter, add a new one), you then must go back and make certain it fits. You must harmonize the new or rewritten material with the rest of the draft, file down the edges, as I call it, to keep your novel consistent. You may find some overlap with what you’ve already written and need to delete. Or maybe your rewritten chapter six now contradicts with something you wrote in chapter two. You’ll have to decide whether Molly left her purse on the Ferris wheel or if it was at a Denny’s later that night. Then you have to look through every reference to that missing purse and make sure they all say the same thing.[2] It may not be as labor-intensive as a complete rewrite, but it requires high-level decision-making, attention to detail, and you will probably have to slay more word darlings than you expect along the way. Small wonder some new writers would rather just scrap the whole thing and begin again.

I hope I have clarified some of the terms I will be using in this series on revising. Tune in next week for how I get started!


[1] I do pay attention to the little squiggly lines Word makes and try to use my best grammar while drafting. It’s a habit I can’t break, and if it leads to fewer errors getting through to the final draft, it’s worth it.

[2] You do not, thankfully, have to do this alone. I’ll be talking about beta readers and critique partners later.