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7 Tips for Revising a Novel

I spent my December revising a noir/crime novel and I also had a productive discussion with two other writers this weekend about the revision process. Both occurrences brought to mind some tips you may find useful. Mind you these are rather simple pieces of advice, and everyone has their own process that works for them, but they might help you feel a little less like you're swimming upstream during this vital step. I hope they help. Happy revising!

1. Use One File—This is especially true in fiction, but I advise all writers to write the early drafts in one Word file (or whatever software you use). Not only does it help keep a sense of continuity as you progress, but if you make a change that affects an earlier chapter, all you have to do is scroll up. It also makes a key word search much easier without having to open multiple files. I’ve seen novelists use a new Word document per chapter (I did with my first novel way back when) but it can become a confusing jumble of files once you get up to chapter sixty, seventy, eighty…

Novelists can keep their book in one file afterward, but non-fiction writers may wish to break up their single file into separate chapters after all revising is done (yet revising is never quite "done," is it?). Consolidate your book chapters/sections into different folders, which might also include images, notes, and important documents that a publisher might need for that section of the book. This will be very helpful during an editor's content edit or pagination stage. But until you get to that point where you’re working with an editor at a publishing house, I say stick to the single file for your book.

2. Add a Page Between Chapters—When you finish a chapter, whether you find your text has ended in the middle of a page, just a few lines deep, or at the very end, start the next chapter on the next clean page, but add one more blank page in between. This will ensure that you are easily able to tell when a chapter begins and ends if you have to quickly scroll up and down a few chapters. This is especially helpful if most of your chapters end at the bottom of a page and the whole book looks like one long paragraph as you scroll through. You can adjust it later, but the extra space does seem to help visually.

3. Keep a Checklist—Yes, you have your pile of notes that you made between the first draft and the second draft (or twenty-second draft…ahem) but before you dive back in, organize them into a checklist. This can be a high-level, simple checklist, but it should clearly remind you of each detail you intend to update. This will help make sure you aren’t scrambling through your pile of notes later on thinking, “I KNOW there was something about that secondary villain that needed to go…but what was it?” Make a list, check it twice. Okay, so Christmas hasn’t worn off yet, but you get the picture.

4. When You’re Done, You’re Not Done—Once you have finished your revision, go back and re-read the opening paragraphs (or the whole first chapter) to be extra sure that the feeling and atmosphere you wanted to produce in the opening is still on target once you've made deeper revisions later in the book. Once you’ve verified that, read the last few paragraphs in the last chapter to do the same thing there. Open strong, end strong. (And don’t mention anything about a saggy middle right now, please. After all those cookies and eggnog/rum cocktails this month, that’s the last thing I want to be reminded of.)

5. Search For Typos, STAT!—You’ll find typos galore as you revise. I’ve misspelled words in three, four different ways sometimes when I’m typing fast and furious, and each time I find one, I immediately do a “Search/Replace.” Sometimes I find another instance, sometimes I don’t, but looking the moment the typo is in the forefront of my mind helps ensure I don’t forget later. Yes, you can add it to your checklist, but by the time you jot it down, you can have searched already, so just do it.

6. Take a Break—Authors may advise you plow through your revision as steadily as possible and work on it every day (or as many days in a row as you can) so you don’t lose the thread, the voice, the heart of the novel, and I agree, but I also think that if you’ve spent five to eight hours a day revising your novel too many days in a row, you’ll burn out. Take a day off after a weekend of heavy revisions. Go to the movies Monday night or just slack off. You can just as easily get lost in the book and begin to overlook adjustments as you can lose the voice by skipping too many days in a row. So take that day off every now and then, but just one day if possible.

7. Ease Back on Emphasis Words—This one is very subjective and plenty of writers might disagree, but I am careful when adding a dramatic emphasis to certain words or phrases in dialogue. You may think an agitated character will say, “Be there by midnight, or else” but someone else may see it as “Be there by midnight, or else.” I asked a few people to say this sentence aloud with some urgency and the emphasis was all over the map. “Be there by midnight, or else” even cropped up. The point is, you can emphasize a word or two of dialogue to show the reader how you think the character says it, but everyone applies different speech mechanics to characters regardless of how you, the writer, want your characters to speak, so simply typing “Be there by midnight, or else” allows you to say what needs to be said and allows the reader to apply their own image of the character to that dialogue. You’ve probably (hopefully) already offered some physical and verbal cues anyway, so constantly adding emphasis words to dialogue will become tiresome and rob the readers of some of their own creative choices.

Do you have any revision techniques that you’d like to share? Feel free to add them below!

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James Duncan is a content editor for Writer’s Digest, the founding editor of Hobo Camp Review, and is the author of the short story collection The Cards We Keep and the poetry collection Lantern Lit, Vol. 1. He is in the process of submitting a handful of novels to agents for traditional representation, just like everyone else on the planet. For more of his work, visit www.jameshduncan.com.

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