Posted by: Matt Q. McGovern | August 8, 2012

Revision – the second rite of passage.

When anyone asks me about getting into writing, specifically novel writing, I always say that the most important thing to do is to get your first draft of your novel finished. Forget about everything else. Don’t worry about polishing it because it is not your final draft. It’s more important to get out of the 99.9 % of people who started their novel but never finished it. And also to prove to yourself that you’re a storyteller.

Well, after getting that draft done, I found that there’s another "most important thing to do" that trumps the first. Call it a second rite of passage. This is revision, specifically where you take all that you’ve done and rip it apart. Again and again.

Keeping your focus on your storyline (and hopefully keeping the same enthusiasm) that you had while writing the first draft can be overwhelming. For instance, the hardest obstacle that I ran into while revising was when I found out that my word count was way too high. Being able to scope out your whole storyline and seeing what word count comes of each part of it is a skill that you simply have to get better at. Advice that I was given suggested that I make it two books. But no matter what I did to try to make an ending out of a major scene in the middle of the book, I kept seeing the much better ending that would now be the end of book two. Over time, I realized that my book was much better in its second half, which told me to rewrite the first half (make book 1 all over again).

Another part of revision I learned was to go through your whole manuscript, line by line, and just trim out parts that are not needed. Whether it be words that are redundant or just lines that are not needed at all for the story. While doing this, I was very conscious at the time of the fact that my manuscript was much too big, so my trimming became aggressive in a way that made me extremely frugal in my use of words. Afterwards, I noticed that being this way dramatically affected my writing from that point on in a negative way. That fun, wind-in-your-hair feeling of typing as fast as I can while I’m seeing the scene in my head was gone. Now I was just nit-picking. And of course, there’s the experience of reading other books where you swear the author wasn’t being this frugal with their choice of words.

The above two areas of revision were the toughest for me, but there are many others. You can do one pass through your manuscript for each one, or combine some of them. Some examples are:

Clock and calendar: Making sure your characters say that something will happen in two days does in fact do so. Saying that in two days it will be Friday, and correcting where you said that it was Saturday.

Facts & measurements: Becoming as much an expert in something as you need when one of your characters is. Like knowing what you need about police enforcement if parts of your book include police officers. Don’t write about the use of a certain type of gun leaving shells if that type doesn’t leave empty shells. Science-fiction has lots and lots of fans that know their subject, and may very likely be turned off if you make major mistakes in the world you’re writing about. Computer usage is a very popular subject that many, many readers (including myself) know very well. Readers tend to notice discrepancies.

Dialogue analysis: Going through your manuscript and making sure each character’s dialogue is consistent from the beginning of the book to the end (as well as making sure they sound the same in previous books, if you’re continuing a series). It’s also good to make sure each character has a unique voice. Lastly, it’s good to read the dialogue out loud, to make sure you’re conveying the character’s point of view as best as you can.

There are many more subjects about revision to talk about, and they can all take a significant amount of time. One thing I’ve found is that it’s a very good idea to go through them as fast as possible because the more time you spend in revision, the further you get away from the writing you did. You end up analyzing your manuscript more than shaping it into a polished product.

The good news is that with practice, you get better at this. It’s much easier to go into revision for your second book after going through some of the experiences you may have with revision the first time. I know I did.


  1. I might also add that the more you learn from revising one novel, the less you will have to revise the next, because you will know what NOT to do as well as what to do as you write the first draft.


  2. There are many successful writers who have written 30 or more books. I don’t believe they rip it apart again and again. Surely they don’t sweat over every line, the way some of us do. Have they mastered the art, or does their low effort make their writing less worth reading?


    • Part of it is the learning curve I mentioned earlier. Each time you write a book you learn a TON of stuff. Then you apply it to the next book and have less to revise. Thus, you begin to turn out books faster. And/or they hire editors to do the ripping so they can quickly make the needed changes. And they can be working on the next book while the editor has the last one.


  3. All this applies to memoir writing too, and speaking of memoirs, your whole well-written essay says a lot about the life cycle of a writer. Doing the first draft is like the first awkward steps we take after college to attempt to become adults. The revision process is like maturity, as you gradually warm to the fact that this isn’t easy but that you can do it anyway. Great piece. Writers need to talk about this more, but it’s so individual, and who would believe it until they actually had to do it themselves?


  4. I was considering the ripping apart over and over again to be a critical phase to go through, the first time you go through it. It’s definitely a parallel to maturity.

    And I’m looking forward to a time where I’m a lot better at revision. 😉


  5. […] Because of its topical reference to my own writing, I particularly enjoyed Matthew Q. McGovern's Revision – the second rite of passage. […]


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