Isn’t it fabulous? A clean manuscript and a new package of felt-tip pens (which I’ve had a thing for since middle-school yearbooks). And finally, FINALLY, some real revision is going to happen on this draft!

ready to revise

I’ve been avoiding this part of my writing process for over a month. I gave myself all kinds of excuses. It costs too much to print. It’s a waste of paper. It takes too long to scribble notes all over it. I already know what needs to be fixed. I can just print out a 10-pg outline and that’ll work just as well.

Ha. After a month of trying to revise solely on the screen (aside from the outline), I’ve fixed only 30 pages.

And it’s especially dumb when I should know better. This isn’t my first time around any more. I know how to make this work. The changes from my first draft to my second were good, important changes! Now I just need to go through the same process to get myself from the second draft to the third. I need to remember all the secrets that worked before.

Shannon (Hale) put up a blog post last week called “The Secret (that there is none).” I love Shannon and have learned so much from her about how to be a writer, but I’m going to disagree with her subtitle.  

There are secrets. There are tricks. They aren’t shortcuts. They aren’t substitutes for work and pushing through. But they do make writing and revising more efficient!

Here are just a few off the top of my head:

  • write daily (otherwise the story won’t be as fresh in your head and you’ll waste time refreshing your memory)
  • read great published novels constantly and watch for what works and how (if you’re not reading, you’re missing out on all kinds of observations that will give you ideas on how to make your own novel work)
  • feel your way through a rough draft without looking back too much (it does no good to revise your first chapters over and over before you finish the draft and discover what the end is)
  • love your characters and find ways to make your reader love them (if you don’t care about your characters, no one else will)
  • revise for big things first (don’t waste time rewriting sentences in a scene when you might cut that scene altogether)
  • make a revision plan, and tackle only the few biggest things each time (if you try to fix everything at once, you’ll bog yourself down in unimportant details)
  • bookmark your spot when revising and flip open to your bookmark, not page one (otherwise your revisions might be unbalanced, favoring the beginning chapters too much)

Notice how all the parenthetical comments in the list are warnings of the “if you don’t” variety. Like, Tiny Tim will die if you don’t heed the advice of the ghost of Christmas future.

How do I know the future where these tips are concerned? Yeah, um, because I’ve done all of these wrong at some point.

With my first novel (meaning the first one I wrote all the way to the end, not the first one I attempted), I struggled so much with revision. My novel was my grad school thesis, and I finished the rough draft in February (2006) even though the final wasn’t due until July for an August graduation. That gave me five months for revisions, which should have been plenty of time–except that I didn’t know about putting love of characters first or revising for big elements first or making a revision plan or bookmarking my place.

I printed out the draft and scribbled all over it and worked hard–really hard–for five months, but working hard wasn’t enough. I wasn’t being smart about it yet. I was crossing out words and sentences and rewriting them in the margins.

The sentences got better. There are some sentences in that manuscript that I love. But the big problems never got fixed, and now that manuscipt’s “on the shelf.” (My thesis committee passed it, but it’s not good enough to publish.)

In June I finished the rough draft of my second novel. I printed it out that week, and I forbade myself from rewriting sentences. Instead, I made a plan:

color coding

Really, the color coding wasn’t that necessary; it just made the left side of my brain happy. Mostly I used the pink pen. In fact, I ended up going through two pink pens in the weeks that it took to write all my revision notes. And notice that pink is for questioning scenes and other overall considerations. Pink is for big stuff.

And instead of using the pens to rewrite sentences, I used them to make notes and ask questions, like this:


Notice that there’s a huge X through this page, and yet I still scribbled all over it. It’s the first page of the novel, and it wasn’t working, so I wrote notes and questions about WHY it wasn’t working.

(Also notice the post-its. Believe it or not, those were ridiculously necessary. I lost track of the days of the week and the dates of the month, and of course when a scene takes place makes just as much difference as where. The post-its also helped me see how long the action was taking, which gave me one way to assess the pacing of the novel.)

And now I get to do it all again! Only this time, obviously, I’ll be watching for slightly different things. My critique group gave me pages and pages of great feedback, so now I’m going to be making notes about how to implement that feedback. But I’ll still be asking myself if the scenes are working, if I need to rearrange or combine them, if I need to add things to the scenes. Even on a third draft, it’s still about big stuff.

What about you? What secrets have you learned about process? What do you wish you’d known when you first started writing? If you could tell beginning writers “the secret,” what would you say?

Leave a comment!


10 thoughts on “Process Secrets

  1. One of the hardest things I had to learn was to let go of favorite scenes and characters concepts. I only did one major revision on my story but nothing was working until I figured out that some of my core ideas had to be let go.
    Also, great post! I want to use your tricks the next time I write a story.


  2. This is awesome. I am sending this page to Jen, as she is currently writing a novel as well. What a bunch of weirdo sisters I have… jk. Love you.


  3. Wow! Thanks for this awesome post with so many excellent and helpful tips. I’ve actually been putting off revisions on my one novel for OVER A YEAR now. I keep writing new things and telling myself – I just have to finish this one.
    Now, though, I’m feeling inspired to revise revise revise


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