Skip to main content

4 Ways to Revise as You Write

Writers differ in their opinions of the revision process. Some balk at it--they see it as the "no fun" part of writing, and much prefer drafting and creation to fixing and rethinking. Other writers embrace the process and consider it an act of strengthening, polishing, and ultimately making their novel the best it can be. But whichever camp you fall into, revision is an essential part of the novel-writing process, and one that every writer must undertake.

But perhaps there's a way, especially for those writers who consider the revision step a painful one, to consciously minimize the revising process. In Revision and Self-Editing for Publication (which will be re-released as a second edition with brand new material in December) author James Scott Bell gives you four ways to revise as you write.

Revision and Self-Editing for Publication, 2nd Edition

1. Revise Your Previous Pages
Look at what you wrote the day before (or during your last writing stint), and do a quick edit. This practice puts you back into the flow of your story and gets you ready to write the new material.

I like to print out a hard copy of pages and mark them up. Of course, you can do all this on the computer screen. I just find that the act of reading physical pages more closely mimics what a reader will be doing, and I catch more things this way.

Mostly I’m editing for style. The way the sentences flow. I want to make sure what I wanted to convey has actually happened on the page. If a major plot or character problem emerges, or I get an idea for something to add, I just make a note of it and get to my day’s writing quota.

Write as fast as you comfortably can on your first draft.

2. Try the 20,000-Word Step Back
Whether you’re an NOP (No Outline Person) or an OP (Outline Person), the 20,000-word step back can be a tremendous tool.

After 20,000 words you stop, take a day off, then read what you have. By this time your story engine should be running. You’ve done enough of the novel to know pretty much what it’s about. You then take some time to make sure you like the characters and the direction.

If you don’t, make some changes now.

This is a good point to make your lead characters richer by adding background (whether you include this for the readers or not), behaviors, quirks, strengths, flaws, and tags (speech, dress, etc.).

You can also make a decision about the tone and feel of your novel. It may want to take on a different emphasis than what you had planned. A better novel may be asking to be released.

Here’s what I mean.

I’ve been working on a novel with a premise I liked: A lawyer discovers his brother, whom he thought to be dead, is alive. They get together and learn how different their paths have been. Gradually, my lead character uncovers disquieting secrets about his brother and finds himself in danger.

I wrote the first 20,000 words with a plan in mind, to get the characters to a certain point and then begin a series of tense chases.

When I did my step back, I felt there was something missing from the book. It wasn’t that I couldn’t come up with suspenseful material—no problem there—but the feeling that I hadn’t quite connected with the book persisted.

During this step-back period of a week or so, I thought about the book and wrote a free association letter to myself each day (see tip #3 listed below).

One day I woke up knowing what was wrong. The book was trying to tell me to get more deeply into my lead character’s feelings about his brother and his childhood guilt over his loss. There would still be plenty of suspense, but it needed to pad up in soft socks, not steel-toed boots.

When I went back to the first draft, I felt the material and I were connected in a much better, fuller way. That’s the value of the step back.

Now jump back in and finish your novel.

3. Keep a Journal
The free-form journal is a great way to record notes for yourself as you go. Often, these notes will become fodder for your revision.

Remember, that first draft is also an act of discovery. Don’t try to get it perfect the first go-around. Let it breathe. Then you’ll begin the process of cutting out all that isn’t your novel and adding more novel to it if you have to.

4. Take Advantage of All Your Tools
Writers today have a lot more tools available to them than ever before. It’s not just blue pencils anymore.
Here are just a few that you can fine-tune for yourself.

  • Word Comments

Use the Comments feature in Word. When doing your first draft, you can use these to leave yourself notes about plot points that need to be filled in, research questions you have to answer, and anything else that comes to mind.

When you’re ready to revise, you can refer to the Comments alone, or print them out.

  • Running Outline

As you write your first draft, keep a running summary—an ongoing outline—of your story.I suggest you copy and paste your first couple of paragraphs from each chapter, and the last couple. Then put a summary statement of the action at the top of each, in all caps.

  • Spreadsheets or Tables

Some writers, almost always outline people, like to put their outlines in a spreadsheet or table. Then, using color coding and other markers, they can see the outline of their story, the characters involved, and a summary of the action, at a glance.

  • Paper

Yes, you’re still allowed to use paper. You can actually write things down with implements like pens and pencils and crayons. I know writers who like to lay out their stories on long rolls of butcher paper. They use different colored sticky notes and pens and make up a huge map. Then they roll this up and carry it around. (A couple of my writer friends actually use a map-carrying tube, with strap and all. Hey, whatever works, works.)

  • Critique Groups

Many writers have benefited from critique groups, reader networks, and paid critiques. If you need that extra push, especially early in your career, a critique group can help. But make sure the following factors apply:

  • Look for people you have a rapport with. Previous relationships help.
  • Keep the group small. Four to seven, give or take.
  • Give as much as you get. Make sure you give adequate time to everyone else.
  • Establish realistic deadlines and stick to them.
  • Make sure the people in the group understand the genre you’re
  • writing in.
  • Build trust. Check egos at the door.
  • Be aware of the envy issue. It happens. If someone’s writing takes off, it’s going to cause some strain. Best to talk about this up front.

Any major drawbacks to being in a critique group?

  • Sometimes you’re crazy busy and you can’t squeeze more into
  • your already crammed schedule.
  • If you don’t trust each other, hurt feelings can result. That’s why
  • it’s important to have a relationship already established.

Okay, you have the tools. Now get ready to use them. What follows is your systematic approach to revision. Roll up your sleeves (if you’re wearing a shirt) and get ready to make your work the best it can be.

Which of these "revise as you write" techniques will you employ as you write your novel?

Rachel's Pick of the Week

Successfully starting and finishing a publishable novel is often like fighting a series of battles - against the page, against one's own self-doubt, against rebellious characters, etc. Featuring timeless, innovative, and concise writing strategies and focused exercises, The Art of War for Writers is the ultimate battle plan and more - it's Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" for novelists. Tactics and exercises are provided on idea generation and development, character building, plotting, drafting, querying and submitting, dealing with rejection, coping with envy and unrealistic expectations, and much more.

The Art of War for Writers
Writing Goals and Intentions: 25 Prompts

Writing Goals and Intentions: 25 Prompts

Make this year your most successful writing year ever by considering the following questions to set your goals and intentions.

Is a Personal Essay Considered Journalism?

Is a Personal Essay Considered Journalism?

Journalist Alison Hill answers the question of whether or not the personal essay is considered journalism by defining the genre and offering examples. Plus, outlets for you to publish your own personal essay.

Forth vs. Fourth (Grammar Rules)

Forth vs. Fourth (Grammar Rules)

Learn when to use forth vs. fourth in your writing with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Bad Place

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Bad Place

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, make the setting the antagonist.

Gaslighting in Romance: From Jane Eyre to the Present Day (and Why Writers Should Care)

Gaslighting in Romance: From Jane Eyre to the Present Day (and Why Writers Should Care)

Gaslighting can work its way into the backstory of a character, but it can also be misused. Here, author Emma Barry discusses gaslighting in romance.

Brad Taylor: On Real-Life Threats Inspiring Thriller Novels

Brad Taylor: On Real-Life Threats Inspiring Thriller Novels

Author and veteran Brad Taylor discusses the research that led to his new thriller novel, The Devil’s Ransom.

How Roleplaying Helps Our Writing—and Our Marriage

How Role-Playing Helps Our Writing—and Our Marriage

As co-writing partners who fully embody the stories they tell in their writing process, authors Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka share how role-playing helps their writing, and their marriage.

How To Get Started in Copywriting

How To Get Started in Copywriting

From writing and reading to majoring outside of journalism, copywriter and author Robert W. Bly shares how to get started in copywriting.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 640

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a pursuit poem.