Revision: the last essential process in writing a book

I’ve just finished the final revise of the fourth book in my Amsterdam crime series. The delivery manuscript has gone to the publishers so I’m now in that odd twilight zone between one project and the next.

What to do? I know: put down some thoughts on the revision process.

Why do we spend time editing and rewriting a manuscript? Simple: to make it better. As a professional in this field I feel that’s my duty. If you’re a newcomer looking to sell something you have good reason too.

Twenty years ago agents and editors were dealing with a fraction of the number of authors and books they handle today. Back then they might have seen a promising project and thought, ‘This needs a lot of work on my part but maybe it will be worth it in the end.’ Today you’re not likely to get that amount of attention because they simply don’t have the time to fix things you should have fixed in the first place. Editors aren’t there to do your job for you. And a responsible author wouldn’t want them to.

So making sure your manuscript is as good as you can possibly make it is pretty much essential in the modern commercial publishing environment. If you send in something sloppy and full of silly mistake you should have picked up you mark yourself down as an amateur. Editors and agents can spot them a mile off.

Here’s the other thing you need to bear in mind about revision: it is a perilously time-limited process. You only have so many bites at the apple. Keep revising needlessly, time and time again, and you’ll find the law of diminishing returns kicks in. Read anything often enough and it will appear to be a load of crap in the end. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it isn’t. But all those extra stabs at it have added nothing except more sleepless nights.

Long ago I came to the conclusion that I have just three meaningful stabs at a draft before tedium and mind-numbness kick in. Yes. Just three read-throughs that I hope will add that extra few per cent to turn a good book into a better one.

Here’s the secret to making the most of them. Every revise is different.

Let’s get going then. You will need…

  • Three different hats, one for each of the key consumers of your book, an editor, a line editor and a reader.
  • Your manuscript in close to delivery format. I write in Ulysses and love it and it makes the process of building a book as easy as it could possibly be (which is still bloody hard, of course). But I must deliver in Word format because that is the lingua franca of publishing. Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that, whatever app you use for writing your book, it makes sense to use a conventional word processor to do the final edits. Apps like Ulysses and Scrivener work so well because they let you juggle, combine and split scenes so easily. By the time you’ve reached a draft delivery state that sort of work should be over. Get your book out into Word (or Pages on the Mac, which works very well too) and do the last revisions there.
  • A means of reading your work away from the computer. This could be a printout. Or perhaps a tablet, preferably one with a stylus that works like a pen so you can scribble on a PDF and read your own writing.

Right. Let’s go.

Revise One: All Hail the Line Editor

The normal publishing process is for your editor to oversee the major changes in your work and a line editor will then deal with the copy edit. Here I reverse those roles. My first revise is the easiest of all: a simple line edit. I’m not ‘reading’ the story. I’m going through it with a fine tooth comb. I simply want the text to be as clean as possible, removing bad phrasing, repetition, stuff that just doesn’t work.

This is the only revision stage that happens at the computer. All I do is go through the manuscript line by line and clean it up. I don’t use track changes. Since the manuscript is an export from Ulysses into Word/Pages I have the original anyway. All I’m trying to achieve is a clean read without asking any big questions.

I repeat: this is the easiest revision of all. But in part that’s because of the way I work throughout the writing process. I revise constantly along the way. Each day I start by reading the scene I wrote the day before, tweaking that, then thinking about how it fits into the structure before I go on to write something new. That way by the time I reach draft manuscript status most of the scene-juggling work should be out of the way. The narrative should be established. I’m not one of those writers who just bashes something out then looks to a revise as a way to fix the whole thing. If you are (and there’s nothing wrong with working that way) then little of this may work for you.

Revise Two: The Editor Delivers His/Her Verdict

I now have a pretty clean manuscript, one hopefully shorn of the grossest of errors. Now I need to wear a new hat: that of the editor who has decided this book is worth publishing and will want to do whatever he or she can to improve the work.

Here’s one big tip about writing in general: always underwrite, never overwrite. When you start out you’re often so amazed you’ve written anything at all that you think your words are precious. They’re not. They’re just words. Beginners can think a book is ‘finished’ when it reaches a certain word count. And fulfilling that word count is what matters.

Nothing could be further from the truth. A book is finished when the story says so. Whether that’s sixty, eighty, a hundred or two hundred thousand words is irrelevant. The narrative makes the choice. Stuffing material to fill may help you hit the word count for NaNoWriMo. But that’s all.

More importantly I have to hark back to my original comment about editor time. It’s limited and you will get far more useful input from an editor if he/she is suggesting what can be added to your book to improve it, than if they’re simply pointing out narrative flab that can be removed without damaging the structure at all.

So keep the story sharp and short and clean. Underwrite, not overwrite. Always.

What am I doing in this part of the process? I’m trying to read the story from a broader point of view, with as much detachment as I can muster.

Does the narrative hold up? How rounded are there characters? Are there logical gaps that need filling? Have I made the most of each scene’s potential?

It’s very important I do this away from the computer for one simple reason. If I have the actual document in front of me I will be tempted to make those changes as I work, on screen. No editor would do that. They’d read the whole thing, mark it up and make notes, and then pass it on to the author to deal with. I do the same, though I may deal with revisions section-by-section rather than marking up the whole book first.

For this part of the game you need a printout of your work on A4 or US letter paper, in big type with something like 1.5 line spacing. The kind of format books were once delivered in back when we used paper. You can still use paper for this if you like. I find it a very messy process though, juggling four hundred or so pages. So I now use a tablet. An Android tablet with a stylus, such as one of the Galaxy Note models, works well with an app called Squid. You just import your PDF and scribble on it. The Surface Pro line is very good at this too with an app called Drawboard that does much the same and has a few tools, such as side-by-side pages, that Squid lacks.

Once I’ve marked up my PDF I import it back into the Mac, place the revisions on one half of the screen and the Word doc on the other, then go through the corrections page by page.

Revise Three: Time to meet the reader

You are now in dangerous waters. You’ve written this book. You’ve just read it very closely twice. Perhaps doubts are creeping in (this is entirely normal). There’s just one more chance to tweak it before you enter diminishing returns land where all confidence in your abilities as a writer may well turn to dust.

We’re going to output the book one last time and read it as a PDF, either printed out or on a tablet. But this time we’re going to wear the hat of a reader and there’s a very simple way to wear that: output your book in the form a reader sees it, as a typeset book page like this.

Two manuscript pages printed out side-by-side for printing to paper. For a tablet I’d output them as single pages

How you do this depends on the software you use. You can fiddle around with page size or try setting the output to two pages per print page. If you use Ulysses there’s a much easier method. Just drag your Word file back into Ulysses then export it using a PDF style like this one. Straight off you’ll get a single line spaced paperback book style PDF for printout or editing on screen. There is, I think, an equally easy way to achieve this in Scrivener, not that I can recall the details. Mark up the PDF then return to the Word file to make the corrections.

With this last pass I’m not going think about structure or editing at all. I’m going to try to thrust from my head all memory of writing the thing and try to read and assess it afresh, making notes along the way. You’ll be amazed how much more you spot when your A4 or US Letter manuscript is transformed into something that looks like a typeset book.

After that… well if you have the energy for another revise pass then do it. Usually by then I’m ready to send the thing off.

I’ve gradually developed these steps over the years and they’re now an established part of my writing process. But let’s go back to the earlier question: why not do them all in the app used for writing your book? Why export to something else?

Ulysses and Scrivener work so well because they give you enormous control over the creative process of building a narrative. You can move scenes around, split them, join them, delete them temporarily, produce different versions. It’s like being an artist with a very powerful palette of colours, inks, paints and brushes. You can keep on trying until you find the right ones.

But then, at some stage, the structure of the book is complete. You don’t need to move scenes around any more. The narrative is set. What do you do then? Exactly what an artist would do. You step back from the canvas and try to look at the painting as a whole.

Yes, you can do that within Ulysses and Scrivener. But if I do I’m still aware of the structure. It’s visible in the sidebar. I’m always going to be tempted to tinker with things that are probably best left alone. And I’m always aware that, in the end, this has to go into Word anyway, and, for reasons I don’t fully understand, I’ll have to read it there before delivery too.

When I output to a conventional word processor I’m making a statement to myself: the writing part of this project is done and now it’s time to deal with the fine tuning before delivery.

All the tools you get with apps like Scrivener in particular can, if you’re not careful, become self-defeating. They may appear to make your life easier but they can also add complexity when it isn’t needed. Yes, they may give you a very clear bird’s eye view of the book. But do they do that for the reader? A reader doesn’t see your notes, your synopses, or your carefully thought out hierarchical structures. All they get is the book… and the book is what I finally see when I take a project out of the place it was written and drop it into something else.

Producing a book is like building a house. Ulysses is where I do the design, the construction work, the plastering and painting, laying down drains and putting in electricity. But at some stage I need to walk outside that structure and look at what I’ve created from the outside. If I don’t all I see is bricks and mortar, not the finished building.

Now for the customary caveat… this is my take on things. Yours may be very different. No two writers work in exactly the same way. Best to cherry pick the habits of others and find what works for you.