Congratulations – you typed the final word of a story that you’ve been slaving over for days, weeks, or maybe even months.
You’ve overcome distractions…You’ve ignored Snapchat, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest (or whatever your favorite online distraction may be)…You’ve kept your focus…You’ve actually got a draft.Now what?
First, take a moment to celebrate. Whether you’ve just finished a short story or a novel, congratulate yourself. What you did isn’t easy, so give yourself a little pat on the back, take a rest, dance!
Then, get ready to get back to work. Now, it’s time to make your piece worthy of actually having somebody read it.
Before we go through the suggestions, print out a copy of your draft.
I’ve found, after teaching revision to thousands of students, that it’s MUCH easier to capture your thoughts and ideas if you’ve got the draft in front of you. You’ll read it slower than you would on the screen and see things that you miss when reading off a computer.
Review and Take Notes
Step #1) Let your story/novel sit for at least TEN days.
Give both your story and yourself a break. This is, perhaps, the most crucial step for a solid revision.
When you finish a story, you’re so close to it that it can be difficult to read it objectively or with fresh eyes. If you set it aside for a bit, when you come back to it, you’ll see story elements that aren’t working or that need to be re-arranged.
Step #2) Read the piece as a reader.
Read the entire thing from beginning to end. What do you like about it? What makes you keep reading? What are you saying to yourself in your head as you read?
Try to look at what’s WORKING in the story.
This isn’t about being “right” or “wrong” with your writing. It’s about what’s working really well right now, and what you can improve.
Mark those sections that flow. See if you can figure out why they are working. Try NOT to focus on typos or weird sentence structure. The time will come for that, but right now, you’re focusing on the overall story and what’s working.
Step #3) Identify the main idea in the piece.
Look for that one line that conveys what this story is about. It might be the title or it might be a line in the story. Or, it might not appear in the story at all, but there’s an idea that you want to convey in this story.
What is it?
Write it down at the top of the draft. Does every event and character somehow relate to this main idea? If not, what might you add or cut from this draft?
Jot down some ideas.
Step #4) Create a list of the main events.
Read your piece again with a focus on the plot and create a list of the main points or events from your draft. Be sure to focus on the draft you wrote and not what you think you wrote.
Have you put the events/elements in the right order? What happens if you change the order?
Play with that. You can always put it back the way you had it.
Does the order follow traditional plot structure? Beginning hook, inciting incident, increasing tension in the middle, a turning point, more tension that leads to a climax, and finally a satisfying resolution?
If not, does it work better if you put it in that order?
Step #5) Focus on your main character.
One of the best parts of a great story is getting to know the character and also watching them grow and change.
In your story, what is your character like at the beginning of the story?
What are they like at the end of the story? How are they different? How did the events in the story impact them and cause growth or change?
If there is no change in your character, or character arc, how might you add one? Take some notes and jot down some ideas.
Steps 6-9 Revise, Repeat, & Correct
Step #6) Rewrite with a focus on what’s already working.
Once you’ve got all of these notes, it’s time to revise your story. Expand what’s working. Cut those elements or events that you realize aren’t relevant to the story as a whole or the character.
Don’t be afraid to cut and delete. Open up a new file and call it “cut scenes/lines” and paste everything you cut in there, so you don’t lose it forever. You can always add things back.
In my first historical novel that got me my agent, I cut over 30,000 words!!! It hurt but those cuts made my story that much stronger. Sometimes, the “recycle bin” is your best friend when it comes to revision a story to strengthen it.
Step #7) Repeat as many times as needed.
Once you’ve got another draft, follow these same steps. Set it aside and then go through the entire revision process again.
Step #8) Revise for clarity, voice, and flow.
I could probably write a book on this strategy alone, but this is the stage when you go through and read each line. Does it sound good? Is it specific? Can you cut any extra words?
You might try reading your piece out loud to help with this step. That can take awhile but it’s well worth the effort.
Step #9) Proofread and make corrections.
Woah – you finally made it to the place where you correct errors. Lots of times, this step is where writers start their revision journey, but really, it’s the LAST activity that should happen in the revision process.
Step #10) Own your own revision process.
There is not one single revision process that is the “right” one. Just like the writing process, you will have your own and you’ll probably have a different writing/revision process for every genre of writing. For example, you’ll approach writing and revising a poem differently than you would a story or an essay for school.
I encourage you to come up with your own set of strategies that work for you. The only “rule” of this is that you focus on the content and structure of a piece and revise that BEFORE you focus on the grammar and punctuation errors.
Revision is NOT fixing what’s wrong. It’s making what’s right better. Proofreading is the process of fixing errors.
Writing stories and producing pieces isn’t often a problem for writers. It’s the revising and making them better that can be a challenge.
I get it.
If this list feels overwhelming, try one or two strategies now and try some of the others later. As I said in #10, figure out your own revision process and what works for you.
Or, if you’d like help identifying these elements in your stories, I offer 1/1 Story Mentoring which is an intense look at one piece of writing. I can help you identify what’s working and what you can focus on to improve your piece.
If you have any other helpful revision tips, I’d love to hear them. Just leave them in the comments below.