What’s a systematic way to approach a finished manuscript for revision so that you’re not overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work to be done . . . and you get the sheer amount of work to be done actually done?
Overwhelmed in Sacramento
Excellent question. Revision can be the most difficult part of writing. You are in good company if you find it overwhelming. The good news is that it is worth the effort as you move toward making your manuscript the best it can be. Here are six steps to break it down.
1. Set it aside. Are you tired of this book? Don’t look at it right now. Write a short story. Don’t write much at all. But don’t set your focus project aside and then feel guilty about it—stepping away is part of the process. Make a date with yourself for revision. Keep it.
2. Solicit feedback. You might do this during step 1, or you might wait until you have already revised a bit. Don’t seek just any feedback; ask a trusted friend who can provide helpful but critical advice, find an editor who provides larger-scale (developmental) feedback, join a writing group, or all three.
3. Put on your waders. Here is your goal: don’t get stuck in the weeds. Do not waste time on small stuff, like how to perfectly word that scene in which the lava flows over Sally’s Prius. That might be a good scene. But it may turn out that it doesn’t make sense, since Sally has been busy in Maine up until then. If you let yourself get hung up on the right words, you will be hesitant to toss the scene if character or plot dictate.
Armed with that goal, read your manuscript at a high level. You are considering the big picture: plot arc, characters, the order of information, overall structure—how you feel about larger scenes, chapters, and the book as a whole.
If you think of something smaller in scope that you need to fix, write it down in a list of things to address later. If you aren’t sure a whole section works, note that but don’t try to fix it—plunge onward, leaving further consideration for later. You’ll likely make other changes that will help you know what to do with that section. If something needs to be cut, but it’s your favorite part, save it! Use it somewhere else someday. Put it in a separate file, one of writing prompts for yourself. Cut, add, or save as you go—but whatever you do, keep your momentum.
4. Clean up the work you did in step 3, refraining from playing with language too much.
5. Get feedback again. Your trusted sources may encourage you to revise again or may applaud you for being solidly on track now.
6. Sweat the small stuff. Once you are on track in the big picture, it’s time for a copy edit, which will address that wording.
Creating a great final manuscript and publishing are long processes. I didn’t cover proofreading in this guide; the fact that you may go through these steps, or some of them, more than once; or that an agent or acquisitions editor may ask you to revise parts of your book again. But these six steps serve as a solid base for time and task management during the meaty part of revision. Good luck and have fun—you are not alone, as a writer, in feeling overwhelmed at this stage, but you are also not alone in the joy and satisfaction you soon will feel!
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Laura Meehan, associate editor, excels not only at editing but at making thousands laugh and cry and laugh again with her blog.