How to Start Revising Your Novel
Congratulations! You’ve finished the first, or “draft zero” of your novel! Where do you go from here? How do you even begin to wrap your mind around the process of taking your thousands of words from a messy draft to a polished novel?
We've got you covered! This post lays out how to organize and keep track of your revisions, with the tools you'll need and an overview of the Level Down Revision Method, so that you can get started revising with confidence!
There are three things you'll need to stay organized and keep track of your revisions: a revision list, a storyboard, and a story bible.
A revision list is a list of tasks you need to complete to finish your revision. These can include things like fleshing out your main character’s backstory and adding more conflict to act 2, adding more tension to the fight scene or a goal to the first scene of act 2, or fixing tense inconsistencies on pages 25-28 and rewriting the dialogue on page 51.
Don’t worry about tackling each of these tasks just yet. Right now, you just need to organize and keep track of your tasks, so you have a clear picture of what’s been done and what you still need to do, and a revision list will help you do that.
The next thing you’ll need to stay on track is a storyboard. A storyboard is a high-level overview of your story that breaks the plot down into individual scenes. You can organize your scenes on physical index cards, or in digital format using software like Scrivener, Plottr, or even Trello.
When you’re deep in the middle of revisions, remembering all the events that take place in your story can be difficult to do. A storyboard will help you hold the entire story in your head and move things around within your story before you rewrite or revise anything. This will help you see how your changes will affect the rest of the plot, and how it fits within the larger scope of the story.
Your story bible is an in-depth master document where you’ll keep all the details of your story. This will include character profiles, worldbuilding details, brainstorms, research, and anything else that goes deeper than the high-level storyboard cards.
Creating a story bible will help you maintain consistency throughout your story as details change. It’ll keep you from making mistakes like accidentally renaming your character Linda when her name was Lydia at the start of the story or series.
You don’t have to build your entire story bible at once. You can add and update details about your story as you go through your revisions until you complete your final draft.
Now that you have the tools you need to organize and keep track of your revisions, you need a plan for tackling the process itself. This is where the Level Down Revision Method comes in! This overview of the three levels will give you an idea of how much time you'll need to spend on each stage of revising your manuscript.
The Level Down Revision Method
The quickest way to get frustrated with your revision is to start at page 1 and try to revise all the way to the end— you'll almost immediately find yourself getting hung up on details that may or may not even belong in the story. This is why we recommend starting your revision by looking at the big-picture storyline (the Story Level), then moving on to individual scenes (the Scene Level), and only then looking at sentences and word choice (the Page Level).
Start at the story level
The story-level revision is also known as developmental or structure editing in traditional publishing. This part of the process is where you focus only on moving around and changing the biggest pieces of your story, like plot, structure, character development, and worldbuilding.
Some examples of story-level revisions would be making sure the story starts in the right place, adding enough conflict to keep the story interesting, or fleshing out a character that needs more development.
During this stage, you’ll want to focus only on changes affecting multiple scenes or huge chunks of the story. Don’t worry about smaller changes that only impact one scene or one page. Until you can get the structure of your story nailed down, the scene and page level changes won’t matter much, as some of those scenes may get cut or need significant changes. So while it might be tempting to work on those smaller details now, it's a much better use of your time to stick to the big picture at this level.
Remember, this is not a race. Unlike fast drafting your novel, the revision process will be much slower and take a lot longer to get through. The story level revision is the longest revision level of the entire process as it usually requires the most amount of work.
Next, focus on scenes
Once you have the components of your story-level revisions in place, it’s time to tackle the scene level. The scene-level revision—also known as the detailed edit—is the part of the process where we zoom in and revise each scene to ensure it has all the essential scene components and keeps your readers engaged.
Scenes are the building blocks of your story, and they typically consist of a beginning, middle, and end, and usually center on one event, action, or situation. This level is all about ensuring every scene is dynamic and impactful on its own, so that combined, you have a powerful narrative.
Some examples of scene-level revisions are revising a scene to add a goal and/or conflict, changing the beginning of a scene so it starts in the right place, combining two scenes into one, or adding more emotion and tension during a confrontation scene with two of your characters.
Finally, revise at the page level
This is the last level in the revision process. The page-level revision is also known as the line edit, or the “polish pass.” This is where you’ll tweak your paragraphs, work on sentence structure, word choice, and more to really make your story sing.
This level involves checking if everything on the page is necessary, your paragraphs are as strong as they can be, the dialogue is compelling, you’re using the best words possible, and everything in your story is consistent.
Examples of page-level revisions include checking for passive voice, telling readers rather than showing, unnecessary or disjointed dialogue, filter words, and more.
The page-level revision may be faster or slower than the scene level depending on how much work your sentences and paragraphs need and how nitpicky you get with your edits.
One piece of advice with your page-level revisions: be careful not to fall into the perfectionist trap of rewriting your sentences over and over. There’s always going to be another way you can describe a setting or another way your character can say something— this can keep you trapped in revision mode forever. If you want to hold that final draft of your story in your hands, at some point, you’ve got to learn to let go and say, “Good enough!”
With these tips, you’ll be able to develop a strategy that will help you confidently navigate your way to a polished final draft!