Revising: How To Avoid Staring Into The Great Black Abyss

Okay, so imagine you've finished the fifth draft of your amazing NYT bestseller. You've let some time go by. And now you're ready to edit the manuscript. Again. (*Note: for the purposes of this post, editing and revising are synonymous.)

You sit down, open the document, and...proceed to stare into the great black abyss like somehow your MS will edit itself. Oh, sure, maybe you're like me and you immediately click on gmail when something earth-shattering doesn't hit you about your novel. Or Farmville. Or Cafe World. Or a writing forum. Heck, maybe you even distract yourself with Hulu and Free Rice. And when you get really desperate, well, let's not go there.

I know (trust me, I KNOW) the thought of editing an entire manuscript is overwhelming. Daunting. Like climbing the mountain--again.

So today, I'm going to give you some pointers that have helped me tackle my 320-page manuscript, edit it, polish it, get it to betas and then out the door in less than 30 days. Strap yourselves in.

1. Set goals. Not only a "finish-by" goal date, but goals for what you want to accomplish in the edit. Does character A need more depth? Do you need to introduce the antag earlier so readers know who/what the MC is up against? Do you need stronger world-building? Faster pacing? A sub-plot that needs fleshing out? What are you trying to accomplish with the edit?

Know what these are. Don't freak out that there's SO MUCH that needs to be done. Just make a list.

2. Chunk your MS. It's much easier to wrap your mind around 100 pages rather than 350. So chunk your MS into manageable sections. I split mine into three distinct pieces and worked on them individually.

Okay, so you really haven't opened the document and started yet. This is all the "behind-the-scenes" stuff that you can do in a notebook or in your head. It usually takes me 2-3 days to make my list and chunk my MS. Take some time to do this. It helps things settle in your head before you actually start.

3. Read. That's right. Hopefully, it's been a while since you've read or worked on your MS. You'll be able to see things with fresh eyes this way. I printed the first chunk and sat down to read. Yes, I had a pen (it was black, not red) in my hand. During this reading phase, I was doing three things:

  • Line-edits (for awkward phrasing, repeated words, word choice, paragraphing, funky formatting, etc. Everything looks new and different on paper. I strongly encourage printing the chunk and editing on paper.)
  • Outlining (I don't outline before I write. So I create my outline as I edit a finished draft. I have a pad of small (2-inch by 2-inch) post-it notes next to me. After I finish reading a chapter, I write the main focus of that chapter on a post-it and place it neatly in my manila folder. Can't sum it up? Maybe you don't need that chapter. Every chapter must advance the plot. Even if you write from an outline, you can do this to see if you've really used every chapter, every scene to advance your plot. And hey, maybe your outline has changed.)
  • Making Notes (I know my goals for the edit, so as I'm reading, I draw a star and make myself a note. Like, "Insert a memory about character B here." Or "This would be a great place to reflect on plot point G." Or "Introduce antag here by way of video." Or "More world-building/setting here." I don't actually write the insertions. I simply make notes of places where they could go.)
4. Transfer from paper to computer. Remember, this is only for the first chunk. For me, it was about 115 pages, and it took me about 3 days to read, line edit and make notes for the section. Then I finally opened my Word document and started with page one. I entered the line edits, written changes and deletions. When I got to spots where I had a note for new material, I wrote it. Everything is done with the "Track Changes" feature on, so I can see what I've done. Actually transferring the changes is easy. And since you have something tangible to do, you don't waste any time staring at the screen, wondering what to do and where to do it. Transferring only takes 1 day. Maybe longer if you have large sections to add/rewrite.

5. Rinse and repeat. After section one is transferred into the computer, print section two. Read, pen in hand, post-it's nearby, computer off. Transfer to manuscript. Print section three. Read, transfer. Since I only had three sections, I edited my entire novel in about 12 days. With the goal-making, I finished a round of (major) edits in two weeks.

(*Note #2: Some of you might stop here. If this is say, the second draft, and you're not ready to send to readers yet, you're done! In only 2 weeks. Leave the MS for a while, write something else maybe. Then come back and start with #1 with new goals for another edit.)

6. Send to readers. Now, this could be an entire post by itself. But I don't have time for that, so I'll just say to choose people who you A) trust and B) love and C) will read FAST. I mean, you only have 16 more days. I recommend recruiting a few (meaning: 2 or 3) readers who will critique as you finish chunks. So really, you could have stuff out with Beta readers after you transfer the first chunk. When they finish, send them the second, and so on. This way, you're not stalled at this point in the process, waiting for reads. You've been getting them back on shorter sections. Which is how you want to work anyway.

7. Go over crits, make changes. Add stuff, delete stuff, etc. This is just a polish. You've already done the major reconstruction. Now you're just smoothing over the edges, based on what your readers have said. If you have fast readers, you can probably get this done in a week or so. I think I had my chunks back and crits incorporated in about 8 days.

8. Leave it alone. Which means, leave it alone. Don't open it. Don't read it. You can think about it if you want. I didn't. 2 days. I actually did this immediately following the final transfer (step 5), while waiting for reads to come back on chunks. It doesn't matter when you do it, but it's vital. Seriously, leave it alone.

9. Send entire, repolished MS to trusted readers. These are NOT the same people who read the chunks. Different people. I had 4. I sent them the "final" MS as well as a list of my goals so they knew what I was trying to accomplish with the edit. (*Note, I did this because with one exception, my readers had already read my book, so I wanted them to know specifically what I was trying to do this time around.) Again, they need to be A) trusted B) loved and C) fast.

10. Final edits based on final reads. 

11. Done!

This system worked for me. I managed to edit my 83,000-word novel, get reads, and polish it up in under 30 days. Hopefully, you've seen something in this list that can help you focus your energy into accomplishing an edit (no matter if it's your third draft or your, um, eighth) of your manuscript without falling into the great black abyss. What do you do that helps you get the editing done?


PK HREZO said...

This is such great advice. It really is this tedious. It may sound crazy, but sometimes I edit chapters backwards. It helps me see the chapter as a whole and remember exactly what it's supposed to lead up to.

LM Preston said...

Oh my this sounds like what I do, I only do it a whole lot! But I love turning my catipillar into a butterfly. It's also nice to see others process.

J.L. Campbell said...

Good idea to write that outline while going through the MS.

With only a basic outline to start with, outlining while editing is a great way to get a synopsis going, rather than relying on memory. Thanks!

Team Freerice said...

Why would be a desperate measure!?

We're so pleased that you play it and raise desperately needed rice, but wonder do you feel the content could be more engaging?

Team Freerice

Stina said...

I'm working through Donald Maass's Writing A Breakout Novel Workbook while editing my new wip. OMG! It's a great book. It's changed how I'm approaching my edits. It'll take longer for me to do them, but that's okay. I LOVE EDITING, so I'm in no rush to finish it. Besides, I've only just started querying my other book. I don't want to be querying two books at the same time. :)

Elana Johnson said...

Team Freerice: NOT AT ALL. I even have my fifth and sixth graders do the math one in my computer lab.

Just, for me, as a writer, it's a procrastination technique I use. If I'm stuck and/or don't want to work on my writing, I play free rice. It's good--really good. I'm just not working on my writing...

Matthew MacNish said...

LOL. That's so funny that free rice saw your link and came to make sure they were all good. Could they possibly not realize how freaking awesome they are? Fun, educational questions, AND it feeds the hungry?

Yeah. Free Rice rules.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

This is the perfect post for me today! I'm embarking on the fourth draft, need to fold in crits, do a lot of revisions, all kinds of stuff. You are awesomely organized and I love, love that! Ok, deep breath, and plunge...

IanBontems said...

This is a great system Elana.
Step 1 is the most crucial for me - Because I'm so goal-oriented, I need to set those targets for myself. I'm quite a logical person, so breaking them down into smaller parts isn't such a problem.

I'd love to follow your plan, but I don't have anywhere near the amount of beta readers you have.

I have a question, Elana - Are all of your readers also writers? If so, how do you find the time to read and crit their work as well as get through your own?

Nicole Zoltack said...

Great system, awesome advice!

Krystalyn Drown said...

I bust out the Giant White Board of Fun. Grid it. Each square becomes a chapter with the purpose of the chapter written at the top of each square. Then each scene is color coded according to plot or subplot within the chapter squares. That way I have a visual sense of where everything falls within the story.

Sandra Wickham said...

Thanks so much for this post!! I'm at this exact point with my novel and your advice comes after two days of me staring into the abyss and accomplishing nothing. Now I know I can do it with your tips.

Thank you!

Jessica said...

I am bookmarking this post for when I finally get the the revision stage on my current project.

I really like your idea of chunking your manuscript so it's not quite so daunting. Thanks for sharing.

Becca said...

I am an aspiring writer, and this took away a lot of my fear about even getting starting!! Thank you for sharing your process. It's truly a motivator/inspiration/starting point/bright-light-in-the-sea-of-darkness.

Thank you!

Janine said...

Nice process. Thanks for describing it.

I use the AutoCrit Editing Wizard to stop me procrastinating. It's easy to get started on and it breaks the editing process down into smaller chunks.

Sophie Playle said...

Great ideas.

I prefer editing to writing first drafts... So I end up editing as I go along... Which makes first draft writing sloooow. Hopefully by the time I get to re-drafting the whole thing, it should be relatively painless. *fingers crossed*

Red Haircrow said...

I find that having readers who don't know me, haven't read my work before or even read in the genre I write but are willing to give it try....helps me with revising a manuscript.

Sometimes it may be harsh, or unconstructive (rarely), but it can help me see what areas are weakest. The usually unbiased feedback really motivates me to improve shaky areas, or gives me new enthusiasm for the project. It helps me reacquaint myself with characters after seeing them from someone else's perspective.