Revision, or Helping Me Help You!

I recently had lunch with one of my amazing and wonderful clients.  We were busy talking over the novel that she’s currently working on.  This is the novel that I signed her up for; it’s a marvelous book that takes place in an fantastically inventive world, peopled with characters that cleave to your heart (I can’t wait for people to read this book, can you tell?).  We picked apart a particular scene, came up with some good ideas and then she asked me this, “How can I help you help me?”

Well!  How lovely to be asked!  I was happy to answer of course, and thought I’d share that answer here for others who are at the same relative point – beginning revisions of your novel. 

The best thing you can do is: Stop.  Stop and take some time before you begin writing or re-writing.  Give yourself some time.   

Why?  Because a part of revision takes place off-stage, in your unconscious.   I’ve always disliked discussions of the writing process that give things a feel of the mystical or ineffable, and that’s not what I want to do here but, even if you’re not a writer, you know what I’m talking about – have you ever woken up in the middle of the night with that light bulb thought?  That’s the brain putting pieces together in ways you might not have seen initially.  Have you ever said, I get my best ideas when I…?  Whatever the rest of that sentence is, I bet you don’t get your best ideas when you sit down to figure out your best ideas.  Sometimes, you have to leave things alone; jumping right in might close the door to an unexpected idea.

There are so many pressures sitting on a writer’s shoulders, that I know.  And there’s more to revision than what I’m discussing here of course.  But take this small piece of advice:  Stop and sit with things for awhile.  You might be surprised what light bulb you get in the middle of the night.

What revision advice do you have to share? What ideas do you use?


  1. As a corollary to what you said, I think it's important to wait until you have a vision for how the entire manuscript is going to shape up. It's so easy to get lost in the trees when you're revising and forget about the forest, but if you lose sight of the forest, you lose sight of the project as a whole. And it's the project as a whole that we're (usually) trying to fix, not individual trees.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Susan, and once again, welcome to the blogosphere! We're happy to have you here:)

  2. Great post! I finished the second draft of my novel right before NaNoWriMo and vowed to set it aside until December 1 in order to let it stew while I worked on finishing the first draft of book 2 and starting book 3 of the trilogy. Now that I have a lot more done on the trilogy, going back and editing the first book allows me to weave in some great texture that corresponds to the second and third books as well as streamline the whole trilogy a lot better than if I'd "finished" the first one before starting the others.

  3. The cooling off period before revision is a great idea. Perspective is what we get when we slow down enough to think.

  4. Since I'm at the end of my revisions, I get this. In the beginning, I started to edit while I wrote the book. Big mistake, for me. This book, I waited until I was completely through before I went back. And wow, the "how the heck to I fix this" was so much clearer. As writers we get impatient sometimes but if we just hold off, revisions will go so much smoother.

  5. Well, having tried other ways, I know now that you are right, Susan.

    I benefited from your great revisions, and when I got the last "not yet but I'll look at another revision or new project," I did indeed set MS 1 aside and wrote for a while on MS 2. I got a tremendously powerful idea for MS 2 from my crit partners and it stunned me so much, I went back to MS 1!

    When I did it was if I had never seen it before. Well, that's an exaggeration, but I suddenly saw the holes and the lack of thoughts and feelings and the rushed quality.

    I have always gotten my best ideas staring out the window or as I lie between waking and sleeping in the morning, but now the faucet seems open for a steadier flow of, not ideas exactly, but for ways to deepen and enhance the story and the characters.

    This revision is now in month four and I am about half way through. You are so right. There is nothing like stepping back and slowing down, piddling with a different problem, and then returning, recharged.

  6. Writerperson, this is great to hear. I'm so glad that revision comments were helpful, but also that the time away made a difference!

  7. So true! Sometimes it's tough to see the heart of a problem till I put the manuscript away for a day or two. Looking at something with fresh eyes helps bring out the truth in the writing or even open new paths. I'm glad I'm not the only one that feels this way.

    As for other revision techniques, I find that reading the piece aloud to myself really helps. A lot of times my brain skips over things when I'm reading in my head, and pronouncing every word helps bring out, odd word choices, character reactions that are off, and sometimes even a new idea or two. It sounds weird but it helps a lot.