Writers, do you have tips for revising a novel or memoir?

Last night, I blogged about my horror of revising something as sprawling as a novel. Revising Beware the Hawk wasn’t so bad – it’s a novella. But a 300 page novel? That’s a project.

Now I want to ask the writing community: How do you go about your revisions?

Do you revise chapter by chapter? Do you look at the whole story? Do you print it out? Do you graph it?

I’m thinking of putting revision advice together for a future post. I would love it if you’d share your own tips. You can do that in two ways: Either leave a comment or emailing me at annjoconnell(at)gmail(dot) com. If I get a lot of good advice I will put all the tips up in an upcoming blog post, with attributions (so if you have a blog, also send me the url so I can link to you.)

I know that I might be blogging to an empty room here, since many of my writer friends are headed to the AWP conference in Chicago to chill with Margaret Atwood for the weekend. They are not checking their blog readers. They are running wild though tables of MFA programs and lit mags, tweeting writing advice gleaned from panels as they stuff swag into AWP tote bags.

But why should our AWP-bound buddies be the only ones to have a little knowledge dropped on them this weekend? There are plenty of us who are not in Chicago and who have wisdom to share. So let’s have our own online writers’ panel. How do you revise a long piece of work? Let me know.

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12 thoughts on “Writers, do you have tips for revising a novel or memoir?

  1. I go over my text a few times. The first is just to enjoy it. If I cant do that due to grammatical or spelling or just structure then it warrants change. The second time I go over it and look for ways to push what I have just a little further. The third time I try to detach myself from what I have written and try and think of the most radically different ways I could have told the story and if none of them outshine what I’ve done it stays.

    It’s enough to drive someone to drink.

  2. I’m about to start revising my own novel this weekend–I’ve been putting it off for weeks because I’ve never done it before–but I’m going to try the index card organization of scenes method that everyone is raving about (read about it in No Plot? No Problem!)

  3. I’m not in Chicago for AWP, either 😦

    I haven’t yet finished a first novel draft, so I haven’t yet revised one – but it seems to me that how you revise depends on where you are in the process. Start from the top and work down, from macro to micro. This is how I would approach it:

    MACRO: The first thing I would look at is the story/plot, and fix any gaping holes/problems. Then I would look at form/structure: is this the best way to tell my story? If the answer is no, I would start moving things around until it worked.

    IN BETWEEN: From here, I would look at elements like place/detail, character development, dialogue, etc. to make sure that I’m hitting all my targets in these areas. This step would probably involve adding a fair amount of text.

    MICRO: Then I would go though chapter by chapter and start cutting mercilessly – any sentence/scene not carrying its weight would have to go. Finally, I would start doing line by line revisions, looking at my specific word choices and sentence structure, making sure that every sentence does what I need it to. (I feel strongly that people underestimate the importance of sentence structure.) This last step I would repeat as necessary.

    • Boo for not being in Chicago. It’s hard for me to see all those #AWP tweets in my feed. Next year, AWP, buddy. Next year.
      Also, I love this comprehensive system you’ve laid out here and I’m going to try it.

  4. Not an empty room! I’m here looking longingly at status updates from airplanes en route to Chicago as well, and happy to share my limited experience with revising a novel–although I have revised a few full-length nonfiction manuscripts, so that counts somewhat.

    When I’m done with my first draft, I print the whole thing out. I too am an underwriter (you mentioned that you are in a blog a few days ago), but most times I have a feeling where I’ve gipped my manuscript. For instance, if I think a theme or a character may be lacking, I’ll flip through the manuscript and highlight whenever it/he/she appears so that I can visually see its/his/her arc. Each theme or character would get its own color: green for mother, pink for loss, etc. I like to see physical presence as vividly as possible, and when I get a sense of that, then I read through and mark where I could write more (or, rarely, less), and what I could write–but I don’t actually do the writing until later. Revision takes a lot of courage and momentum, so I don’t interrupt that if I can avoid it.

    If I don’t have a sense of what is needed, I’ll read a craft book, keeping my particular manuscript in mind as I read. For the novel, I read Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyons and took notes of what came to mind that my novel might need done. Then I placed those notes beside me as I read through the manuscript AND MARKED THE HELL OUT OF IT. The more cross outs, stars, arrows to the back page with a list of what is needed, the better.

  5. Pingback: How to revise a novel, according to my commenters. « The Garret

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