How to Begin Revising Your First Draft
Revising a story is much more involved than a simple spelling and grammar check. You will have to rewrite whole chapters. You will have to cut your favorite moments. You will need to devote just as much time, energy, and effort to your revision as you did to your first draft. And your readers will love you for it. Revision is where your manuscript goes from a written idea to a story that will impact your readers, so here’s where you start.
Before you jump into revising your first draft, set your manuscript aside and give yourself time to get over the rush of completing it. When writers begin editing immediately after finishing their story, they are more likely to see what they want to be on the page, not what actually is.
During your cooling off period, celebrate having finished your manuscript. Lots of people start books and other stories, but few actually complete the first draft. Then start your next story. Do you have a sequel in mind? What about a whole other idea? It’s easy to lose your writing momentum after you finish a manuscript. To avoid killing your writing habit, start sketching something new. This could be as simple as an outline or writing small scenes to explore your characters and plot.
How long this cooling off period lasts is up to you. Some writers take one week. Others break for six months. It depends on the length of the story and their writing/publishing process. For short stories, I like to step away for a couple of weeks. That’s how long it takes the shiny, new feeling to wear off for me. For novels, I wait about three months before editing. However, during this cooling off period, I am always working on another project.
Reading Your First Draft
Once your cooling off period is over, you need to read your first draft. I highly recommend printing your book or converting it to a file format you can read on your ereader. At the very least, change the font and convert it to a PDF. Changing the format will prevent you from digging in and revising a specific section. Your first read through should be about note taking and seeing what you have written and what you haven’t. There are three situations to look for:
Look for where the story is starting to drag. Read like a reader. Where are you getting bored? Where are you starting to skim? Mark those sections, so you can come back and fix or cut them later. James Scott Bell’s number one writing rule is Don’t Bore the Reader. I recommend internalizing that sentiment.
2. Too Vague
Mark places where material needs to be added. Where have you slacked off on description? Which conversations are missing key lines of dialogue? Where is your reader’s mental image of your story becoming fuzzy? Make a note to beef those places up.
3. What the Heck?
The final sections to watch out for are the incomprehensible ones. Mark sentences, paragraphs, or even parts of scenes where you can’t decipher what they are trying to do. Those are places you will need to cut or rewrite.
Stakes, Plot, and Characters
After you’ve read through your manuscript and made the appropriate notations so you know where to start editing, it’s time to make an honest evaluation of your manuscript’s stakes, plot and characters. If one of these aspects is not at the level it needs to be, that’s where your revision should begin.
Are Your Stakes High Enough?
The stakes should be the equivalent of death by the end of your book. If you’re writing a thriller or epic fantasy, then your protagonist may literally be fighting for their life. However, there are other ways a character can be destroyed. There is the death of a career or a way of life. A character could lose their spirit or will. In young adult stories, social death is a common stake. What are the stakes of your story? Are they high enough? Do they equal a kind of death? If not, your first revision should raise the stakes to that level.
One key aspect of your stakes is your antagonist. They must have the power to kill your character – physically, mentally, spiritually, socially, etc. Just claiming the stakes of your story are death doesn’t mean they actually are. If your antagonist (person or force) isn’t capable of defeating your protagonist, then your threats will be perceived as hollow and empty. Your readers won’t believe your characters are in danger, so your story won’t leave an impact. If your antagonist lacks this power, find a way to give it to them.
Is Your Plot Clear and Present?
At its most basic, plot is what happens in your story, and something should happen. Even the most interesting characters become boring when they don’t do or experience anything. Do things happen in your story? Are your scenes and events clearly leading your reader somewhere? It isn’t enough for you to have a series of events. They have to be connected and working together to take the reader on a journey. If your plot is weak or unclear, look for places to add more events. You may need to cut whole scenes and replace them with ones that keep the story moving.
Are Your Characters Unique and Active?
Unique doesn’t necessary mean wacky; it means memorable. What makes your detective different than any other detective character out there? What aspects of their personality, past, and present will make readers want to read about them instead of someone else? Do they have unique skills?
At the same time, your characters need to be actively participating in their story. I don’t mean they need to be action stars, but they need to be present, to feel, to interact with those around them. Readers must believe your characters have blood coursing through their veins. If your characters seem passive, start revising there. Alter your scenes so your characters have to make decisions. Making a decision is an action, therefore decision makers are active characters.
Why a Professional Editor Recommends Starting Your Revision Here
These are the aspects of a story I recommend writers look at first because they are essential to your story’s success. I don’t care how incredible your description of the palace is or how hard that scene with your character’s grandmother makes me laugh. If your stakes aren’t high enough, readers won’t care about your story. If your plot isn’t present, readers will become bored and wonder what the point is. If your characters aren’t unique and active, your readers won’t feel connected to them. All of these mean your readers will move on to another story. If you want to make your manuscript linger with your readers so they recommend it to others, you need to start revising here. You need a cooling off period, full read-through, death stakes, clear plot, and active characters to Ignite Your Ink.
How long do you wait before revising your story and why? Share your process in the comments below. For more articles on revision and other aspects of writing, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.