When I first began writing, I figured I'd be finished with my story as soon as I typed the words "The End" in my first draft. I didn't know much about the revision process and thought my first draft would be my final submission after making a few minor spelling and grammar changes. Wow was I ever wrong!
I've come to think that the process of story-writing is much more like baking a cake. Writing that first draft is like gathering all the necessary ingredients together and setting them out on the kitchen counter to see what you have to work with and discover what you might still be missing. It isn't until the draft is written and the ingredients are all together that you whip out your revising cups and tablespoons and begin measuring in the flour, sugar, eggs, and spices until it tastes just right. Several revisions later, you're preheating the oven and spreading the frosting for everyone to enjoy!
According to Sol Stein, the best way to revise is to start with the big problems first. Then you work on the medium problems, small problems, and finally the tiny changes such as grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
Tackle these areas in succession to make your revision process as quick and effective as possible:
- Determine what represents the sense of wonder, enlightenment, or excitement in your story and make sure that level of enthusiasm is maintained throughout the story. Too many stories start out exciting and then just fizzle out.
- Is the main character exciting enough to hold the reader's interest throughout the story? What motivates the main character and drives her to act and change throughout the story?
- Do you really like your antagonist? You should! Your antagonist should be just as motivated to accomplish her goals as your protagonist and just as driven to succeed. Is your antagonist truly bad, or does she just behave badly? Villains who are truly evil are much more enjoyable than cardboard cut-outs who just cause trouble for the heck of it. What endearing or charming qualities does your villain possess that would allow the reader to care about them?
- Don't neglect your minor characters. They need to be credible and believable with their own motivations to act.
- Is the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist credible and strong enough to sustain the reader's attention throughout the story?
- What is your most memorable scene? What makes it work so well? How can less memorable scenes be strengthened to this level?
- What is your least memorable scene? Does it move the story forward? Would the story be stronger without it? Consider rewriting it or cut it out completely.
- What are the three most important actions in your story? Are they motivated in a believable way? Remember that "coincidence" in a story is not a credible reason for any action to occur. Review all other actions and either strengthen, rewrite, or cut them if they're not absolutely necessary to moving the story forward.
- Place yourself in the reader's seat and read the first page of your story. Are you compelled to keep reading? If not, you have work to do.
- Make sure there's something visual on every single page of your story. Never give the reader an excuse to remember they're reading a story. Help them visualize and become involved in the story.
- After fixing all the above, you're now ready for general revisions:
- Tighten the manuscript by cutting every word, sentence, paragraph and scene that does not contribute to the story. Be ruthless with your word choice and make every word work.
- Vary your sentence lengths to avoid a monotonous voice.
- Make sure the pacing matches your story arc.
- Fix point of view errors.
- Make sure the tension continues to mount throughout the story and the stakes are continually raised for the protagonist.
- Get rid of all but the most essential adjectives and adverbs.
- Eliminate all cliches and rewrite for originality.
- Vary and clarify all dialogue tags.
- Look for precise word choices and meanings.
- Add variety to your dialogue. Can exposition be replaced by dialogue? Is the dialogue confrontational enough? Does it actually move the story forward or is it just banter?
- Last but not least, correct all spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors.
By following this process, I've also learned to quiet my inner editor while I furiously write that first heated draft because I already know it won't be - and shouldn't be - perfect. I now know that writing my draft is just a way to sort through all the cupboards, drawers, and pantries looking for ideas and ingredients for a feast I can worry about baking and garnishing later for my readers.