First Draft Novel Revision and the Difference Between Editing and Revising

In Big Sur this past weekend, we had a collective “lightbulb moment” in one of my workshops about first draft novel revision and the difference between editing and revising. A writer had come to the Friday session, gone back to the drawing board, or so she thought, and returned with a revision on Saturday. We noticed some new turns of phrase and a few things cut but, overall, the issues we’d isolated for her on Friday were still on the page. What happened? She was editing, rather than revising, and there’s a difference between editing and revising.

first draft novel revision, revision, revising
You have your red pencil out, but is it going to make a big difference?

The Difference Between Editing and Revising

Let me be quick to say that it’s highly unusual to expect that much change in one day of revision, let alone one month, but such dramatic manuscript evolution is the name of the game at Big Sur. It’s not unheard of to have writers pull amazing all-night feats and return to workshop with a completely fresh 10 pages, the ink still wet from the morning printer queue, for example. So while we didn’t expect a profound change in her work, per se, we were a little underwhelmed by what actually showed up.

“Help me. I keep having this same problem,” she begged after we finished Saturday workshop. The middle of the story was dragging but the end — we’d all agreed on both days — was gripping. She’d also been focusing on this piece for quite some time at home, to no avail. The problem is, she’s editing. Moving words around. Doing small tweaks. She’s not revising.

A second member of the group was an author as well as an illustrator. My biggest note for him on Friday was that the middle of the story was static and, perhaps more pressingly, all of his pictures were landscape-view and eye level, like dioramas or posed vignettes in a museum. There was only one perspective and he used it on every page. That added to the draggy pace.

“Try moving ‘the camera’ here, and see if you can’t envision any of your scenes from a unique perspective. Down low. Bird’s eye. Close up. Tilted. There are so many ways to see a scene, so many vantage points. What you’re doing is fine, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind, and there’s also no variety. Stretch yourself,” I told him.

In contrast to the first writer, he came back on Saturday with his story completely reimagined. He hadn’t had time to create a new dummy, but he did describe the changes he’d make on every page, including significant cuts to the middle. He also brought in new sketches that he’d dashed off — all of them incorporating new and exciting perspective. This is revision.

Small Changes, Big Changes

This isn’t a game of “which writer is better,” however. But I think seeing his transformation shuffled something loose for the first writer. She’d been doing something that I see a lot of writers do without meaning to or realizing it. I call it a “tinkering revision.” Instead of going completely back to the drawing board, she’d just been mucking around with what she’d already written and, while she was technically revising, as in, switching words around and making cuts, she was getting nowhere. This can happen right away in a first draft novel revision, and then you’re pretty much doomed. Because you don’t train yourself to see the big issues that need fixing, and especially in a first draft, there are going to be more big issues.

It’s extremely tempting to tinker. Those words are already on the page. You’ve already done all that work. When you revise with the existing manuscript in hand, you are that much more inclined to keep making small scale changes because, hey, it’s already there in front of you, it represents a lot of past work, and it’s probably not that bad, etc. With a first draft novel revision, you just finished the thing and want to bask in accomplishment. You may not want to mess with it too much.

Let me say it here once and for all: unless you make big changes, a revision isn’t worth doing. If you go out on a submission round and get roundly rejected, you’re not going to solve your problem by going back to the page to tweak a few words here and there (More on learning from negative feedback). I’ve said this before, but look at the word revision…it means “to see again.” To see your story in a whole new light. To make massive plot, character, and language changes. And having so much on the page already often lures us into a false complacency, especially in a first draft novel revision, if this attitude sets in from the start. (Check out some revision techniques here.)

The Difference Between Editing and Revision If You’re Stuck or Suffering Writer’s Block

The second writer in workshop got a big idea for some big changes and ran with it. The note about new perspective is a tough one because it meant he would have to throw out every single page he’d already done, but he said “Okay, what the heck!” and tried it. When I heard the second writer beg us to finally tell her what to do, I had this to say: “Go to your computer, back up the file, highlight the entire problematic part, and hit ‘delete.’ Sure, it’s scary, but I think you’re locked into what is already on the page and you’re not seeing creative solutions as a result. Writing is all about experimenting. You should get used to generating words and then getting rid of them or changing them. They’re a renewable resource. Take a day or a week or a month to write a completely new beginning and middle, full of completely new ideas, fully free from what you had in place before. Sometimes this is what you have to do, especially in a first draft novel revision if you find that something isn’t working. If you hate it, you can always go back to the old version. But I doubt you will, because you’ll be thinking outside of the old version, and it will be fresh and new. And if it’s a bust, nobody has to know. It’s just you and your computer.”

This seemed to communicate the second writer’s lightbulb moment to the first writer. She seemed excited to go home and try the experiment. I think what she needed was the reminder, and maybe the permission, to wipe the slate clean and play around again. The manuscript had become a dreaded tweaking project that wasn’t behaving, not the fun story that she’d set out to write. Now she could relive some inspiration and just play with it all over again.

In my experience, the best revisions are the most drastic, especially for a first draft novel revision. This is the true difference between editing and revising. Whether a writer has a bolt of writing inspiration and rips up their manuscript on their own, fueled by the manic energy of creation, or whether they’re forced to push further by a well-meaning agent or editor and, out of spite or adrenaline or fear or all of the above, finally takes the torch to the problem parts, it’s those writers who have the guts to start over in a piece that usually reap the biggest rewards. (A good recommendation to do a brand new kind of revision is this self-editing trick.)

So if you feel like you’re just tinkering, shoveling text like a kid pushing peas around his plate, be brave and try starting over completely. You know what you want to accomplish with the section, so just take a brand new run at it. Or maybe you’ll realize that the section wasn’t working and trash it entirely, or find another, better part that fits. Change is tough, especially when you’ve been working on something for years and are eager to see it in print. But it’s once you kick the ladder out from under yourself completely, I’ve found, that you discover resources and ideas you never could’ve imagined.

Sometimes it’s impossible to pull of a truly transformational revision alone. Hire me as your manuscript editor, and I will get you unstuck if you’ve been tinkering for too long, or off on the right path to begin with.

41 Replies to “First Draft Novel Revision and the Difference Between Editing and Revising”

  1. KDuBayGillis says:

    Like this one!!! No more pea pushing….

  2. Great post, Mary. I’ve only completely re-hashed a couple of stories. I think sometimes we need to be told to do a big revision, critique members can sometimes dare not tell you to completely re-write it. Time away from it helps us decide on own if it needs re-writing i guess. I know my first ever book needs a thorough re-write, but even after years I’m still not ready to tackle it. I’d rather re-write a pb than an 80,000 word novel any day 🙂

  3. This is such an inspiring post! I’m excited to share it with my writers’ group as well as go home and put your advice to work.

  4. This is just such fabulous advice. Kudos to all those writers who dare to re-imagine a book they thought was finished. It’s a new adventure!

  5. I absolutely agree with your post, Mary. I did a big revision three years ago on my Young Adult novel “Playing the Baseball Card.” I had written over 50,000 words, and I was initially trying to lightly revise and edit. However, I decided I didn’t like it, at all, so I put it away for a few months.

    Then I came back to it and really looked at it with new eyes. I radically changed it, cutting out about 5,000 words near the beginning, and over 10,000 words at the end. The final result was a much shorter novel with 31,000 words. Even then, I was unsure about letting it lose, but it has turned out to be my best performing book, with roughly 80% good reviews. It’s been called inspiring, and that is something I cherish. When searching for ‘baseball’ books at Barnes and Noble, it’s number 5 overall, and the top-ranked fiction title.

    I’m sure that the big revision is what that book needed, and I’m truly glad I did just that. I’m happy with the result, and extraordinarily pleased at how it’s been received.

    So, I think you’ve offered great advice about making the big changes to make a revision worth doing. I hope the advice helps other authors.


  6. Sharon Morse says:

    GREAT post. I tinkered with a my MS for a good 6 months before I finally made the hard decision and took a machete to it. And it WAS scary, but totally worth it.

  7. Over the summer I read a blog post exploring how creativity can also be subtraction. As my current MS is still about 15,000 words too long, I’ve been chanting the phrase “creativity can be subtraction” rather often.

  8. I’m guilty of this! Now when I’m just tinkering I’ll picture myself pushing peas around on my plate.
    Excellent post! I’m sure lightbulbs are twinkling like Christmas lights all around!

  9. So, it’s out with getting all your peas in a row and time to throw in a few carrots. Maybe even toss out the plate and try a bowl instead. Thanks for the reminder that revision really means taking a completely new look at our work.

    Love the analogy!

  10. I did this with my last manuscript. After getting four revision requests in two weeks, I sat back and realized that I could address all of the agents’ concerns (all the ones that I agreed with, anyway) if I just flip-flopped my POV characters and made the secondary main character the more prominent of the two. It involved rewriting the entire first half of the manuscript and chopping and reinserting stuff in the second half, but when I was finished, I knew the manuscript was so much stronger. (A lot of the agents thought so, too, but they were no longer as interested in dystopian stories.)

    I like to be able to type “The End” and not look at a manuscript again until I decide to make some drastic changes. Like you said, tinkering is rarely going to make enough difference to turn a “No” into a “Yes!”

  11. Thank you for this post! Great advice.
    I have been sitting on a story that got trashed at SCBWI this summer. Didn’t help that is was my first pb story ever. But I think I am now ready to make those much needed BIG revisions. Killing off a few characters, rewriting the middle so the pacing doesn’t slow down. I just hope the changes are big enough.
    Will be saving this post is my archive.

  12. I just went through this… the hard way. I got an editorial letter, I did some pea-pushing and resubmitted, then got a hard rejection. Not a month ago, it dawned on me that the “sweeping changes” I thought I had made were nothing more than little tweaks. Now, I have the whole manuscript pulled apart, I storyboarded the whole thing, and am in the process of rewriting the middle 60-70 pages, which in retrospect was nothing more than talking heads in different places. No doubt, when I finish rewriting the middle the beginning and end will need to change. Thanks for the post!

  13. This is the second year in a row that I attended conferences and mentoring sessions with crits from agents and editors. Like last year, I processed all the advice, pulled out a blank sheet of poster board and rethought my plot, drawing a timeline with notes and arrows. I have to be able to “see” the whole novel. Many characters were killed off and few new ones appeared. I stepped back to get a fresh perspective, and now I’m revising (again) towards a stronger draft.

    Thanks, Mary, for reminding us about the courage we need.

  14. Yes. Words I needed to hear. Thanks Mary.

  15. Thanks, Mary. I read from Mandy Hubbard’s blog that with her debut she went back and started over from a blank document and I decided to do the same thing. It was hard for sure but the draft feels so incredibly different I’m glad I tried it. It’s hard advice to take for sure but for me I think it was the difference in giving this WIP another shot or it winding up in the virtual drawer.

  16. Word. I did this exact experiment with my MS. I had good ideas in my early drafts — it wasn’t terrible, it just wasn’t great, and I knew that. So I sent it off to a SCBWI for critique, and the agent who critiqued it told me what she liked, but it was what she felt needed work that stuck out to me. She mentioned I needed to work on the voice because it was dry and a little boring. She pointed out a character introduced in the first pages and asked if they were an important character later in the MS. At the time, they weren’t — it was just a one-off set-up character.

    So I scrapped the. entire. manuscript. It was written in third person, and I switched to first. Voice problem solved. I took that useless character and gave them a prominent, important role. Characterization improved (and that character has since become a reader favorite!). But I didn’t stop there. I reimagined the entire plot. Worked on other characters. Changed the villain. Etc etc etc. And the MS is SO MUCH BETTER FOR IT.

  17. Love this post–and exactly what I needed to read. I have a finished draft that I’ve been trying to revise and revise, but I feel like the same old problems still exsist. I think I’ll try rewriting the middle from scratch and see what happens!

  18. Jackie Yeager says:

    Thanks, Mary for my lightbulb moment! I’ve been wondering if the major revision brewing in my mind was worth it. I guess you just gave me the push I needed!

  19. Chef Todd says:

    Very insightful! Btw i like you better with short hair 🙂

  20. Thanks for the great post, Mary. I learned the hard way with my current MS. I “tinkered” for a bit and went on submissions, only to get rejection after rejection. Since then, I’ve cut more than 7 K off of it and I can definitely say it’s much better. And I’m about to rewrite my current WIP, as well.

  21. So true. I discarded the entire first half of my story and started fresh. It wasn’t easy and it still isn’t. I’m like a moth to the flame, drawn back to the old paragraphs, the “witty” words…thanks for reminding me, for encouraging me to let them go…they may work in the next book!

  22. AMEN

    My secret weapon is my friend, the mot scathing reviewer of every piece of literature ever written. I knew my novel wasn’t working but I didn’t know what to do, so I handed 50 pages to her and let her rip the rear right out of it.

    I threw away all 60K+ words and started on page 1. Love the new WIP now. All I can say is, Graceling, watch out!


  23. You just described the way I revise. I save every draft as a separate document. That way I feel free to chop out huge sections, even entire chapters. I rewrite parts from different points of view. I experiment. As a result, each draft is drastically different than the one preceeding it – usually. I just did that today. One chapter wasn’t working for me. It was a conversation between the protagonist and another character. It was blah. So I switched characters. And the end result was much better. I think words are like clay. They are pliable. If you don’t like what you’ve made, you just smash it down, throw it back on the wheel and start over. That’s what makes writing so much fun!

  24. This is amazing advice. It’s hard to hear, I think, that what you thought was good isn’t good enough. I know I’ve tinkered far too long. Time to re-imagine! Thanks for the post!

  25. Jane Ellen Freeman says:

    Wonderful post, Mary, and the comments that follow added even more inspiration. If find it easier to cut large chunks when I have let a ms sit for a month or so. Then when I read it with a fresh eye, I can see the parts that slow or depart from main thrust. What’s interesting is when I read over yet again, those chunks are not missed. Thanks for KidLit.

  26. Great food for thought. I’m there right now. I think what makes, “Killing your darlings,” difficult is that others may rave about the voice and the language, but if it isn’t getting you where you need to go, you have to throw it out. It’s been a tough revision, but I dug deep and realized I was spinning.

  27. Ahhhhh, revisions. The chance to try (and challenge of) making things fresh and exciting. It’s daunting, but so worth it when the revised product blazes that perfect trail. Thanks for your wisdom, push and direction, Mary. I never get tired of your straight-shooting stuff. LOVE the bolded bit especially – “…unless you make big changes, a revision isn’t worth doing.” Bang on.

  28. Yep, no one gets to eat dessert unless they eat those peas! So stop pushing them around and find a way to make them not just palatable, but delectable!

    Great post – bookmarking it for future inspiration! Thanks!

  29. Mary, You critiqued the first 500 words of my MS as part of a WD webinar- and helped me to see that I needed to start SOMEWHERE ELSE. I’m chopping my first chapter, starting with PLOT, and I’m excited about my ideas for a new beginning. I’m also looking at my middle with a knife in hand… Thank you!

  30. Sheila Kelly Welch says:

    I’ve been fortunate to work with a great editor who reminds me that less is more.

  31. Very nice! I got bit by the “LET’S FIX THIS MESS!” bug as well. Until I hit a brick wall & we are back to pyaling Mexican Standoff. Sigh.Either way, that’s fantastic if you’ve found your mojo! & I’d love to hear more about your Snow White piece. I love love love revised Fairy Tales. Love. Love love love. & love. Ish.

  32. I had a huge AH-HA moment yesterday as I was revising…aka tinkering. I know now that 10 chapters need to go. A week ago I would have been devastated by that fact, but now that I see how it will make my story much more compelling, I can’t wait to get to task. Reading this post today was exactly the thing I needed to help me realize that yes, I am on the right track now! Thanks for such a great post!

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