On Revision…

A quick check-in on Google returns an immense list of articles focused on setting and achieving daily writing goals. All that drafting is great, and necessary, and leads to that beautiful feeling called flow (I like what Mike Monday has to say about flow here). Flow makes my blood pump like I’ve just finished a 10k, makes my fist pump like I just nestled the football right in the corner of the goal, and yes, sometimes makes me sing DeeeLite out loud.

But if I’m honest, I have to admit that I could get stuck in endless drafting and never take the next step: revision. Because come on, revision stinks. It’s not as much fun as drafting a shiny new story and it’s HARD. What if I get two sets of critique partner feedback making polar opposite suggestions (happens all the time!)? But I’m afraid to lose momentum now that I’ve got that hard-won daily writing habit ingrained into my routine! What if there really is not solution to the impossible plot problem?

These fears and more whirled through my head at the beginning of the year. Having just completed the first draft of my first-ever children’s story, I was ecstatic. I did a quick round of edits on spelling, passive voice, adverbs, plot holes, and other minor consistency issues and sent the draft to everyone I knew (oh my, how I wish I hadn’t).

Then I sat, stumped, for weeks, trying to figure out what I needed to do to get this draft from rough to polished. And because I’d never really done it before, I couldn’t come up with an answer. So I signed up for a “revise your novel” online course and began the arduous task of identifying what needed to be improved. I got the perfect mix of feedback and encouragement and even met a couple of critique partners in the process, which was huge for me.

What surfaced was the need for a bigger type of revision than I’ve ever undertaken–a change in both point of view (POV) and tense. As soon as I rewrote the first chapter in first-person present, I knew I’d found the elusive voice of the story. That didn’t stop me from wallowing for a couple months, griping about the huge task before me and feeling paralyzed any time I sat down in front of my manuscript and tried to write.

I let myself take a break, started doodling on some flash fiction pieces and ideas for a new series of middle-grade novels, and basically didn’t touch the book for almost three months. Then, when I had the space I needed to return to it, I went all project-management on the thing. Because the truth is that creating goals when you’re revising is even harder than when you’re drafting. When I’m drafting, I race through my day watching my little Scrivener status bar turn from red to orange to yellow to (hooray!) green as I reach my target. But what about during revision? How do you track that? How do you give yourself milestones to check off?

Here’s what I came up with and I hope it spares someone out there the paralysis and fear I went through before I figured it out:

  • Choose a tool – This is one place where I wish Scrivener had some more revision tools. And a lot of the goal-setting tools recommended by folks like Lifehack and Michael Hyatt work better for drafting than revision. I use an Excel spreadsheet to track incoming comments and suggestion, assign them a due-date, and color code them (gray for completed tasks, yellow for late ones).
  • Make it measurable – You can’t take your CP’s 3000 comments on as a whole or you’ll go nuts. So break it up into small tasks anywhere from 5 minutes to no more than one working day. You want to be able to see some progress every single day to help keep you motivated and give you a sense of success.
  • Use contests or conferences as deadlines – Nothing like knowing that you might be pitching your work to an agent during something like #PitMad, the Baker’s Dozen or Secret Agent contests, or Query Kombat, or that you’ve already paid for a pitch session at a conference to get you working on that revision.
  • Get a CP to keep you honest – Find a critique partner who is at a similar point in his/her revision process and make a solemn vow to swap manuscripts. If you don’t have one, check out local writing groups, the appropriate professional organization for your genre, or services like How About We CP? Then put a date on it. And harass encourage each other. Or make bets. Or whatever will keep you working on that manuscript every single day until it’s done.

The thing that amazed me about this latest round of revisions is that I actually found my editing flow. I didn’t know it even existed for writers stuck in the drudgery of revision, but it does! Apparently all I needed was a little structure to turn revision from a daunting task to something conquerable.

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