It’s a big day. You’ve finished the first draft of your book. You share the news on Facebook and get so many Likes—which will surely translate into book sales. But the ghosts of English teachers past remind you that a first draft is not a finished piece of writing.
“Fine,” you tell them. “I’ll edit.”
To appease the red pen-wielding apparitions, you add a semicolon here, take out a comma there, do a spellcheck, and now you’re done! Really done!
“Nope,” say the ghosts. “Revise.”
“But I spellchecked! I replaced two commas with em dashes! I even undangled a participle!”
“That’s editing,” they say. “Not revision.”
A lot of us consider these concepts synonymous, but they’re not quite the same thing. Revision is something a little more comprehensive.
The ugly truth is that lots of us don’t quite know where our stories are going until we get there. Sure, you might know the broad strokes, but good writing is all about the details. You discover things about your characters along the way—their motivations, likes, dislikes, loyalties, and more. Going back to make sure you’re as true to these details in your first sentence as you are in your last will make your stories better, your characters more well-rounded, and your readers more satisfied.
Ask yourself the following as you revise:
- Who are your characters?
Do their actions make sense? Does your meek protagonist suddenly get loud and violent for no reason? Characters can—and arguably should—undergo change, but not on a dime, and not without cause.
- What’s your setting?
Does the setting fit the story? What does it reinforce about the mood of your story or your characters—or how does it create contrast between your characters and their location? Properly setting your stage also sets the tone of your story.
- What’s happening?
What happens? Are events properly set-up or do they occur randomly? Sure, life is random; but, in the same way that truth is stranger than fiction, truth is also less orderly. Fiction needs structure to feel believable.
- Where’s the conflict?
This is the evil twin of plot. Both drive your narrative. What’s happening that generates interest, drama, or change? It can be external (like a ticking time bomb or a tough new boss) or it can be internal (like facing a debilitating fear or the acceptance of a breakup). Even better, include internal and external conflict. Good fiction is like life—complex.
- Whose point of view is this?
Who’s telling the story? If your narrative is dependent on knowing lots of intimate thoughts and details about your main character, consider writing it in first-person. If the story works better with the reader kept at more of a distance—especially if there are lots of characters to touch on—try third. There’s no right choice, but be consistent—and be true to the voice you create.
In short, question everything about your story or book. It’s no easy task, but if you can’t answer the questions above, your readers will be left with lots of questions of their own—including why they should bother reading anything else you write.
Give your manuscript to a trusted (but picky) reader or two. Ask the above questions to them. The ones that stump them will show you where to start providing answers with a thorough revision. Your work will be better for it—and the ghosts of your English teachers will finally find some rest.