How to Start Revising your book

There’s nothing quite like a finished first draft. You spent months prepping for drafting and then months chipping away at it until finally, you’ve hit those last points, those last pages, and have gotten to an appropriate word count for your book.

What now?

Drafting is a huge step, but it is still one of the first steps. Moving from drafting to revising a book can be intimidating, and it’s tempting to jump right into getting some feedback or even to copy editing. This is one of the most challenging parts of the writing process, even for seasoned authors. In the video below, Amanda discusses how to get started revising your book, why it’s important to differentiate the revision step from the editing step, and tools you can use to make the step manageable and less daunting.

If you’re not to the revision stage yet, but still just trying understand how long this process will really take, start to finish, you’re not alone! Not knowing how long it will take can be a stumbling block that can impede your steady progress and open you up to self-doubt and unrealistic expectations. Writing your first book is full of unknowns. Who needs one more??

That’s why we created the Writing Plan Calculator. This simple, interactive guide will walk you through the decisions you need to make to figure out how long the drafting process is going to take. Once you’ve made those decisions, just plug them in, and you’ll learn how long your memoir will take, PLUS how much you need to accomplish each and every week to stay on track.

Click here to get a realistic timeline and create your full memoir writing plan now!

Even if you’re not to the revising stage yet, keep reading about how the revision stage will go. It can be helpful to know that you’ll still have time to make big changes and that it doesn’t have to come out almost perfect as a draft.

The difference between revising a book and Editing

If you written shorter things before your first manuscript, even if it was only for school assignments, you’ve surely edited writing before as well. You’ve read it through, working on transitions, correcting awkward phrasing or grammar errors, even splitting up too-long paragraphs.

But that’s not revision, it’s editing. In fact, it’s possible that you’ve never really revised anything. That’s part of what makes this step so daunting. In revision, you’re not making small changes, but big ones. You’re looking holistically and trying to make your book better in its bones and its meat, not just on the surface. This might mean moving things around, rewriting whole sections, or even going back to the drafting stage to add things you didn’t realize you were missing.

Why you can’t skip straight to editing

Editing feels simpler because it is. Editing is the step-by-step front to back polishing step of making a book. Many writers look forward to this step—it’s the soothing process of taking the time to do what you wouldn’t let yourself do while drafting. Considering each little turn of phrase, page by page, is a very satisfying process. Trust me, it will be very satisfying step to go through, because it means you’re so close to having a book ready to share. But you’re not there yet.

But you can’t polish furniture that was put together wrong. Revising your manuscript requires a whole different level of thinking about your manuscript. At this stage of the process, you should still consider your book a malleable thing, closer to wet clay than a sculpture ready for the kiln.

Decorative image revising a book
Revising a book can feel like starting over, but it’s not!

The Reverse Outline is the First Step for Revising a Book

As a first step to revising your manuscript, you’ll need to take another bird’s eye view of the book’s structure. If you drafted your manuscript without a plan, this might be the first time you’re really considering the structure of it as a whole. Some writers draft their first draft “by the seat of their pants” or “pantsing.” They start at the beginning and just write and write until they hit what feels like the end. (We don’t necessarily recommend this approach, especially for memoirists and first time authors.) If you pantsed your first draft, the revision step can feel extra daunting because you may not have been considering those important turning points and benchmarks to keep the pacing going. Writing a reverse outline can really both show you how your structure turned out, and help you see your manuscript as a malleable thing that can be changed on more levels than just the surface, line-editing level.

If you started drafting from an outline, you might feel like you have a pretty good idea of your book’s structure. But that doesn’t mean you can skip this step! The drafting process likely took you months, perhaps years, and you may have strayed from that outline more than you think! Even more importantly, you’ve changed and grown as a writer in those months and months.

An outline that you built before you started drafting it kind of like making a budget. You’ve planned out how many words and pages you’ll spend on this and that, and tried to follow it as best you can. Revising your book, even if you outlined to begin, has to start with an audit of sorts in the form of a reverse outline.

For this step, we recommend printing your book for several reasons. First, I like to think of it as a celebratory act to print out my book and feel it in my hands. Finishing drafting is an accomplishment, after all, and you should congratulate yourself and hold the whole thing in your hands before you start to dig in and tear it apart. Secondly, having a paper draft can give you a visceral feel of how deep into your book major turning points occur. Finally, having a paper copy will keep you from getting tempted to skip into editing.

Put that printed manuscript next to you on your left with your notebook on your right. You can also have your original outline at hand as well, but be sure you start with a fresh page for your reverse outline. On that fresh page, Write Chapter 1, then a #1 next to that. Then start reading your book. (Remember—you’re not editing. Don’t take time to make changes as you read. Sure if you see a typo circle it, but no deeper than that!) You won’t be analyzing your book paragraph by paragraph, but looking for what that first idea you cover is, and you’ll summarize that in a line next to #1. Next to that, note how many pages it took you to relay that first idea. Then, do the same for #2, your second idea, and so on until you get to chapter two. Continue through your whole manuscript this way.

Reverse Outlining Can Show you Imbalances and Holes in your Structure

When you’re looking at a 5-8 page outline, rather than a 200+ page manuscript, it can give you a true and accurate bird’s eye view to your work. It’s much easier to hold a 5-8 structured summary all in your head at once than all the details and substance of a full book. Looking at this summary can reveal things that you might not be able to see otherwise, including all the imbalances and holes you’ll need to address when revising your book.

Perhaps you’ll see that it’s lopsided, with all stories in the first two thirds of the book with the last third is all advice. Or perhaps, like I did in one of my early novels, see that the inciting incident—the moment of the story that forces the action to start—didn’t happen until nearly the half-way mark, making my book nearly 40% backstory all at the beginning before the reader could find out why it would all matter.

These realizations can feel like a gut-punch if you’re not ready for them. This is why it’s so important to go into this stage of the process with clear eyes. Finishing a first draft is an accomplishment, but it leaves you really in the middle of the whole writing process, not at the end.

decorative image of paper taped together
Don’t be afraid to old-school cut and paste for revising a book if you need to.

Humpty-Dumpty was a manuscript that needed revising

In the first part of reverse outlining, we recommended printing before you start revising your book. Another benefit to having the pages all on physical paper is now you can really experiment with moving them around. How can you make a more balanced and well-paced version of your manuscript?

With your reverse outline, make note of where the pacing drags or feels imbalanced, and start really moving things around. Literally shuffle the pages. Cut pages in half if you need to! This can be really hard for some writers. You may find yourself afraid to really consider your options out of fear that somehow in revising your book, you might break it. But remember two things: 1) you’re really not done yet, you’re still working with wet clay, and 2) your computer document is still safe.

Don’t be scared—you really do have to break it to put it back together again. But you won’t be undoing all of your hard work, but making it better!

Revising a book takes time

You won’t be able to do a complete reverse outline in a single sitting, much less get your manuscript ready for the next stage of the process. This can be a tedious and frustrating step in the process, and it can be hard to measure progress. But once you have got the bones in a strong position, you can go through and update your digital version and smooth out the edges. This will get you ready for the next step, which we will discuss in next week’s blog—getting effective feedback on your work!

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