I am about halfway through the first revision of my novel. As I have learned from past writing experiences, and as I’ve been reminded by this one, the first revision is the toughest, and it can take almost as much time as writing the novel. Reason being, the first revision is the one in which some of the most important decisions are made, decisions that more clearly define your characters, plot, structure, and tone.

By the time you get around to the first revision, you have lived with your story and its style long enough to understand what it is you are trying to say and how you want to say it. This is a great place to be, but once you are there, you must recast the entire manuscript in light of your discoveries. Even the best planned drafts, for many writers, must undergo significant revision at this point.

Here are some tips that I’ve put together from my experiences with the revision process.

1) Understand that writing is rewriting. Thank you Barb Daniels, my favorite English professor (an adjunct, FYI) who repeated this principle to our class as a mantra. Embrace this truth, and your writing will thank you.

2) Tackle the big stuff before revising your sentences. Make sure that you have trimmed down and/or expanded upon the content of your novel before fretting over your commas. Get your plot structured, your chapters ordered, and you paragraphs organized before dotting your “i’s” and crossing your “t’s.”   You don’t want to spend five minutes perfecting a sentence that you might end up cutting.

3) Know your word count, and don’t be frustrated if you don’t meet it. Knowing how many words per hour/day that you can both edit and generate helps you to plan your work schedule, thereby, making the revision process more manageable. Remember, the average is just that–an average. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t hit your average every day. You will have cutting-heavy days, and it is especially difficult to feel productive on those days. When it comes to progress and word count, know thyself, and serve the writing, not the numbers.

4) When you are ready to edit your sentences, double check simple but easily confused words. I spend more time on dictionary.com looking up simple words than anything else. Even though I know most of the words, every time I revise, I am still surprised at just how jumbled up my brain gets when I draft 3000-7000 words a day. Homophones are killers, especially for writers like myself who write with their ears. Revise with your eyes and your brain, and part of that process means double checking your usage and definitions of words that sound or look similar to each other. Again, know thyself. Know your weaknesses, and work like heck to strengthen them. To give you a sense of what I mean by “simple” words, here are just a few of my most easily mixed words: peal and peel, heal and heel, to and too, there and their, write and right, hear and here,  from and form (not a homophone, but so easy to mistype). I’m not kidding about any of these bloopers, by the way. It happens.

5) Look up words that you are unsure of. (I am well aware that I have ended this sentence with a preposition. Deal with it.) If you are going to look up words that you know but tend to confuse, then it goes without saying–look up any words that you are unsure of, using for the first time, or words that have obscure multiple meanings. If necessary, use a thesaurus to find a more appropriate or aesthetic word.

6) Use the find/replace functions in Word to examine or revise reoccurring issues. When you are working on a document of 200-300 pages, manually searching for a problematic passage or changing a character’s name can suck up hours of time. Use the find/replace function in Word to save you those precious hours. I have had to change the names of my characters, street names, and locations multiple times, and I have found that the “find/replace” function in Word has been indispensable for these changes.

When using the “replace” function, be aware of any words or parts of words that may unintentionally get edited. For example, if your are changing a character’s name from Prince to Greg, and you have also named a street “Prince Street,” be aware that “Prince Street” will become “Greg Street.” Also if the character’s name is part of a word, that word will be modified. Using the same example, if you mention Princeton in your document, Princeton will become Gregton. Sometimes matching the case can help to avoid these unintentional modifications, but not always. Remember, you can fix those kinds of errors on your next revision. You will still, in general, save much more time by using the “find/replace” function.

The “find” function has also helped me to quickly locate passages that I have needed to edit by enabling me to search for a keyword or phrase within the sought-after passage. Tip: When trying to locate passages with keywords, use a unique word or phrase that you know ONLY occurs in that passage. Don’t, for example, search for a common phrase, such as “the girl,” as you will be directed to every passage in your document that contains that phrase.

6) When revising your sentences, consult a handbook for the rules. Some authors intentionally and effectively break away from the conventions of grammar. Here is their secret–they know the rules so well that they can manipulate them to deliberately serve the style of their book. It will benefit your writing to learn the rules, so learn them.

One of the best ways to learn something is to teach it. If you ever get the chance to teach or tutor basic English, take it. I taught English for three years, and almost everyday, I use the knowledge I have gained from doing so. P.S., I am still learning, as I am oftentimes in need of refreshing, and the rules sometimes get updated.

If you don’t get the opportunity to teach English or need a refresher on the rules, there are always handbooks. My favorite handbook is Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers Rules for Writers. I have the version with the tabs in it, so I can easily flip to the rules I need to review. If you don’t want to invest in a handbook, then bookmark the Owl at Purdue Writing Lab, and visit it often. Think of it as your electronic, searchable handbook–a great resource for any kind of writing that you may be working on.

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