My Novel Revision Process

The 1st daft is done. Now it’s time to begin the REVISIONS. But how does one go about it? This month’s #WritingwithRae is here to the rescue.

First, let me give this caveat. Everyone will have their own process when it comes to revisions. This is mine. I hope you will find it helpful, but there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Second, I cannot stress enough how important it is for writers to take some time away from their first draft. Writers need fresh eyes when it comes to revising a manuscript. It’s difficult to kill your darlings when they’re still sleeping in your bed.

Lastly, this month’s blog focuses solely on the FIRST revision. Unless you’re an extremely gifted or experienced writer, there will be other revisions. Sorry. We all wish there was another way around it. Each writer should find his or her own revision process. Take what you can use from this month’s blogpost and ignore what you can’t. Seek advice from a variety of resources and then get to work!

FIRST DRAFTS ARE MESSY ROOMS. Tornadoes-in-the-form-of-half-a-dozen-three-year-olds-messy-rooms. Trash. Everywhere. Toys. Everywhere. And can someone please explain what this chunky green stuff is rubbed into the carpet? We need to clean up! Roll up your sleeves. Here we go.

First we need to ORGANIZE; put everything where it belongs. I revise one chapter at a time, beginning with the first. I read through the chapter and then begin to rearrange and clean it up. Sometimes when you’re trying to clean a room, it appears messier than when you first began. You have to takes things out and move them to one side of the room while organizing the shelves and closets. Read through your chapter. Make sure all the elements are there. Fix wonky sentences. Add information that’s missing from when you first began your draft.

One thing to look for in your chapter is whether you are including sufficient sensory details. Don’t rely on sight alone. Look for ways you can include the other senses so your readers can have a rich and encompassing reading experience.

When the first draft is complete, you know what you need to do to make it the story you want it to be. You’ll be surprised how many improvements you will make right off the bat, simply by reading through it and making adjustments. You know how the story ends, so be sure to place some hooks to hang foreshadowing on. You may want to install shelving for subplots. You may need to add. You may need to subtract. Heck, you may even need to divide and multiply.

If you have had your critique partners with you throughout the drafting process, like I did, you may consult some of their ideas or feedback at this time. Make the changes you want. If an idea doesn’t work, don’t worry. You’ll have plenty of chances to revise! When you believe you’ve made all the changes you need at this time, read through it again. Make sure you haven’t left anything out of place and it’s organized like you want.

Once all the major changes are done, it’s time to go in and do a clean sweep of certain words that plague first drafts. We’re TAKING OUT THE TRASH and getting rid of everything holding this chapter back. This part in the revision process is easier than it seems. Simply open up your navigation/find box and search for where the culprits are hiding in your manuscript.

The first offenders I hunt down are FILTER WORDS. Filter words force the reader’s experience through the character’s screen. Basically the character gets in the way.

Consider the following sentence:

“Edwin FELT enraged. He could HEAR his friends’ conversation and REALIZED they were discussing his girlfriend.”

Here we have several words filtering the action of the scene so the reader is an outsider, observing Edwin.

Now consider these sentences without the filter words:

“Rage consumed Edwin. His friends were discussing his girlfriend.”

Do you see how immediate the action is? Instead of being an observer, the reader gets to experience what is happening for him/herself.

Filter words weaken your story, but like most rules of writing, it doesn’t mean you can NEVER use them. There are always exceptions. Occasionally there is no better way to construct the sentence; removing the filter word fundamentally changes the sentence’s meaning. In these cases, you should keep the word. But more often than not, you can find a better way. The last thing you want is for your reader to feel distant from the action. We want our readers engaged, and eliminating filter words helps tremendously.

Here are a few of, in my opinion, the most common filter words writers use in first drafts: DECIDE, FEEL, FELT, HEAR, HEARD, KNOW, LOOK, NOTICE, REALIZE, REMEMBER, SAW, SEE, THINK, WONDER.

There are several comprehensive lists on the internet. Get familiar with them, but don’t bother trying to correct them all while on this step in the process. Not only is it overwhelming, but time-consuming. We are not in the editing stage—this is a quick revision. Run a find/search for each of the major words, throw them in the trash bin, and move on to the next step.

Our room may be organized, but there’s still a lot of garbage: broken toys, random clothes, snack wrappers. It’s time for the next step in the revision process. We’ve searched for filter words throughout our chapter. Now it’s time to get rid of other unnecessary words weakening our prose. First up—INTENSIFIERS and QUALIFIERS. These words are very friendly in the academic writing arena, but when it comes to fiction they do little to strengthen your manuscript.

Often writers make the mistake of modifying a weaker word choice with an intensifier. For example:

“He COMPLETELY lost his mind.”

If we eliminate the intensifier, the sentence is less cluttered and more impactful:

“He lost his mind.”


Intensifiers do not generally add anything to the sentence. We fool ourselves into thinking that by writing “The water is REALLY cold” we are adding to the “coldness” of the water. Instead the intensifier has the opposite affect and weakens the sentence.

Readers lose their stamina getting through your manuscript when it’s heavy-laden with intensifiers and qualifiers. It’s tedious work sorting through each sentence in order to find the meaning. Instead, writers should choose strong verbs and meaningful adjectives and adverbs. For example, instead of writing “REALLY cold,” a stronger choice would have been “freezing.”

Here are, what I have found to be, some of the most commonly used intensifiers and qualifiers in first drafts: ABSOLUTELY, ALMOST, BASICALLY, CERTAINLY, ENTIRELY, LITERALLY, ONLY (the bane of my existence), REALLY, SIMPLY, STARTED, SUDDENLY, and VERY. Other words to be on the lookout for are AFTER, ALMOST, ALREADY, BEFORE, RATHER, SOMEWHAT, and UNTIL.

If you have managed to get rid of these qualifiers and intensifiers, congratulations! You have taken out the trash. Go reward yourself. SERIOUSLY, you deserve it. You REALLY do. LITERALLY. Ha!

Remember, word choice matters. Make strong choices.

We’ve organized and cleaned up filters, qualifiers, and intensifiers. Our chapter’s much cleaner, but there’s cookie crumbs and scrapes of paper, and where-did-all-this-hair-come from? We need to VACUUM up more problematic words. Now I’m on the search for my biggest pet peeve: the word “THAT.” It is EVERYWHERE in first drafts and almost always avoidable. Here’s the trick: if you leave “that” out and the sentence still makes sense, get rid of it.

Another thing to keep in mind is THAT vs. WHO. Too many times writers will substitute “that” when they should be using “who.” For example, “She’s the girl THAT went to boarding school.” The correct sentence should be, “She’s the girl who went to boarding school.”

Another word similar to “that” is JUST. Again, if the sentence makes sense without it, then get rid of it.

But what about dialogue, Rae? People use “that” and “just” in everyday speech. This is true. I’m perfectly fine with writers using words like “that” or “just” in dialogue. However, if you have a tendency to overuse these words in your narrative, then you most likely are overusing these words in your characters’ dialogue as well. Be sure to go through the dialogue and use these words sparingly.

Other words to search for are DOWN and UP. Writers often use “sit down,” when the very act of sitting is to move downward. Likewise for “stand up.” Getting rid of these little, but pointless words will keep your prose concise.

Some other words to be on the search for are words like BEGIN, START, SUDDEN, and THEN.

Lastly, let’s discuss adverbs. I am not in the “Adverbs Are Bad” camp, but I do believe many writers misuse them or rely on them too heavily. Often times writers fail to choose a strong verb and instead attempt to support a weak verb with an “LY” word. For example:

“The man ran quickly.” Vs. “The man dashed.”

Not only is the second sentence succinct, but it is immediate, clear, and direct.

Okay! The chapter’s organized. Trash has been removed. Now, SPOT CLEANING (remember, there’s something green and chunky in the carpet?). How do I polish my chapter? Many writers will save many of these steps for the editing stage. And as I stated before, all writers have their own methods. But there is a reason I cut unnecessary, misused, and weak words during the first few steps in the revision process.

Once your chapter is all cleaned up, it’s finally time to hear it. I cannot stress enough how important this step is during revisions, and yet so many writers neglect to do so. READ YOUR CHAPTER ALOUD. A novel may not be a poem or play, but it still needs to heard. You will be surprised at the mistakes you find, the awkward sentence structures you discover, and the clumsy wording you locate. I do this step twice. The first time I use Text-to-Speech and have the chapter read to me as I follow along. After I make the necessary fixes, I will then go through the chapter again, this time reading it aloud myself.

This is why I’m adamant about eliminating useless, misused, and weak words during the first round of revisions. I want to hear clear, concise, and strong prose. When I send my revised chapters to my CP, I want them to focus on the characters, plot, and narrative. It’s tiresome weeding through the grammatical mistakes, awkward wording, and muddy meanings. Taking a little bit of time to do quick fixes like these ultimately benefit the manuscript by allowing my CP to concentrate on his or her constructive feedback.

I’m not worrying too much about passive voice or verb tense. What I’m focusing on at this stage are the quick and simple fixes–immediate results. Listening to my chapter, I hear clean, clear, and concise prose. It’s the reward I need to move on to the next chapter. Who doesn’t love a clean room?

Before I get to the last step I find it helpful to put the chapter away for a night and finish the revision the next day with fresh eyes and ears. Take the time you need. You might finish in a day. It might take you a week.

And that’s it! First revision of chapter one is done. On to chapter two–RINSE AND REPEAT.

I hope you found this week’s #WritingwithRae helpful. Take what you can from my method and apply it to your revision process. There is no one way to complete your first revision. Discover what works for you. And please let me know if you have any questions about what you have learned from me this week. Do share some or your revision tips in the comments. #WritingwithRae

Thanks for joining me again for this month’s #WritingwithRae. As always, if you found this information helpful be sure to pass it on to other writerly friends. If you would like to learn more about a specific writing topic or technique, drop me a suggestion in the comments for future  #WritingwithRae blog posts. Join me on Twitter for #WritingwithRae threads (beginning every third Saturday of the month) and on Instagram for announcements. See you next month!

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