Revising your novel – make it a playground, not a torture chamber

revising your novel

Revising your novel might be easier than you think – you already have a story to work with, and hopefully a constructive inner editor to play with. But having a plan and knowing what lies ahead will prepare you for the process.

Your inner editor, despite his persnickety reputation, can be a good guy to have around. It’s a controversial statement, I know, but I’m going on record with it.

Now, to be clear, all of us in NaNoLand advise writers to banish their inner editors during NaNoWriMo. No one wants to endure some crank screaming in the background or get dressed down for a plot hole during the rush of writing a first draft. But with a first draft in hand, you’ve now built a playground for your inner editor to frolic in.

I recently opened the door to the dark mental dungeon where my inner editor has been locked up, and it turns out he’s got a nice smile (though he is a bit pale). Examining the arc of my novel is like going down a twisting, double-dipper slide for him, and he loves brainstorming stirring details to add to my story’s cauldron. He also possesses a rather refined eye for sentences written in the passive voice, and he likes prodding me to write with “vivid verbs” and to “show don’t tell.”

So I am set to rewrite my chaotic swirling mess of a novel and see if I can shape it into something readable, if not outright good. Though revision has a reputation for being daunting and full of drudgery, it also holds the potential for deep satisfaction in the process of shaping the contours of your jagged ideas.

It starts with a plan

I have suffered through flawed approaches in the past. I tend to just start rewriting from the beginning: reading and reworking the first chapters ad nauseum, to the point that I neglect the final two-thirds of the novel. Because I haven’t devised a true game plan, I don’t make the daring and often necessary moves of restructuring the plot or “killing my darlings,” as William Faulkner advised.

Essentially, I end up with the identical novel with a new coat of paint on the front porch and the same huge hole in the roof.

To escape my revision rut this time around, I’m taking some tips from The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself, by Susan Bell, a former Random House fiction editor. Bell believes writers can overcome the “panicky flailing” that revision can induce by learning “to calibrate editing’s singular blend of mechanics and magic.”

The book opens with a quote by Walter Murch that sums up her approach: “We’re grafting these branches onto a tree that already had an organic, balanced structure. Knowing that we’re changing the organism, we’re trying not to do anything toxic to it, and to keep everything in some kind of balance. At this point, I don’t know what the result will be. I have some intuitions, but my mind is completely open.”

Here’s an outline of my approach

  1. Set a deadline. Revision can be another word for procrastination. I have a novel I wrote nine years ago that I’ve puttered through several times, and it still lacks a decent ending. Just as a deadline is important in churning out a first draft, it’s crucial for the second draft. I’m giving myself six months to revise this year’s NaNoWriMo novel. Check in with me on July 1.
  2. Put the manuscript down. “The greater the distance,” writes W.G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn, “the clearer the view: one sees the tiniest details with the utmost clarity.” Time is the best way to distance yourself from your novel and experience it as another reader might. The key is to take enough time away from your first draft so you can read it with fresh eyes, but not to take so much time that you lose your momentum. Everyone is different, but December distanced me plenty from my novel.
  3. Change your environment. Beyond the distance of time, I’ve printed out my novel in a different font so it won’t look like it does on my computer screen. I also plan to read it somewhere other than at home, because reading in a café or library will provide an extra layer of removal from the writing environment (and it will just be more enjoyable).

  4. Read with a macro lens. Bell discusses two types of editing: the macro view, editing with a larger view toward the rhythms and connections of structures and themes; and the micro view, editing with attention to such things as images, word choice, and sentence structure. In my first pass, I’m not going to noodle with sentences. I want to focus on the big picture and evaluate the patterns of my novel, its leitmotifs and plot points. Then I’ll read the novel again – much more slowly – and hone in on the specifics.
  5. Change your writing mode. Since I banged out my novel on a computer keyboard with desperate speed, I plan to slow down and write new sections longhand. Writing with a pen and paper changes your writing in mysterious ways because it brings on more pauses and leads to fewer of the online distractions that plague you on my computer. In fact, I’m going to buy a special revision notebook.
  6. Revise non-chronologically. Who says you have to revise from beginning to end? I specialize in novels with strong beginnings, weak middles, and weaker endings. Maybe I’ll start with the ending this time around and hop around to sections that need the most strengthening.
  7. Find beta readers. I don’t want anyone to read my first draft; it’s just too messy for another to critique. But after a solid second draft, I’ll crave feedback. Finding readers is tough, though. I’ve made a list of friends who read in the genre I’m writing in, and they know how to deliver feedback without raining on my parade (I hope). My wife is a great reader, but I find that novel critiques and a happy household don’t always go hand-in-hand.
  8. Be resilient. Revision can be a battlefield of self-doubt, where writing turns into a swamp of masochism rather than a font of creativity. I’ve done enough revision to know I’ll have a day, or a week, or a month, when I lose faith in my work, if not my entire worth as a human being. I’m steeling myself for such moments. As much as I believe in the urgent necessity of letting loose the pure flow of creativity, I also believe in the power of resilience, the necessity to just keep plodding. Most things are accomplished not in grand gushing sweeps, but through daily incremental resolve.
  9. Remember, it’s a playground! This one is largely a matter of attitude, but I’m going pinch myself in those dark moments of head-banging self doubt to remind myself that this wonderful dipsy-do of a creative journey is best when it’s joyful, spirited, and playful. Revision can resemble a playground where I can have fun seeing how far I can climb up the jungle gym. I want to pause and give thanks that I get to explore this compelling story, and maybe even admire an especially good sentence or a scene now and then.

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Read More
Finding Creative Momentum
You’ve Finished Your Manuscript, But Your Book’s Not ready For Publishing
Eleven Ways To Take A Look At Your Story
Overcome Your Inner Critic
Humans Vs. Robots: When (And Why) You Should Use Editing Tools


  1. Thank you! Writing my first novel. I “finished” the story in 3 months. Then, I asked an author friend to read it. So began my actual writing endeavor. I thought editing would be painful and tedious but it has become an enjoyable challenge to draw the best out of each chapter. As you suggested, I have become embroiled in the minutiae of the sentence, so your advice about stages of editing is very appropriate (and helpful) for me. I have resisted setting a deadline. Guess that’s another thing I need to change.

  2. I was scheduled to give a 45-minute talk on one chapter of one of my books. I found that to be a remarkable experience that, at first, confused me about that chapter, but then, showed me: It was confusin. Ha! Since then, I count condensing as my friend, my best editor, my inner voice crying to be released.

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