Now, when I say revision tips, I don’t mean line-editing for spelling and punctuation. I don’t mean rewriting sentences and cutting words. No. I mean looking at the manuscript as a whole and making big, story-level changes.
This can be hard to do on your own. I definitely recommend getting a trusted critique partner to read your manuscript and give you feedback before you dive into a major revision. I’m very lucky to have two amazing writer friends who have read multiple drafts of my latest novel and given me honest and insightful feedback.
Speaking of my latest novel, I have been working on a YA contemporary for so long that by the time it gets published, it’ll seem like historical fiction. (Ha! I hope not!) I wrote the first draft back in 2014. Since then, it’s undergone several major revisions. During these revisions, I’ve had some a-ha moments that have led to drastic – and I think for the best – changes. I’ve compiled a list of revision tips, many of which I used on my own manuscript. And be sure to check out my post 10 Questions to Ask Yourself When Revising a Novel.
#1 Maybe your story starts in the wrong place.
One of my MFA professors liked to tell the story of how he’d slaved away over a manuscript, and once it was done, he realized the story didn’t really start until page fifty. He cut the first fifty pages and began the novel there. I’m sure most writers have a story like this because I think it happens to almost everyone.
In our first drafts we often use the beginning chapters to set the scene, get to know the characters, and give back-story. And that’s fine, but if there’s no inciting incident, if the plot isn’t moving along, will your readers continue to read? It’s best to start as close to the inciting incident as possible. You can weave in scene, character development, and backstory as you go.
#2 Maybe your story shouldn’t be told linearly.
This revision tip goes along with #1, but is even more of a game-changer. Maybe your story shouldn’t be told in chronological order. Will it add more suspense or drama to start in the middle? To start at the end and work backwards? To jump back and forth between two time lines? Master novelists know that withholding information is what keeps readers turning pages, and one way to do that is to play around with story order.
#3 Maybe the wrong person is telling your story.
Who is the most interesting character in your book? Is it your protagonist? Is it one of the narrators or point of view characters? No? Well then, why not?
Think about how the story would change if it were told from another perspective. Would it heighten the drama and tension? Would it make your story more interesting or unusual? I’m not suggesting you tell the story from the point of view of the cat or anything, but sometimes thinking about the story from another character’s point of view can be a great revision tip.
For more tips on point of view see my post 6 Point of View Mistakes in Fiction (and how to fix them!)
#4 Maybe your story is the wrong genre
Have you written what you think is an adult novel, but it’d be better as a YA (or vice versa)? Are you trying to write a thriller but find yourself more interested in the romance developing between two characters? Have you thought about what the genre of your manuscript is? Maybe that’s a place to start. Look at how other books in that genre are structured, and see how yours is measuring up.
#5 Maybe you don’t need a certain character/plot point/chapter/entire section
This is where we get out the revision machete. You’ve probably heard the expression “kill your darlings.” That’s usually more on the line-by-line level, getting rid of precious but unnecessary descriptions or passages (which I also recommend). But here, I’m saying, look at the big picture of your story then ask yourself these questions:
- What’s necessary? What’s not?
- What’s crowding or confusing the story?
- What’s potentially boring to readers?
- What was in the book from a previous draft that doesn’t need to be there anymore?
Take a cold, calculating look at your manuscript (or get someone else to) and start getting rid of whatever doesn’t serve the story.
#6 Maybe you shouldn’t reveal the mystery/secret so soon.
I once read a mystery/thriller manuscript in which, halfway through the novel, the protagonist figured out who the killer was. The book continued for another 100+ pages, and my biggest critique for the writer was… why?? Why would we keep reading once we know the identity of the killer?
Even in novels that aren’t mysteries, there are often secrets or pieces of information that are kept hidden from the reader or the protagonist or both. When and how you reveal these secrets can affect the suspense and tension of your story and be the reason why a reader does or doesn’t keep turning pages.
#7 Maybe you can tell the same story, but in a new or different way.
Recently I’ve been listening to the Manuscript Academy Podcast (which I highly recommend!) and one of the things it’s made me realize is that agents are constantly queried with the same sorts of books. You may think your story idea is unique, but chances are, it’s not.
In one of the podcasts, an agent was talking about a YA query she received — a book about a young girl dealing with race relations in the 1960’s. She was disappointed, she said, because she wants YA books about race relations, but the story of race relations in the sixties has already been told many times over. She wished that the writer had taken some of the same ideas and instead written a YA story about race relations in the present day.
Similarly, think about your story and how you could turn it into something truly unique. Here’s an example: the YA novel Cinder by Marissa Meyer, which is a Cinderella retelling set in futuristic Bejing, in which Cinderella is a cyborg.
Where are you in the revision process? I’ve now written so many drafts, I’ve lost count what number I’m on. But I think I’m getting close, and I hope you are, too! For more tips, see my post What to Do Once You’ve Typed The End: 7 Next Steps for When You Finish Your Manuscript.