Revision Techniques: How to Read Your Own Fiction with Fresh Eyes

"There is no great writing, only great rewriting."
- Louis Brandeis on revision techniques.

You've finished your first draft, and you know you're supposed to revise it now. You know that the success or failure of most manuscripts depend on revision. But you've already written the first draft the best way you know how.

You may even be delighted with your first draft. You may be in love with every sentence that you've painstakingly crafted. How can you possibly improve it?

You can. You can probably improve it a LOT.

Rewriting your manuscript starts with rereading it. If you have written it on a computer, try to print the manuscript out first. If you have written it longhand, type it up and print it out. Block out some time when you can read it all the way through with a minimum of interruptions.

During the revision process, you'll approach your work from different perspectives. Eventually, you'll want to be able to read it the way an editor would. But first, I suggest reading it through once with the mindset of an ordinary reader who is coming to your manuscript for the first time.

Getting into this mindset might be challenging. You know your own manuscript so well, and you're used to looking at it in a certain way. Here are some tricks that can help you approach your own writing with fresh eyes:

1) Take some time off. You may need to put your manuscript in a drawer for a while in order to get some mental distance. This may be the time to take a well-earned vacation to celebrate finishing that first draft. Or you might decide to work on something different for a while.

Just don't forget to go back to your manuscript after this break. And at that point, if you find that it's not as wonderful as you'd remembered, don't despair. That's a sign that you've learned something in the meantime. You can use your new perspective for a powerful revision.

2) Change the font or format. If you've been reading the manuscript single-spaced, double-space it, and vice-versa. If it's written in Courier font, try Times New Roman. Giving your manuscript a new look will help you see it from a new perspective.

3) Get feedback. At some stage in the revision process, you might decide you want outside feedback. Just make sure it's the right kind of feedback from the right kind of reader. Click here for some advice on getting the most out of a writing critique.

4) Get a silent reader. Have you ever reread an e-mail you've just sent and found mistakes you didn't notice before? The knowledge that someone else is reading your writing can make you look at it in a more critical way.

Even if you're not ready to listen to feedback yet, you might find it helpful to share your manuscript with an outside reader. Choose someone you really trust not to give comments until you ask for them.

As soon as you've sent your manuscript to this person, go back and reread it. You'll naturally try to look at it from your reader's perspective and guess how your reader might react. This type of reading will give you extremely valuable insights for revision.

5) Write the book jacket. Imagine your manuscript were published as a book, or part of a book. What would the back book cover say? How can you sum up what your story's about, what makes your book special?

(Do you have trouble summing it up? That could be the symptom of a problem. Maybe you haven't really pinned down the story yet...)

Reread the blurb you've written. Pretend you're a reader who bought the book with that blurb on the cover. What would you hope to find inside? Now read your manuscript. How does it compare?

6) Compare different versions. This technique is actually a writing exercise, but it can give you important insights about your manuscript. You can do the writing part very quickly in just 15 minutes or so.

Imagine you were starting your story again from scratch. Without looking at what you've already written, rewrite a section of your story in a different way. Change something about the style or the point of view or the characters or the events.

While you're doing this exercise, don't peek at the original version of the scene. Try to write in a continous and relaxed way for 15 minutes without worrying about whether you're writing well. This doesn't have to be good -- it's only an exercise.

When you've finished, reread what you've just written. What do you think? Now compare it to the original version of the same scene. Has your perspective changed? Do you see any new possibilities for improvement?

Revision Techniques - Next Steps

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