How do we revise a novel? It’s a big job, that’s for certain. When faced with the task, writers often fall into the trap of making small fixes, such as grammar, sentence structure and word choice that would be much better held off until after the big fixes are completed. But how do we know where to start with the big things?
Figure Out What Needs Fixing
First and foremost, trust your instincts. If you think something is missing in the middle, or that there is a gap in the plot, or that the ending isn’t as powerful as you’d like, those are probably true! So please, trust your gut when it comes to knowing how to revise your novel.
You could get some feedback, whether from a trusted friend or a professional. I’ve talked about this extensively, and I put links to some of those posts below.
There are also many books and other resources out in the world providing ideas for what kinds of things to look for as you revise. Just make sure that you are choosing issues to tackle that actually apply to your book. You don’t want to spend hours revising your setting descriptions, for example, if they were fine to begin with.
Brainstorm Everything to Fix
Begin to write down the issues. Write down everything you can think of that you’d like to improve as you revise your novel. You’ll include small and big things on this list. If you know that you are heavy-handed with a certain word, like “then” or “said”, then write that down. If you know that a transition between two scenes is weak, then write that down. If you know a character is underdeveloped, then write that down too.
Get Organized with the Stoplight Method
Divide your brainstormed list into three separate categories in a notebook or on a spreadsheet. The three sections are like the lights in a stoplight. The red category is big issues which are impacting the entire book. These are issues like plot holes, undeveloped characters, lack of tension, starting or ending in the wrong place, subplot issues, etc. The red issues will be the ones that you address first in your revisions.
The green category is going to be easy fixes, like fixing grammar, changing names, verb tense, and word choices. The yellow category, of course, falls in between. They are secondary to the big issues, but they need to be addressed as soon as you’re done with the red ones. Yellow issues might include refining specific scenes, adding sensory details, or making your dialogue sound more realistic. They are important, as are all of the issues in all three categories, but they can wait until those big issues are taken care of.
The reason to organize the fixes in this way is to avoid spending time on small things in sentences, paragraphs or even pages that may end up on the cutting room floor.
Choose ONE Thing to Fix and Get to Work
Now that you’ve got your points of focus categorized, you can begin your revision! The most effective way to do this is select one issue from your red category and make a plan for how you are going to address it. Then read through your manuscript or pages with the lens of one issue, making notes as you go along.
For example, if you have a problem with an underdeveloped character, you’ll start by making some decisions about that character’s arc in the story, the emotional change they’ll go through, and so on. Then you’ll read through your manuscript only looking for this issue, making notes along the way for places where you can add in the character development decisions you’ve already made. Once this issue is addressed, you’ll go on to the next red problem, or yellow or green if that’s where you are, and do the same thing.
I want to credit my mentor Jennie Nash for teaching me this stoplight method for how to revise a novel. She talks about it in her new book, Blueprint for a Book, which has just come out in September. It is a powerful strategy and has made a huge difference in how I revise and support my clients in their revisions as well.
Writers, revision is a tough process, and honestly can feel like a slog. To make it easier on yourself, organize and prioritize the issues that you want to work on, then choose one at a time to dig into. You will be glad you did.
Previous posts about getting feedback:
Got Feedback…Now What?
Writing Buddies, Critique Groups and Coaches…Oh My!
What Kind of Feedback Do You Need?
Grab the Free Guide! 10 Essential Questions to Ask Before Starting Your Novel >>