Revising for Excellence

Just to be clear, this blog post isn’t about editing. Which is just as well, since I’ve already written an entire book on that subject (Excellent Editing). That book was about the entire writing process, though, and this is specifically about revision—revision for writers, revision designed not just to eliminate typos but to turn an okay manuscript into a superb one.

“Every writer has their own way of doing things,” Patrick Rothfuss says, and he’s probably right about that. But I also think there are some essential steps when revising your manuscript, and you cannot skip any of them without undermining the quality of your work. So you finish your first draft, an impressive accomplishment. Once you’ve got a first draft, the chances that you will finish this book go up dramatically, and of course, if you finish, the chances that you’ll publish it go up dramatically. So let’s revise this book to improve your chances of finishing, of publishing, and breaking out big time, attracting the readers you need to make writing not just an avocation, but a vocation. Something you can do profitably for the rest of your life.

Six (Maybe Seven) Steps to the Revision Process

1) The Developmental Review-

Some people call this the developmental edit, but that always traumatizes me, because “edit” suggests making changes to the words, and there’s no point in doing that at this stage because so much is going to change. The idea is to get some useful outside input before you’ve spent so much time on it that everything is written in stone. This is very much revision—it’s simply revision that may take place before you’ve finished the manuscript.

Back in my early days at Ballantine/Random House, my editor was Joe Blades, a wonderful man who read everything I wrote and made genuinely valuable editorial suggestions—a concept that seems quaintly archaic in this modern era when “editors” are in meetings all day and rarely edit. For my last book at Ballantine, long after Joe departed, after getting no feedback for months, I finally asked my young editor if she was planning to edit the book. “Oh, did you want me to?” Yes, the publishing world has changed.

So you may need to phone a friend or hire someone for this, but it’s worth doing, because the truth is no author sees everything. Joe used to do it based on my outline. You probably want to have some pages down, maybe a first draft, or at the least a completed first act. This is the time for someone to point out things like—your protagonist is not interesting or likeble, the plot takes too long to get started, there’s no tension, no conflict, you have long boring parts or excessive description, etc. I do developmental critiques when asked and time permits, and I prefer to have a complete first draft (among other reasons, because the climax is so important), but I don’t insist upon it. You just need to have written enough that the reviewer can make intelligent contributions that save you time—spot something early so you don’t write several flawed drafts.

2) Self-Revision

No developmental edit is going to take the place of the author working over their own manuscript carefully and purposefully. I’ve written 48 published novels, but I’ve never let one of them out the door in fewer than ten drafts, and I think that’s one reason my books have developed a generally positive reputation. Some people can do it in fewer drafts (people who aren’t psycho perfectionists), but I can’t imagine a good book being achieved in fewer than five drafts. For me, the first draft is the painful process of getting all the words down. The second and perhaps third drafts are about solidifying the plot, which despite my outlining still largely emerges during the writing. Thrillers require airtight plots, so I take my time and get it right. At least one draft focuses on the characters. The most important is the protagonist, but all the main characters are important, all need to be distinct and memorable, all need to speak and behave differently. The last several drafts should focus on the language. Go over it slowly, read it backwards—whatever works for you.

3) Alpha/Beta Readers-

People use these terms differently. To me, the author is the alpha reader, so I send my manuscripts out to beta readers. Some people say the writer is not a reader, due to the complete inability to see your own work objectively. Some people send the first wave out to other writers, to catch technical problems only writers would catch, and then to readers, who can say whether it’s good, interesting, any fun. I do both at once—and the best choices are people who write—but are not so far removed from the pleasures of reading that they can’t enjoy a book as a reader too.

How many do you need? I don’t know, how many have you got? Phillip Margolin said at the conference one year that he has ten beta readers. His theory was that if only one raises a particular objection, it’s an outlier, safely ignored, but if six people say the same thing, it’s time to revise. My insecurities are sufficient that one complaint would be enough to cause me to get out the red pen. I think every criticism should be considered, but at the end of the day, it’s your book, and you have to make sure it is what you want it to be. Just don’t reject anything out of hand. You’re only cheating yourself. The point of having beta readers is not to have a cheering squad telling you how wonderful you are. The point is to help you see what you haven’t seen yet.

4) Line Edit—

Everyone needs a good line edit, and no, the line editor cannot be the writer. You’re too close. You won’t see many of the problems. Trust me, this is something worth paying for. You don’t want to be among the hordes of writers uploading books riddled with problems that draw readers out of the story, erode confidence, and cause mortification to the writer. Get someone who will carefully go over the manuscript line by line. If they’re good, they’ll find other issues beyond just typos. Anything that improves the pace, rhythm, or readability of your book is a plus. We do these edits too and I regularly do them for people I know. Friends don’t let friends publish bad books.

5) Read It Aloud—

I used to scoff at the concept of reading books aloud during the revision process, and I still don’t like it as a way to gain insight into the substantive content. When authors read aloud, they start adding inflection, drama, pace variation, and other cues that the non-author reader will not have. You should be trying to duplicate the reader experience, not practicing for your next book reading.

But I have learned to appreciate the value of reading a book aloud as part of the line-editing process. I’ve read the audiobook for my nonfiction books before, but only with the Daniel Pike series did I start reading novels. What an eyeopener! The first time I did it, I could barely finish a page without encountering some flawed line of Bill-prose I couldn’t wait to change. By the second time I read a novel, I took my laptop into the recording room with me so I could make changes as I encountered them before I forgot what they were. Let me tell you—this not only improved the book but allowed me to catch many potentially embarrassing errors.

Does this mean the prior line edit was inadequate? No. First, no one catches everything. Even books from big New York publishers have mistakes in the first edition. This is often how collectors can distinguish a first edition from later editions. No book is perfect. But since you’re reading the book aloud anyway, why not edit as you go and make the book even better than it already is?

6) The Gift of Time—

If you drive too close to the deadline, you lose the luxury of putting a manuscript away for a while, getting it out of your head, then re-reading it as a reader rather than the author. This can make a huge difference. When you’re writing, you miss things because you’re too close. But time can erode that disability. For various complex publishing reasons, The Game Master sat on the shelf for two years between when I thought it was finished and when it was actually going to be published. When I pulled up that manuscript after being away from it for two years—I was horrified. Who wrote this mess? How did I miss these glaring problems? Needless to say, the book was improved as a result, and now whenever possible I give myself the luxury of putting a book away for a time, then re-reading it before I send it off to be published.

7) Formatting-

One last note for those who self-publish. Formatting is almost as important as line editing. If a book looks unprofessional, it has the same negative impact as a book riddled with typos. It puts off readers. It allows them to get judgy and cast scorn on your book for reasons that have nothing to do with the content. If you use a Mac, get Vellum. It’s a great program and well worth the financial investment. Vellum also deals with the fact that we have no universal standard for eBooks. Vellum will give you a separate file for Kindle, Kobo, rtf, print, etc. You will have to learn how to use it, but it’s an intuitive program and you’ll pick it up quickly. If you’re on a PC, Scrivener may be your best option (but if I were you, I would go to the mall and get a Mac. Seriously. You’re a writer. You need the best.) You have the technological means to make your book look as good the the ones coming from larger publishers. So do it.

Bottom line: You’ve put a lot of work into this manuscript. Don’t quit before the job is done. Revise your way to success.

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