You've finished your draft and now the dread revisions loom. Don't despair. BookWorks member and two-time BOOK OF THE WEEK author, Anne Janzer has developed a process to help writers tackle book revision so that it becomes an enjoyable part of the writing process rather than a chore. Try her approach and see for yourself...
Many writers approach the task of book revision like a weary traveler encountering a dark, overgrown forest to traverse before they can reach home. Some get lost in revision, wandering among the trees for months before finally emerging. Others seek out shortcuts to bypass this stage, only to end up in the wrong place at the end.
Common Book Revision Stumbling Blocks
Revising is nothing like drafting. It requires different mental processes. But only through revision can we create the best versions of our writing. That’s why I love it.
If you don’t enjoy revising your work, you’ve got company. Some writers dislike the process or don’t know where to start. Even more have problems knowing when to stop.
Here are a few comments from people who have taken my online course on book revision:
"I’m constantly wanting to rework my work–perfectionism"
"I feel overwhelmed by revising my writing."
"I always worry that I can’t really see my work, I’m too close to it."
"I end up resenting [revision] as it is time I could spend writing."
Book revision need not be mysterious or painful if you follow a well-defined process through it. You might even start to love it. Here’s a rough map.
Focus on the Right Destination
Revision requires that you assess your writing. Giving the inner critic free rein is never comfortable: How could I have written that terrible sentence?
Remember this, book revision isn’t about you or your skills as a writer. You revise for others. Your goal is making the book valuable and enjoyable for your target audience.
Careful revision is an act of generosity for your reader.
Get Distance Before You Start
Give yourself a break between completing the first draft of the book and revising. Time helps you to see the work with fresh eyes.
If you don’t have time to spare, trying working in a different place than where you usually write. If you write at home, revise at the library. Take a laptop to the kitchen table. Print the manuscript and work from paper. Change it up.
You’ll need to bring different mental systems to this work. Switching the setting helps.
Time and distance make revision feel less painful.
Plan the Process Carefully
Many people report they don’t know where to start revising, or when to stop. There’s a solution for that—plan and execute a specific number of passes through the work.
To optimize your efficiency, start by examining the work at the highest level. Only then should you work your way further into detail. I call this revising from the top down. Who wants to spend days polishing the words in a chapter you later cut?
The easiest way to do this is to plan and number your revision passes.
Most books benefit from at least four revision passes, each of which requires you to look at the work differently:
Structure - Does the whole thing make sense from your potential reader’s perspective? Does each section or chapter work on its own? Is something missing, or is it redundant? Don’t polish words, although you can note passages that need repair.
Flow - How much mental effort does the reader have to spend making sense of the writing? If you read it aloud, do you get lost in the weeds of a description, or confused by a lengthy sentence? Grammar checkers and software like ProWriting Aid can help you find problems you may not see easily.
Tone and Style - We all have writing mannerisms that don’t serve the reader well. Perhaps your first drafts include words like “very” or “really” or snooze-worthy adjectives like “big” and “good.” Maybe you rely excessively on the passive voice. Use the global search capabilities of your writing software to find words you can replace or improve.
Copyediting - Look for typos, grammatical errors, punctuation problems, and more. Grammar checking software will help, but don’t forget to read it yourself.
This is the bare minimum. You might add extra passes, such as one for tightening dialog or shortening sentences, and another for improving word choices or finding stronger verbs. Keep them in the right order, from the big picture to detail. I usually add a “final read” pass before the work leaves my hands for editors, and I always find small details to fix.
Work the Plan and Track Your Progress
Create a spreadsheet or chart with each pass, with a box or place to check off each chapter. This is your book revision plan.
I use a simple spreadsheet in Google Sheets, with no math involved. You can make a grid on paper if you’d prefer.
Now you know exactly where to start: on the first pass. You can work on chapters out of their numerical order (especially in nonfiction) but always move from left to right for any individual chapter.
Keep your plan visible where you work, near your desk or on your screen. This may prevent you from getting distracted and wading too far into rewriting.
If you’re working on Pass One and see a typo, correct it if it doesn’t take you off-course. If you notice something that you want to rephrase or a lame word choice, make a note to handle it in a later pass. Remain focused on the current level you’re working.
When you have checked every box, you’re ready to hand the manuscript off to someone else for editing.
Get Editing Help
Even if you are masterful at revising, you’ll need outside eyes for editing. No one can copyedit or proofread their own work.
You probably noticed that I suggest you do a copyediting pass in revision. For this post, let’s agree on an oversimplification: Revision is what you do to your own writing to make it better. Editing is what someone else does to it. Your book deserves both.
There are two compelling reasons to do the copyediting yourself before sending the manuscript out:
Cost - Professional copyediting is expensive (but worthwhile). The cleaner the draft you provide, the less time the editor will spend on the project.
Depth of Editorial Feedback - Cleaner copy leaves your editor more brain cycles for coming up with meaningful feedback. I’d rather have a copyeditor notice a repetitive use of a specific sentence structure or an inconsistency in content instead of distracting them with easily corrected spelling or punctuation problems.
Careful manuscript revision saves money in copyediting.
When you reach the end of your process, your book still won’t be perfect, but it should be much better than when you started.
Remember your destination: you want to create a book that your readers will love and find valuable. If you wait for perfection, they will never see the book.
Anne Janzer is a writer, business writing coach, and armchair cognitive science geek on a mission to help people do more of the writing that matters to them. She's the author of four books, including The Writer's Process and Writing to Be Understood. You can find her blog ramblings and online courses at AnneJanzer.com.