Revising manuscripts | Factsheets
WritersServices Factsheet 14 by Michael Legat
Professionals revise, amateurs all too often don’t.
If you are writing a book, you should not begin revision until you have a completed draft. If you are tempted to revise the first chapter, it is all too easy to find yourself revising it over and over again and never getting around to writing the rest of the book.
A completed first draft should be put away for as long as you can bear, so that when you next look at it you will do so with slightly new eyes.
Most professional authors revise their work several times, and you should certainly revise as many times as is essential. However, you should not be tempted to revise over and over again, which will mean that you have developed Permanent Revision Syndrome. You must decide for yourself for how long you will go on revising. Four revisions might be reasonable.
In the first revision you should look at the overall structure of the book, checking, if it is a novel, that the story flows steadily towards its ending, but not without twists and turns and surprises, that the characters develop and are sympathetic, that the subplots are carefully knitted into the main plot, and so on. Have you used techniques such as the cliffhanger to keep the reader on tenterhooks? You will probably also need, since most writers have a tendency to over-write, to prune the book savagely wherever it needs it.
The second revision should look at the detail, and ask many questions. Have the words you have chosen conveyed your meaning? Are there awkward phrases? Have you been consistent throughout (for instance, make sure that your heroine’s eyes stay the same colour)? Have you repeated words in consecutive sentences so that they have become obtrusive?
The third revision is when you read the whole work aloud- or preferably persuade someone else to read it to you. The ear is a much better editor than the eye, and you will notice much that your eye has slid over.
For the fourth revision read the whole book through in one session. This is when you notice that you have a given two very minor characters the same name, or when you realise that you have forgotten to follow up a strand of the story which you had started.
If you feel that the book is slow-moving, allow yourself one further revision, in which you will try to cut 5% of the material – a few words here, a paragraph there, perhaps a whole page or more. You will be surprised at the sparkle it imparts.
You should not fiddle with the text any more. Send it off to a publisher and do any additional revision only if it is turned down several times or if an interested publisher suggests changes.
© Michael Legat 2001