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Revising your manuscript

June 3, 2009

There’s a saying: Writing is rewriting. This is so true. Rarely is a first draft the final draft. I say rarely because, well, you never know, someone might have been that brilliant at one time in history. But if you think you might be the exception to the rule, here’s some quotes from some pretty great writers:

“Writing is rewriting. A writer must learn to deepen characters, trim writing, intensify scenes. To fall in love with the first draft to the point where one cannot change it is to greatly enhance the prospects of never publishing.”  Richard North Patterson

“To be a writer is to throw away a great deal, not to be satisfied, to type again, and then again and once more, and over and over.” John Hersey

And two great ones from Oscar Wilde. First, like any good piece of art:

“Books are never finished, they are merely abandoned.”  Oscar Wilde

And second, one that speaks about rewriting so well:

“This morning I took out a comma, and this afternoon I put it back again.”  Oscar Wilde

I love that last one.

Think those award-winning books or bestsellers were brilliant the day their authors typed The End? Think again. Most writers go through revision after revision after revision. Kathi Appelt went through about six different drafts of her award-winning The Underneath.

So, how do we revise? There are plenty of ways, and different writers will find their own processes that they like best. Some authors, after they’ve finished the first draft, go back to the beginning and start again, examining the story structure, the characters, etc. Then when they reach the end, go back over it again from the beginning looking at sentences and word choices. Repeat as often as necessary until the manuscript shines. This is what I did with mine.

Author Holly Lisle has found success with a one-pass manuscript revision method. Holly says she uses this method with all her manuscripts and rarely has need for further revisions. Even when her book is in the editor’s hands, she usually only has one or two rounds of changes.

Holly’s method is really intense, combing through every page looking at scene structure, whether the scene adds to the story, characters, dialog, voice, description, word choice, etc; making notes, deletions, changes, etc. It sounds awesome, and I’m thrilled it works for Holly, but it takes a lot of discipline, and I think it’s something most writers would have to work toward. Definitely a good goal.

When I was doing the first major revision of my novel, I found it hard to see the whole story when I was editing one small part. What finally helped me was to make a timeline. Holly suggests you write the theme and brief blurb of your story before you begin your revision so you can keep this in mind, which is useful.

The difficulty, I think, for most writers, especially those less experienced, is seeing all the problems in one pass. Holly has been writing for many years and has her style down, but for others of us, we might need many more passes. Sometimes, a manuscript improves on pass one, then improvements on the improvements are found on pass two or three or four.

But that’s ok. When you have to figure out some structural problems in your manuscript, it might not be so easy to also recognize the best word choice, say, or dialog problems.

When revising is such an important part of writing, no matter whether you can revise in one pass or you need 10, don’t rush it. Take your time. Do it right. Cover all the bases of your story, no matter how many passes you need. Remember, writing is rewriting.

Write On!

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4 comments

  1. Great advice! I’m hoping to start revising mid-June, and I’m gathering up all kinds of posts like this one to refer to when I’m rewriting.


  2. I love that Holly Lisle method. I can imagine it working for me – though i’m aware i’m still only at the imagining stage.

    I picture putting the first draft in a drawer for a few weeks, then re-reading without a pen in my hand to make notes (ye gods, the self-control!) and restructuring the ‘big picture’ – shifting scenes around, cutting them out, etc. Writing new ones where needed and filling in the parts i’m glossing first time through as too tricky to visualise without stalling the creative flow. Having done that, the nit comb for grammar, style, logistical consistency, etc.

    I also imagine it won’t be quite as simple as that! But overall that’s my idea. Realistic? -ish?


  3. […] week, I posted about revising your manuscript and mentioned Holly Lisle’s One-Pass Manuscript Revision method, and one of the interesting […]


  4. […] Holly Lisle’s One-Pass Revision Method, which I’ve written about in a couple posts (Revising Your Manuscript and Revising on Paper vs. […]



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