What Type of Revision is Your Novel? by Janice Hardy

Not all revisions are created equal. Some manuscripts are clean first drafts that fell out of your head onto the page like they wanted to be written. Other stories fight you every step of the way and you have to whip them into submission to make the novel work. Still others are stories you wrote and revised countless times until they became a tangled mess (even though you still love that story and swear you’ll make it work).

Most writers will have a first draft that’s ready for revision. These will be split between manuscripts no one but you has seen, and manuscripts that have been through a round of beta readers or critique partners. The more uncommon revision will be a novel that you’ve revised countless times to make work and need extra help to finally get it there.

Let’s take a look at a few revision situations you might be facing:

Revising on Your Own

This is a typical first-draft revision, where no one but you has seen the manuscript. You want to make sure all the bugs are worked out before you show it to anyone, or you want to make sure it’s as complete as possible before asking for feedback.  Remember:

  • Give yourself the freedom to stink: First drafts don’t always stink, but a lot of them do, so don’t worry if yours is one of them. Revision is just how you clean up that mess.
  • Approach it like you’re doing a critique for a friend: Pretend your manuscript was written by a friend. What advice would you give about this story?
  • Don’t worry about the time it takes to revise: Rushing the work never results in the best work, and this can hurt you and your novel in the long run.

Revising From Feedback

This is a draft that’s been through critiques and has feedback to help guide you in your revision. It might be a first draft or a later draft. The hard part here is figuring out what feedback to heed and what to ignore. Some guidelines to consider:

  • Take every comment seriously: Ask yourself why the critiquer said it and try to see the underlying problem, then decide if it’s a comment that needs to be addressed or not.
  • If you’re not sure about a comment, think about why you’re resisting it: Sometimes feedback requires edits that scare you, or change something you love, or even use a skill you’re not sure you have.
  • Think about why the critiquer made the comment: Sometimes critiquers spot a problem and know something is off, but the trouble spot isn’t where they see it—it’s all in the setup, so the resolution isn’t coming through correctly.
  • If it’s a clarity issue, fix it, even if you think it’s clear: If a reader was confused, something wasn’t clear.
  • Do whatever serves the story best: Even great ideas can be the wrong ideas if they don’t fit the story you’re trying to tell.

Every writer gets a rough critique at some point, and it’s only natural to ignore words that hurt or sap your confidence. The danger comes when you consistently ignore the very advice that can help you just because it hurts or you don’t like it. If you’ve been revising novel after novel (or the same novel multiple times) and don’t feel you’re getting any better, step back, look at the situation objectively, and ask:

Revising Overly Revised Manuscripts (The Frankendraft)

The more troublesome manuscripts are those you’ve revised over and over. You’ve changed so much you often forget what story you were trying to write in the first place. These revisions require a slightly different approach than a typical revision. Until you decide what you want, you won’t know the steps to take to get there.

A Frankendraft differs from a draft you know needs heavy revising. It’s been cut and stitched together so many times the scenes no longer work together, and the story is either so deeply buried or so watered down that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anymore.

Often, there’s not much you can do with a Frankendraft, so be prepared. Sometimes, it’s so terribly flawed that it’s best to be merciful and pull the plug. But there are steps you can take to bring this monster back to life.

  • Say goodbye: Accept that the Frankendraft is dead and put the manuscript in a drawer. You got into this mess by revising it over and over, and it’s time to start fresh.
  • Kill some characters: Hard as this will be, eliminating characters will go a long way toward stripping out what’s unnecessary.
  • Trim the fat: Figure out what’s needed in the story and what’s not. What’s the single most important goal in the plot? What events are critical to resolving that goal?
  • Pick five elements and plot from there: What are the five critical events that have to happen to resolve the core conflict? Who are the five (or fewer) critical characters necessary to achieve those goals?

Revising From Multiple Drafts

If you’ve been revising for a while, you might have several drafts that explore different directions. This is especially true if you weren’t sure how the story might unfold and needed to write a draft or two to figure it out. Problem is, you’re now faced with several drafts that all contain scenes and ideas you like, and you have no clue how to merge them all into one draft.

  • Rethink your favorite scenes if they don’t fit: Forcing a scene can create a stumbling block for readers—it doesn’t flow, it doesn’t quite make sense, it doesn’t advance the story. Does it advance the core conflict in some way? Does it offer new and relevant information? If not, let it go.
  • Beware of revision smudge: Revision smudge is those bits and pieces left behind that reference something no longer in the story. Reading these scenes feels right, but when you look closely, you realize the details refer to a part of the story that is no longer there.

Approaching one of the less common types of manuscripts often requires a different tack than the average draft—and a little more effort to make it work. But the results can be worth it if it turns that mess of a manuscript into the book of your heart.

What type of revision do you usually face?

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Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my new book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft and the upcoming Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It). She’s also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.

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24 Comments

  1. Janice Hardy

    Thanks all!

    Yvie, Frankendrafts are probably the worst of the bunch. I’ve found the best approach is usually to start over with just the idea as if it were a new story. Forget what you already wrote, don’t use or look at the original draft, just start fresh. When you focus on the idea and look at what makes that idea work, it’s easier to discard the elements that led you astray in the original draft.

  2. Inge VdW

    Hehe I love this one – I’m somewhere at the one-person-has-read-part-of-the-story phase. But as she is a quite straightforward, honest friend, she already asked me some very relevant questions which helped me to see how I can sharpen the message I want to bring. “Trim the fat” That quite accurately describes what I’m doing!

  3. Leah B

    The first novel I submitted to agents wound up a frankendraft. I had several critiques which told me to take the novel different directions, and I foolishly tried to go all those directions in one MS. Not surprising, the book never got picked up, and I shelved it. I’ve grown a lot as a writer since then, so maybe someday I’ll make it work. But for now, I’ve got other projects I want to work on more.

  4. The problem I have with revising is that when you start cutting and swamping things around in one of those Frankenstein things you end up with a mess of drafts and cuts on the computer. I am working on a novel in which I am cutting out the protagonist and making a more interesting secondary character, the protagonist. I must have hundreds of documents. Any tips of how to keep track of all those changes so I don’t lose something important?

  5. JC Martell

    I have nightmares about the frankendraft. Not at the revision point yet, but I can see him coming because his little bro is already sitting on my shoulder. I over-revise scenes in my first draft that’s not even finished yet, and I am oh so aware that is a bad, bad thing.

  6. I have learned the hard way that first drafts usually do stink, as long as you have everything plotted out. Earnest Hemingway had some words of wisdom for us all: Write drunk, edit sober! For us MG writers, this is metaphorically speaking, of course. 🙂

  7. I started out with Frankendraft on the first 4 chapters of my novel. I was soooooo stuck and just couldn’t get anywhere because I was trying to hard to make the story work straight out of the gate, and I had edited it so much I didn’t know where I was. Once I let go of having a perfect first draft, the rest of the novel fell into place. I now have a completed first draft, and the first 5 chapters are pretty much ready for beta-readers. Thanks so much for this blog – has DEFINITELY helped me a TON!!! 🙂

  8. Ah! I’m simultaneously on all the four revisions stages above, I’m revising on my own and with feedbacks from CPs, I’m also revising an overly revised ms that was rejected in PitchWars and revising multiple drafts. My first few chapters are revised and rewritten multiple times while the last ones still in first draft.
    Anyway, aweome post again, Janice! Thanks, 🙂 🙂 🙂

  9. Janice Hardy

    Leah, that happens when we try to make everyone happy. But now that you’ve grown, you ought to start over with that idea and see what happens. You might be able to make it work this time.

    Steve, thanks! Most first drafts stink. Mine sure do 🙂

    Zara, yikes, that’s a rough project. I’d suggest keeping a detailed editorial map with both what you have and what you want to change. Keeping track of information is going to be the hardest part, as will getting rid of any revision smudge. I’ve had luck putting all the scene I want to use in a master file, even if they need heavy revising. That way, I have the story laid out the way I want it, and I can revise chronologically and change as I go. I find it easier to maintain continuity that way.

    I actually reposted an article from the Fiction University archives this past Monday on exactly this topic, so you might pop over there for more tips: http://blog.janicehardy.com/2009/10/re-write-wednesday-jigsaw-wizard.html

    JC, if you can see it coming, maybe try to resist the urge to revise until your draft is done. It’s hard, but you can do it!

    Kevin, I don’t know, I think that works for all writers regardless of market 🙂

    Loring, grats! good for you to realize the problem and fix it before it made you too crazy 🙂

  10. Leila

    I usually end up with a relatively polished first draft because I can’t turn off that bit of my brain that wants it to be correct now, not later. If something from the previous days works is nagging at me, I can’t concentrate on drafting before I go back and fix it. I imagine it makes drafting take twice as long as it needs to.

  11. Janice Hardy

    Janet, taking a little time to create a revision plan can help. Figure out what needs to be done, and approach it from the largest story-affecting edits first. I’ve found organizing everything and creating to-do lists helps a lot, because I can see progress and I know what I have to do.

    Zara, oh good, glad it helped 😉

    Lelia, it might, but if it works for you and you end up with cleaner first drafts, there’s no need to change it. As long as your process results in the book you want and you’re happy with it, you’re fine 🙂

  12. Christy

    I pulled my ‘Frankendraft’ off the back burner a few weeks ago and did a rewrite. Now I’ve got all these different story lines running through my memory messing with my head. Thanks for the tips.

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