Part I of a two-part series on 'Revising Like A Pro.' For Part II, come back next week, or subscribe below.
Finishing a first draft of a manuscript is one of the best feelings in the world. Especially your first first draft! Maybe you powered through NaNoWriMo with everyone else; maybe your first draft took a year or two. However you got here, congrats! Time to take a deep breath, perhaps say hi to the family and friends you've been neglecting. "Yep," you tell them, "I don't know how, but I finished it. I guess it feels pretty good." (It's okay to humble-brag in these situations. It's only natural.)
But after a couple days of bliss, you start to realize--a first draft is exactly that. The first one. It necessarily implies that there will be more.
Oh, so many more.
It's revision time! So, how to best go about it? Ideally, we'd all have talented editors eagerly awaiting our draft, ready to tell us exactly how to fix it to make it the next bestseller. But if you're not so lucky (I'm certainly not!) you need to polish up that manuscript on your own. Even authors with some contacts in the industry must make a new project as bright and shiny as possible to land a new publishing deal.
You might be thinking of critique partners--those lovely fellow writers who agree to read your manuscript and give feedback. Yes, definitely enlist the help of a critique group. But you also have to tackle the rewrite on your own terms. You need a vision for how the end product should look.
I think the best way to approach a revision is to fake it. Pretend you've already got that publishing team rallying behind you. Step out of "writer mode" and indulge in a little role-play...
Wait a sec...
Do not--I repeat, do NOT--start to read your draft right away. You absolutely must get some distance to step out of your writer shoes. This is very difficult, I know. We all want to read our manuscript and see how amazing it is. Next bestseller, for sure! Unfortunately, if you've just finished your draft, you have zero perspective. There is no way you can view your draft objectively.
You must be able to think like an editor.
Consider where your hypothetical editor is coming from. Imagine you have a book deal--you know your editor at the publishing company already loves your book. She went to bat with the bosses to acquire it. But her future job security relies on putting out the best possible version of that book. So have no doubt: your editor will be hard on you. The same goes for a freelance editor you might hire to brush up your manuscript. In that case, you're paying him to be tough on you! If he's not, you aren't getting your money's worth.
You must be merciless. Especially with a project that you love. Keep in mind: as the writer, nobody else is ever going to love this project as much as you do. Give your manuscript-baby some space, and focus on other things for a few weeks: working on your pitch, putting together lists of potential agents, reading comps (i.e. books that would sit next to yours at the bookstore). After a minimum of one week, but better yet a month or two, you're ready to read.
A Fresh Look
When you're ready to read your draft, two things will help you view it more objectively. First, change the format. I love to single space my draft and send it to my Kindle. It looks like a real book, and it's easier for me to see the glaring problems that don't stand out on my regular laptop screen. Another option: reformat the manuscript (perhaps even using a bookish font) and print it out single-spaced, double sided. Pretend it's a real print book as you read it.
The second thing you should do: read the draft as fast as you can.
This is extremely hard for me, and I'm guessing you'll feel the same way. From page one, you'll see things you need to change. Bookmark it if absolutely necessary, but don't start reworking paragraphs yet. Just read. As you go along, common issues will start to pop out. Maybe a certain character is underdeveloped, or gets dropped partway through. Maybe a subplot makes no sense, or the pacing goes wonky in the middle. Start taking notes on a pad or separate document. The notes will start to form categories; you'll see common themes emerge.
Do all this without making line edits. If you want to note a typo or occasionally egregious grammar, fine. But you'll be doing in-depth line edits later on. This round of revisions is all about the big picture. (Which is how the editors I've worked with operated. First, macro-level rewrites--sometimes more than one--and then a final intense line-edit or two).
When you finish reading and making big-picture notes, it's time to play editor.
Admit it: you love to pretend. All writers do! We love getting out of our own heads and into a character's.
Right now, you're going to pretend to be the most honest, ruthless, hard-nosed editor you can imagine. This editor loves your project--just like your future editor will adore your project--so this isn't about being mean, or beating yourself up. It's tough love. And what are you going to do with all that tough love?
Channel it into an edit letter.
Next week, I'll explain what the edit letter is, and how to write one for yourself. Stay tuned! In the meantime, step away from that draft! Back away slowly...keep going...okay. Phew.