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  • Diane Telgen

You’re a NaNoWriMo winner! Your prize? Revise!

So you started National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short) full of enthusiasm and excitement, ready to finally explore that idea that’s been knocking around in your head for ages. Then you struggled to finish your 50,000 words in thirty days, but YOU DID IT! Yay, you!

But now you revisit your draft and the cold reality sets in: this novel needs WORK. In fact, it’s utter garbage. You’d rather throw it out and start over than try to figure out how to fix it.

Whoa, there! Don’t let that thought distortion—anything written so fast is crap—lead you to give up so easily. Because the truth is, almost all first drafts are crap! You just don’t get to see all the revisions your favorite book went through when you’re reading the finished product. Here’s a secret the Angel Editors have learned: the real writing—the hard, hard work—is in revision. So here are some of our favorite tricks to consider when revising.

Level up!

First of all, give yourself some brain space. If you try to jump into revisions the day after you finish the first draft, you’ll probably feel overwhelmed: This draft is so bad, I don’t know where to start. Wait a few days before jumping back in, and you’ll realize the truth: This needs a lot of work, but there are a few good things to build on.

If you’re struggling with where to begin your revision, Angel Editor Denise suggests breaking the job into segments, then arranging them by the level of scope they require. Start with the big picture: do I have a complete narrative arc, or do I need to add a setback in the middle to pump up the intensity? Is my antagonist fully fleshed out, or do I need to add more of their motivations? Big-picture items include anything that might need to be corrected across the entire novel.

Your mid-level revisions might require changes across a couple of chapters. Let’s say you have a big reveal midway through the book: did you set it up with a couple of hints in previous chapters? Or you realize you’ve written two separate riffs on the same conversation that need to be consolidated into a single scene. Then you have small-picture items—line-level problems, like getting rid of those crutch words that always sneak into your writing.

Always start with the big-picture, macro-level revisions, before honing in on the smaller, micro-level revision. There’s no point in polishing your prose chapter by chapter before you’ve decided whether each scene needs to stay.

That’s how the Angel Editors work with clients—developmental big-picture edits before line edits—and it’s a great rule of thumb when self-revising.

Make some checklists

Once you feel confident in the overall structure of your novel, you might feel ready to start looking at your writing more closely—but how to break it down? Sure, you can just start reading and try to look for all the problems at once. But there’s a more methodical way to approach line-level editing. Santa had the right idea: make a list and check it twice—or three times, or four…

Whether I’m revising my own work or editing someone else’s, I make a list of things I’m looking to improve. Hopefully, you have some idea of your own particular writing weaknesses—thanks, critique partners!—so you can start by putting those issues on your checklist. Do you use too many adverbs, or rely on forms of to be? Do one pass just searching for was, were, is, are, and ly, then upgrade your verbs. Do you have a crutch word or phrasing—just, so, as—that pops up all the time? Search for them and cut them out! Maybe you rely on the same physical expression of emotion all the time, or maybe you don’t put enough emotion on the page. Maybe you have trouble transitioning from one scene to another.

Whatever weaknesses you have, put an item on your checklist for each one. Then do a pass devoted to each problem—either chapter by chapter or the whole document. This approach has a couple of benefits. First, it breaks down your line-level revising into smaller, more manageable chunks. Second, it makes you slow down and really focus on correcting a bad habit. Maybe you’ll start to notice that issue as you’re drafting your next novel, and self-correct in the moment.

You can also use your checklist to hold the big-picture changes that you know want to keep in mind as you revise. By putting everything you know you want to fix in one document, you’ll have a one-stop place to remind yourself of your revision goals.

Start fresh

If you’re like us, one of the reasons you hate revising is the need to cut out whole passages of your work. My words! My precious, precious words that I struggled to put on the page! It hurts to delete my precious words! Angel Editor Kate’s tip is designed to help you get over the pain of cutting up your revision.

Instead of going into your old draft and revising, Kate suggests, open up a completely new document. (I like to give my new document drafts a number; my first draft is Title 1.0, while my surgically rearranged second draft becomes Title 2.0, then my next draft with minor tweaks becomes Title 2.1.) When you start your revision, copy and paste the stuff you want to keep. This leaves your first draft intact—your precious words aren’t being deleted, just being left behind—while making you more mindful about what you’re keeping.

Don’t get me wrong: revision is hard work! But these tips might help you break the job down into smaller, less scary tasks. Good luck, and remember: you finished a draft, you winner!

Diane is a former NaNoWriMo winner; that novel is now in version 3.4.2. For guidance in revising your own project, check out our editor profiles.

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