Five Things I’ve Learned (So Far) About Revisions

girlwritingLast week I read a wonderful article by guest blogger Kathy Leonard Czepiel (A Violet Season, Simon & Schuster) on Chuck Sambuchino’s “Guide to Literary Agents” blog ( I highly recommend it.

One of Ms. Cepiel’s comments has been tweeted and retweeted many times in the last few days: “First drafts require starting from nothing and creating something only slightly better than nothing.” Oh so true. In my experience, writing a first draft is painful and produces something so appalling that you’re seriously tempted to chuck the whole thing in the bin. Fortunately, as Ms. Czepiel points out, no one but you ever needs to see that first manuscript.

Revisions, on the other hand, are fun. You have raw material to work with. The manuscript begins to take shape. Your “nothing” begins to resemble (ta da!) a book. Currently I’m about a fourth of the way through the third major revision of my first mystery. And I’ve learned a few things—the hard way as I always do. Here are five simple observations that might resonate with you.

1. Revising a manuscript isn’t the same thing as polishing language.
I love to polish language. I love to work with rhythm and images. I love finding exactly
the right word for each character and setting. This is fine. Language does need to be
polished. You want your submission to be as perfect as you can possibly make it. But
polishing isn’t revision. I’ve spent hours polishing words that no longer appear in my
manuscript. Before polishing (I tell myself sharply), spend time working with scenes,
structure, motivation, plot, and character.

2. Consider proportion.
A scene may be wonderful in itself, turning the plot in a twisty new direction. Description
may be beautifully rendered, adding depth and layers to a character or a setting. But is the scene or description worth the space and words you have afforded it? Proportion is very difficult to “see,” immersed as you are in the manuscript. Ask someone else for input. Make a chart of the word count in each chapter and scene. Does the word count reflect the importance to the whole?

3. Be willing to kill your darlings.
This is a classic. Unless you have the near-supernatural ability to turn out a publishable manuscript on the first draft, you will inevitably have to hit the delete key—often. I always overwrite and then pare down. Which isn’t a bad thing in itself. But what if I’ve fallen in love with words that don’t belong (like my first three opening chapters)? In graduate school, my thesis advisor told me to put extraneous material in a footnote first. Then delete the footnote. It’s easier to delete in stages. Novels don’t have footnotes, but an alternative is to print out the iffy material and save it in a file for possible use later. If later never comes, so be it.

4. Don’t try to revise a bunch of things at once.
The human mind can hold only so much in tension. If I’m revising for scene structure, I
probably won’t catch all my typos. If I’m working with character motivation, I can’t
work simultaneously with plot and proportion. If I’m eliminating unnecessary words and
tags, I will miss lapses in POV. This means that each revision will require many pass-
throughs, each with its own emphasis. Taking time to do this saves time in the long

5. Beware of that seductive little “Find-Replace” feature on Microsoft Word.
Microsoft Word’s “find-replace” feature is a great tool—unless you push the button
before you really know what you’re doing. Last week I learned this the hard way. I’ve
been having trouble with the space bar on my keyboard. Knowing that there should never be two spaces in a manuscript, I had Word find all the double spaces (there were 14) and replace them with single spaces. So far so good. But then, intoxicated by my power, I decided to “fix” the few extra spaces my keyboard had added between the ending punctuation and the closing quotation mark in dialog. Gleefully, I pushed “replace all” just as I noticed that Word was making 732 changes to my manuscript! Now I have 732 corrections to make because the “back” button doesn’t work in this case. Lesson learned. Today I’m buying a new keyboard.

4 thoughts on “Five Things I’ve Learned (So Far) About Revisions”

  1. I read that article about first drafts and boy did it ring true. As did your wonderful post, Connie. I always appreciate writing tips. I know I’m better for it. Now, as to those 732 corrections? I’m feeling your pain.

  2. Does it make you feel better that I’ve been working on my Irish epic for nearly three years? At least the other novels I’ve started are going a bit faster – you know, because I’ve learned from ALL THOSE MISTAKES.

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