How to Revise a Novel without Going Insane

(*squints off into the distance* What’s that? It’s Alex emerging from her pre/post/during exams hermitdom!)

I’ve been down this writerly road several times. Revisions aren’t not easy. You might think it’ll be easy and you’ll be done in a few days, but yeah, no. Not happening. Inevitably, there will be a lot of junk food consumed and tears shed, but you don’t have to let it take over. Here are a few ways to make sure revising/rewriting doesn’t make you lose your marbles:

  • Read it over first.

Yes, you read that right. Before you start revising/re-writing, read your manuscript over. Don’t change anything or edit anything—just read it over. I know it’s hard, but resist the urge. Instead, leave comments about what you like/don’t like or want to change. This way you have a sort of plan for your revision, and it’ll make things a lot easier once you actually start.

  • Save the revision under a new file name.

This way you still have the old draft handy in case you accidentally delete something and need it back. That’s happened to me several times, but luckily I had the old draft saved so I didn’t lose anything. Also, if you use Word, there’s a handy function you can use under the ‘Review’ tab called ‘Track Changes’, which, like it says, tracks your changes. When you change something, it keeps the old text and shows you the changes you’ve made. I’d recommend selecting ‘Final’ instead of ‘Final: Show Markup’ under the drop-down menu so your changes are hidden and can’t distract you while you’re revising.

  • Change up your font.

I know this sounds silly, but this trick works for me. Before you start revising, change your font. I think the psychology behind this is that if you’ve read something over and over again, you get used to it. Switching the font makes your work seem different and thus makes you able to see it from a new perspective.

  • Find a book about plotting.

I’ve discussed this one before. Find a book—any book—about how to plot a novel and read it. Hell, even researching online can help. But if you’re looking for an actual book, I’d recommend PLOT PERFECT by Paula Munier. A literary agent recommended this book to me and I’ve used it religiously ever since.

  • Make a plot outline.

A lot of writers swear by these and a lot of writers don’t. That’s cool. I’m not saying you have to plan out every scene of your book—though if you like structure, you might want to do that—just something. Try the three-act structure and plot points approach. Try the Hero’s Journey approach. Even try the chapter-by-chapter approach if you’re up to it. I don’t know, man, just try something. Trust me—having an outline is really helpful for revising.

  • Make a list of your characters.

After that initial read-through but before you actually start revising/re-writing, make a list of all the characters. If you want, you can add some basic info—their role in the story, their basic appearance and personality traits, etc.—to their name, but that’s not necessary. Then, after you’ve got all your characters down, make sure every one of them is necessary and contributes to the plot. If you have too many characters—especially if some of them have similar names—things can get confusing. Maybe combine a few characters or take a couple out entirely. Just make sure that your characters won’t drag your manuscript down.

  • If you have templates for your main characters, look them over.

You might have changed something or thought of something new since the last revision or even forgotten something. Looking over your templates helps keep your characters fresh and in your mind. Also, if you don’t have a character template, you should probably use one. You can find a character questionnaire chart here and a character template here.

  • Do extra research.

If your story is the kind that necessitates research, then it’s pretty likely that you’ve already done some research. But before you start your next revision, it’s probably a good idea to look over your research or do some more just to keep what you know fresh in your head.

  • Find music that helps you focus or inspires you.

I find it a lot easier to write when I’m listening to music that inspires me. I know a lot of people say that “real writers” don’t need music or noise to write, but hey, whatever works for you. If you like writing in silence, go on ahead and do that. If you like listening to nature sounds, you can use this site and do that. If you like listening to the noises of say, a coffee shop, you can use Coffitivity and do that. Whatever floats your boat, man. Personally, I like listening to instrumental playlists or songs with lyrics that set the mood for what I’m writing, and because of that, 8tracks is very helpful to me. You can search through tags to find what you want, so if you want to write a badass scene you can search for ‘badass’, or if you want a sad playlist you can search for ‘sad’, etc. It’s not for everyone, but it works for me.

  • If you get distracted easily, download an extension that allows you to block the Internet.

I’m a little leery about blocking my internet, because what if I need to do research and I can’t because it’s blocked? Maybe I just have separation anxiety issues. But at the very least, if you have any extensions that pop up to tell you that you have a new email or whatnot, turn them off. Close all those tabs you don’t need (or better yet, turn off your browser totally until you need to use it again) and for the time being, turn off your internet connection. You can turn it on when necessary and turn it on again afterward. Also, put your phone on silent. I know it’s hard not to check it, but that’s just another way to procrastinate.

  • Set limits to the amount of time/amount of work you can do per day.

Don’t let yourself get consumed by the revision. It’s easy to do, trust me, but you probably have other obligations (e.g. family, friends, school, work, paying bills, not turning into a hermit) to deal with. Set some kind of reasonable limit to the amount of work you can do. Set a timer for an hour and then take a break and then work for another hour. Say you’ll only edit a chapter or a couple thousand words at a time. Breaks are important, too. Without them, your eyes get tired and it’s hard to focus on what you’re doing and thus your work won’t be as good. If you want, you can use the Pomodoro Technique, wherein after a certain amount of time (usually twenty-five minutes) you take a short break. The version I’ve used for studying is twenty-five minutes of study = a five-minute break and after three twenty-five minute cycles, you get a fifteen-minute break.

  • Give yourself treats for finishing a certain amount of work.

Tell yourself that you can watch that new episode of your favourite TV show after you finish your prescribed amount of work. Get yourself a coffee from Starbucks after every 10,000 words edited. Tell yourself that you’ll buy that really nice pair of boots once you finish the initial revision. It’s basically self-bribery, but hey, if it works, it works.

  • Have someone you trust read it.

Critique partners are always very important. Once you’re done the revision and all the polishing you can think of, send it off to someone you trust—your friend, your mom, your significant other, your dog, whatever. Ask them to read it and give honest feedback about what they liked and didn’t like. What they say might hurt, but it’ll help you out in the long run.

  • Hang out with friends.

It’s really easy to forget about your friends and family when you’re in the middle of a revision, trust me. I’ve done this a lot and I feel super guilty about it. It’s important to not let those friendships fade away, so take a break from revising/rewriting and hang out with friends a couple times a week. And don’t just, like, invite them over to watch Scandal or whatever with you. Go outside. Yeah, that place outside your house. Outside. You need fresh air, and also, who knows, you might just experience something that’ll make it into your revision.

  • Make sure you eat and drink.

I have this problem,  partially because my computer is in the basement and my mom isn’t keen on letting me bring food down there (admittedly because I have a history of leaving it there) and partially because I have a habit of hyper-focusing and forgetting about trivial things like eating and drinking. But make sure you have some kind of fluids with you—be that water or coffee or tea or whatever—to keep you hydrated. Also—and I know this is a hard one—try and eat quasi-healthy. I know it’s fun to munch on a bag of Smartfood while revising but that kind of sustenance probably won’t help you out too much. Try fruit or nuts or something. Yeah, junk food is good sometimes—and you could probably make a case that glucose could help all your cylinders fire—but you still want to keep yourself sort of healthy.

  • If you don’t make it to your word-count goal, that’s okay.

Things happen and get in the way of your work. If something comes up and you can’t meet your word/time count goal, don’t sweat it. It happens. You can make it up the next day, and even if you don’t, that’s okay too. No one’s expecting you to be perfect but you.

If you have any other techniques that work for you, feel free to share them in the comments! I’m about to start another revision and I could use all the help I can get. 🙂


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