Edit me: tricks for revising

As many of you know, I recently finished my second novel, BLOOD RED SUN.  Part of this process involved a lot of serious revising and editing.  Awhile back, I wrote a post about some of the changes I felt I needed to make and how I approached revising as a process.  Today I follow up on that post by sharing the revising and editing tricks I used.  I make no special claims at expertise here,  but merely share things I found useful in the hopes that you may too.

Revising and editing a novel poses two major differences from revising a short story: 1. keeping track of of all the different threads in the novel, and 2. getting through its not-inconsiderable bulk without losing focus.  For the former, the use of a diagram or spreadsheet can be really useful; create rows for each chapter and columns for its setting, the characters present, the action that occurs, the character development that occurs, and so forth.  I use strikethrough and different colors to keep track of changes.

When it comes to keeping focus, I create a hierarchy of revisions – big stuff (plot changes, character development, and so on) first, followed by smaller changes (improvement of setting, fine-tuning description details, etc.), and, finally, editing.  Then, for each type of revision, I make multiple passes through the manuscript.

In the final revisions of BLOOD RED SUN I had several areas I knew I wanted to revise.  One was to improve the textural feel of the world (the sights, sounds, tastes, and so forth).  Another was to work on bringing out my protagonist’s thoughts and feelings; showing her emotions through her actions and reactions.  Doing both of these things at once seemed daunting, so I separated them and gave my full attention to each in different passes through the novel.  This might seem like it would take more time, but it actually speeds things up — you move through each chapter more quickly because you are working on just one thing, and one thing only.

Still, during an editing pass I sometimes find I can maintain clear-eyed focus for only a few chapters.  At that point, I stop being able to edit and just start reading.  When you’re reading, your eyes tend to skip over small errors and you forget exactly what it is you were supposed to be looking for in the first place.  Worse, you get fatigued and the earlier chapters end up being much more highly revised and edited than the later ones.

One way to overcome this challenge is to break the novel up into non-contiguous sections.  A trick I found effective was to revise randomly.  I wrote all the chapter numbers on little slips of paper and put them in a bowl.  I’d draw one, revise whatever chapter was listed, and then draw another.  This kept me from getting pulled into the story and allowed me to focus on the book in little sections, really honing my editing knife.

When I draft, I also often leave bits unwritten.  These bits are peppered throughout the novel, written in brackets, and colored red to remind me of their languishing and unloved state.  An example: [insert DESCRIPTION OF THE CAMP here] or [look up SPECIES OF SNAKE].  During revision I have to go back and fix all these bad boys.  Many of them tend to be description related and it can get tough to think up beautiful new descriptions off the cuff.

To solve this problem, I create master documents with descriptions of the world.  BLOOD RED SUN was a desert world, so I had fifteen different ways of describing the sand, twenty-five different ways of describing cactus (plus a list of all the species of cactus), ten different ways of talking about the way morning light hits the mountains, how the air smells after it rains, and so on.  As I went through the manuscript, I’d use these descriptions in appropriate places, marking them off on the master sheet so I wouldn’t repeat them.  This worked so well for me that I actually ended up doing separate sheets for descriptions of the various cities, of the clothing people wore, and of the food they ate.

Finally, for the smallest level stuff – fixing typos, excising excess words, and tightening the prose — I used the method laid out in the 10% Solution (a genius little book).  Here you use the search function in your word processing program to focus on a single word (“that” or “of” or “was”, for instance).  You go through each and every instance of this in the novel and decide whether to revise, remove, or keep the offending sentence.  This is sooooo tedious, BUT it really works because it forces you to focus at the level of the sentence without any other distractions, something you could never do if you were reading as opposed to using ‘search’.  The method is called the 10% Solution because it usually results in you axing about 10% of your word count (all of it flab).

So, those are my tricks:

  • Using a spreadsheet to keep track of your plot lines, characters, and arcs
  • Making multiple passes, each focused on a very specific type of revision
  • Chopping the novel up into sections and editing them randomly as opposed to reading through them in order
  • Using master sheets for world-building (descriptions, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, etc)
  • Using the 10% Solution to hone the manuscript into a lean, mean machine

What do you think – do any of these things sounds helpful?  Are you already doing some of them?  What other editing and revising tricks have you found effective?

Do tell.