You’ve done it! You’ve finished the first draft of your novel. Well done, fearless wordsmith. Hopefully, you’ve built in some time to celebrate and reward yourself. Now, though, it’s time to think about revising your novel.

The revision process is where the work of fiction writing comes into play. It’s where the love of the craft helps push you through the drudgery of reading hundreds of pages multiple times. And with even the smallest plan of attack, you’ll be able to break down the seemingly monumental task before you.

As Michael Crichton famously said:

“Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten.”

You’ve probably spent a ton of time working on the elements of craft, style and outlining that helped you to write your first draft. So, how do you even approach the hard, sleeves-rolled-up work of improving your story through revision?

TheRightMargin helps you plan and finish writing projects, especially longer projects composed of many intricate steps, like revising the first draft of your novel. We’ve structured the tool to allow you to set achievable goals against larger milestones. The following is a guide for how to use the tool  for a special approach to revisions–revisions in passes.

First, let’s start with setting milestones you’d like to achieve for your revision. I recommend keeping your project focused on a single draft, rather than your entire revision process – and to include milestones focused on passes within that draft.

Okay – what do I mean by “passes”? The common draft-by-draft process of revising your novel often neglects the multiple elements of revision to which one could attend. But focusing on too many elements of revision during a draft can easily overwhelm even the most seasoned writer. Instead, choose a focus for each pass you perform on a draft – such as character, setting, plot, theme, dialogue, pacing…and it goes on. Make each pass within a draft achievable and you’ll have a smoother revision process where you won’t feel quite so overwhelmed by all the elements you think you should be concerned about. Each pass makes a natural writing milestone in TheRightMargin. As you focus on that work, your setup within TheRightMargin might look like the below image, with each pass including notes and areas to focus on improving/changing. Keep in mind these are known areas of a novel that any writer should focus on. As you move through the process of preparing to attack your second draft, this will grow and change based on the issues you identify in your first review. 

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That said, let’s zero in on how to build your first month of revision, by increments of days and weeks. Passes will come as you move into the work of Draft Two.

Day 1: Glimpse the Future

Print out your manuscript! It’s an incredible feeling to see your draft printed out and to hold it in your hands. It is the physical manifestation of something that has taken quite a long time to develop. Have it bound. Give it a shiny cover and label it “First Draft” (it’s important to stay humble, after all).

And then, put in a drawer.

Day 2-14: Inhale, exhale, repeat

Take a break and let your novel breathe.

It’s going to be tough, I know – the feeling that you aren’t immediately taking that next step toward advancing your brilliant work. But like a wine aging in an oak barrel, your novel needs a little time to develop – and so do you. Time away from your book will give you the distance you need to return to it more objectively.

What should you do in the meantime? If you’ve been writing more than a thousand words a day and want to keep up a habit, start a new project. It doesn’t have to be a novel. Try a short story, or work on a plan for another new story. It doesn’t even have to be fiction. Try writing a review or an essay. Try journaling, freewriting, or morning pages. Whatever rhythm you’ve gotten into, keep it up. BUT

Don’t feel bad about taking a break. Even just a short one might help recharge your creative batteries.

Day 15: Reflect on my first draft

Take some time to create a simple list – or writing retrospective – about your first draft.

Think about the story you told and how you told it:

  • What worked well? This could be anything from where and when you wrote best, to specific scenes, to aspects of scenes (dialogue, description, setting, plot, character), what didn’t go so well, and what you’d like to change moving forward.
  • Where did you light up, write furiously in a state of flow?
  • Where did you struggle out of the gate? This will do two things to help you think critically about your writing: One, it will identify the good and bad (or easy and painful) part of the process, and two, those elements, both in revision and future, drafting you can work on moving forward. For example, if you found that writing dialogue was easy because writing the setting was so hard, your way of moving forward might be to learn more about writing setting into your story.

Every gap in your draft is an opportunity to learn and grow as a writer. The fact that you can see the valleys implies you have a sense of taste and the beginnings of what it takes to bridge them.

Day 16-22: My plan of attack

What do you need to do to advance your second draft?

  1. Set a clear intention for the draft. You can’t know you’ve completed a draft if you didn’t know what you wanted to complete in the first place. Sounds simple, eh? It is. Simply decide what you will focus on during your draft, and be clear about what you will not focus on. Write it down. Post it above your writing space. Pin it to your fridge. Put it in your wallet. Make it both your first and last milestone in TheRightMargin for this draft.
  1. Next, separate your novel into different chapters and scenes. If you didn’t print it out in the first place, do so now. Put a paper clip on each. If you outlined before writing, place the outline for that scene on the cover.
    1. Grab a set of different colored pens and read through your novel one scene at a time, noting in the margins where there are elements of:
      1. Backstory
      2. Exposition
      3. Setting
      4. Dialogue
      5. Character Description

This will help you identify where there are large blocks of copy (especially exposition and backstory) that you might need to cut later. It’s a great visual cue, even for the unseasoned revisionist.

  1. At the end of each scene, write down the Goal, Motivation, and Conflict + Hook. If one element of GMC is missing, be sure to note that as a gap. Also consider adding the hook that ends the scene, and which keeps the reader moving forward, interested and engaged. This will help keep you focused on action and pacing, and avoid lulls in the story.
  1. Also, add a quick summary of how your character is changing or has changed over the course of the scene. This may seem meta from a scene to scene basis, but it will help you see where there may be long periods of time where your character isn’t forced to change due to GMC – and attending to that lack of change could be among the most important facets of your first draft work.
  1. Every few scenes (between 3-5), note what gaps you are aware of. It could be a character who appears but who you never introduced, a sudden change of setting, an odd jumping around in your pace, or a scene that is missing between one and the next. Gaps identify the missing information you know you’ll need to fill in at a later date in the revision process.
  1. Look for patterns.You should have a sense of feeling for them already but review steps 2-5 if necessary. Each opportunity for improvement can be a milestone in TheRightMargin.

If you’re setting this milestone in TheRightMargin, your project might look like this:

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Day 23-26: Create my cut file

Go through your colored-pen edits and locate all the areas of backstory, exposition, setting and description that look to be too long in the tooth. Make a list of all those areas, on a scene by scene basis, that you could trim back, or cut altogether. While the colored-pen approach may have seemed cumbersome during your first pass, you’ll appreciate the visual aid now.

Day 26-30 – Build my roadmap for completion of draft two

Based on the above mini scene outlines (GMC+Hook+Character transformation) and your notes on any gaps, write down what, if anything, you need to do to fill gaps, add missing dramatic elements that advance scene, and help your character transform.

This should come in the form of a list of scenes, or research that you will do to finish draft 2. For each scene, also include a note on what cuts you’ll need to make during your revision. The next iteration of your pass list for Draft Two might look like this:

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Now, perhaps you didn’t use an outline in your first draft. And that’s fine. But I highly recommend creating one now for the work you need to do ahead. By outlining the writing you need to do to attend to gaps, and what you need to cut, trim or improve, you’re more likely to stay within the confines of what is necessary to advance the story. While this constraint first may feel strange by comparison to the free-wheeling days of your first draft, at this point in the process the discipline will help keep you on track and from following rabbits down their myriad holes.

In Summary

You may read guides to revising your novel that include many more steps than this, but I have found that is far better to break a large process down into a series of achievable steps. You’ll have another two drafts to attend to other elements of revision, and by the time you reach them, you’re likely to find honing a more polished piece is easier and more pleasurable than the first hack through the deep weeds.

And, when keeping your drafts and passes to short, measurable objectives, you’ll be able to regularly recognize your progress toward finishing!

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