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Revision Question

Hi everyone! I've written a short story or two simply for my own enjoyment, but I have been working on a novel for some time now and am merely a chapter or so away from finishing it. So what next? I have been told that often a first time author writes a first draft and thinks it's a masterpiece, then scraps nearly the whole thing realizing it's trash. Obviously I hope mine is not trash and I don't believe it is, but how do I go about revising and editing my first draft without getting too attached to my original writing? Any advice would be helpful!


Article Team
The standard trick is to set it aside for few weeks or even a few months, then come back to. it. This helps distance yourself from the writing so you can spot issues from spelling and grammar errors to plot holes.

The next thing to consider is there are different ways to read something. For me, there's reading with an audience's eye, reading with an editor's eye, and reading with an author's eye. When people start writing, it's very hard to separate the these, and they're not conscious of what way they're approaching reading their own story at any one time.

What can happen is you can start reading everything with an editor's eye, which can make you over critical of yourself and make you changed things that don't need changing. At the same time you can start reading with an author's eye which can have the opposite effect. The author has had the story in their head for a long time. They already love the ideas and world and the characters and don't need any convincing of it. They know everything about the world, so everything in the story makes sense, even when it doesn't. So this can lead one to thinking everything's fine despite the problems.

Being able to distance yourself from your work is key. Most people starting out use time away from the story as a way to do this. As people write more, they start to develop the ability to do this with a shorter time period. Distancing yourself from the story allows you to read the story more from the perspective of the audience, which is what matters most if you intend to share your story with the world. Reading with an audience's eye allows you pick out things that don't make sense, and can help you determine if you're over analyzing your prose or not.


So what next? ...how do I go about revising and editing my first draft...
It sounds like you want it to be as good as it can be because you're talking about revising and editing, but, taking a step back, what is the best-case outcome for you? For example, do you want to:
Start your own publishing business and this is a possible product?
Start a business selling your writing to other publishers and you think this is marketable?
Keep this as a 'hobby work' to distribute online/give to your friends/generally be happy about having done?

I'd largely agree with Penpilot that distance is your next logical step but you can also start thinking about getting other people involved, especially if you're seeing this as something to sell to others. If you're being all businessy focussed there are certain reasonably well-trodden paths to get you from point A to whichever version of point B you're aiming for. One option is to get other people (at a cost) to read your work and give you impartial advice on how well what you're doing fits whichever route you're looking to go down.

There are ways to get free advice, like joining a critique group. There are a lot of plus points to doing this, but also some substantial negatives (separate rant). You can also get your friend/mum/cat to read it, but in terms of useful feedback, your mileage may vary. If you do find a friend who can give you impartial, meaningful, and actionable advice take them out to dinner. A lot. Never let them get away from you. It's not normal.

Anyway, these are more thoughts than recommendations because, as I said at the start, it all depends on where your ideal destination is. From that, you decide on a balance of time/cost/final quality which suits you and gives you a good chance of meeting your aim.
My experience is that first drafts are neither garbage nor genius but the nucleus of what, hopefully, will one day be a tight, well written novel. Agree with Penpilot on taking some time away from it at this stage.

In that interim, do you have an alpha reader or two, people who you trust, implicitly, to take that earliest of drafts and begin to read through it and give good, helpful feedback while realizing what a first draft is?? You can start with a few chapters to keep it simple.

Mary Robinette Kowal has a system I've borrowed for those first readers. Here it is in her own words:

I’m very, very specific about the types of feedback I want at this stage of the game. I only want big picture things about how the story plays and don’t want any line-specific notes. In fact, I tend to get cranky about them because I’m posting raw drafts. We’re lucky if I spell-check them. This is because, with my own writing process, thinking about mistakes in the language will make me self-conscious and slow me down.

So I ask my Alpha readers to tell me:

1.What bores you
2. What confuses you
3. What don’t you believe
4. What’s cool? (So I don’t accidentally “fix” it.)


I'll add that this has worked brilliantly for me since I adopted it a few years ago. It's also easier for readers if they don't feel pressure to say or comment in any other way than on those four questions. They cover a lot. Enough to take it and begin to revise a first draft. And I am always amazed at how much I see immediately when it is brought to my attention that i could not see as the writer with no outside input! In 9 of 10 cases, when something is pointed out to me and it falls along those four basic queries, I see the fault at once.

I'd say 95% of us cannot possibly be the best judges of our own work. That's scary. But putting it in capable hands before we attempt to "fix" it is important. ( I will add that I DO go in and begin to tighten prose, dialogue etc but until I have some input, I won't change entire swaths of the story.) That said, again, make certain the alpha readers are people you can trust. People who KNOW the genre you are writing in and/or your writing and who you can trust to take the time to give you their attention and feedback.

And be ready to be surprised! Some of what you thought was brilliant will fall flat reader after reader and some of what you didn't think much of at all will be endearing to them. That's the coolest part of the process for me. To see the story through another reader's eyes is beyond helpful.

Anyway, I hope some of that helps you and best of luck with it!


toujours gai, archie
It can be really difficult to put aside a first work, so here's a suggestion in a different direction. Two suggestions.
1. Have the computer read it to you. A screen reader is flat, mechanical, gets all your fantasy names laughably wrong. But by being so "objective" it can also distance you from the text. Lots of small mistakes will jump out at you, and you can fix those and feel good about it. You may also notice bigger problems, such as pacing. If you do, make notes, but let that simmer, at least until the whole thing has been read to you.
Screen Reader Tip: it's easy to let your attention stray. Your eyes aren't busy, your hands aren't busy. So plan to listen in short spurts, say a chapter at a time.
Screen Reader Tip 2: Print the novel. Have the current page in front of you, pen at the ready, and make notes right on the manuscript. That will help with Attention Wander Syndrome.

2. Read about how to edit. There are many, many articles, and even whole books on the topic. Start reading some. That will give you something to do while you are distancing yourself (editorial distancing is harder than social distancing), and somewhere in all the noise you're likely to find some tips that resonate.
All of this is excellent advice. I don't have much more to add, but back to what skip.knox said, it can be incredibly helpful to have either a computer (or even a person record themselves) reading your work aloud. With a computer you can pause and go in for instant-editing. You'd be surprised how informative it is to listen to an "unprofessional narrator", because sometimes you can hear where the reader might be mentally tuning out, or getting excited, or is having a hard time processing the page for whatever reason... it's like another side of the same coin for trusting alpha/beta readers to give you analysis and critique. And you should be able to ask readers questions or guidelines, like Maker of Things Not Kings stated with Mary Robinette Kowal's "4 Questions."

I usually hand over a manuscript double-spaced and fully printed out, and hand a would be reader a proverbial red pen. I usually ask for a "commentary track" of notes more than proof editing because that is what is most insightful for me. I can then re-read my entire work and see, in what was 'real time', how the reader was thinking and feeling.
Thank you everyone for the advice! I finished my first draft today, and I'm actually kind of excited to start editing now that I have all of this info ;) I've talked to people about publishing it eventually, but I'm a little discouraged because apparently publishers rarely even read submissions unless the author has good connections. My friend is currently in the process of self publishing, so maybe I will do that. Do you all have any suggestions from your past experiences?
Self-Editing for Writers. The First Five Pages. Top of the editing book list IMO, if I’m recalling the titles correctly.

And yes, getting anyone to pay attention to your book is a trick. My editor spent many years on the publishing side before moving to editing, And her opinion of agents when it comes to new writers is not glowing, LOL. And without an agent, getting a publisher’s attention is interesting. Most success stories I know personally are from people who’ve spent years cultivating connections with agent/publisher brass at conventions before dropping books on them. But there are always over the transom success stories as well, there’s a lot of luck involved. Right story, right person, right time, the stars need to align, or you just go Indie.
Self publishing is easy. Self marketing, once the book is published, is difficult, but at least it's in your hands.

That’s no kidding, a year and a half of muddling around before ROI on advertising has gone consistently into the black, otherwise the ups and downs were furious and infuriating. Now the next trick... scaling up! May the gods be gentle on my soul. So I start more muddling while hoping to have a solid plan by June 25th when the final book in the series goes live. My stratagems so far seem to be improving ROI at the small scale, so I things are looking good. Knock on wood.

Scott Ryan

Just a curious question to OP from a new jack to the site - how many manuscript pages and how long have you been working on it?
It is about 145 pages- not very long but decent for a first work I think. I began brainstorming about a year ago, began writing, then kind of forgot about it. I came back to it a few months later and rewrote all that I had previously written, then slowly began working on it again.