How to Re-See Your Manuscript

Updated: Aug 23, 2018


Camper Girl, Year 2

How much writing goes into a book? More than you think. A lot more.


Back before I dared even think about writing a book, I'd read somewhere that for a 300-page novel, authors might average 1000 pages of material...or more. I didn't believe it. Until I actually wrote a book.


The above photo shows a folder of revisions for my novel, Camper Girl. But this folder doesn't contain recent work. No, this is just revision materials from my second year working on the book. That was 2012.


I'd work-shopped a chapter at a conference, and the half-dozen or so critique copies are in the folder. The rest of the pages are my own print-outs and hand-written changes. There is page after page of material, the majority of which ultimately got cut.


Since that blue folder was retired (with honors for serving its purpose without fail), I've revised the story a lot more. I'd probably be able to fill several more folders. In recent years, my critique group has changed to making digital-only critiques in order to save paper. Hooray for trees!


This is not to toot my own horn or talk about how hard I've worked on this novel. I have worked hard, but I've also taken months-long breaks. I've been lazy and stubborn. It's taken me seven years to do what others might have accomplished in half that time.


My point here is to support the widely-held belief that successful writing is 10% drafting and 90% revising. Your first draft will hold promise, but it will be full of holes. Though it will sound good at 2:30 AM after you've been typing madly for several hours, that same draft will sound...um, less good...in the light of day.


The key here, I've found, is not to get discouraged OR over-confident. Your draft will need work -- maybe a lot of work. Okay, let's just be blunt. Your first draft will be crap. Accept that. But that promise that rose from those badly-written pages the night before? It's still there. Don't forget: your work deserves attention.


We writers can be an emotional bunch, so staying even-keeled during the long revision process is difficult, but extremes won't get you anywhere. I know, I've been victim to both roiling self-doubt and silly over-confidence.


I tell my college composition students that revision is all about re-seeing your work. It's important to get some space between you (and your emotions) and the words on the page. Here are some suggestions for doing that -- no matter what kind of writing you're doing.


1. Let time be your ally.

If you use your time wisely, you should have plenty of it left over after you write your first draft. Let your draft stew for a day or two. Put it on simmer and walk away. No, really -- go for a walk. Watch TV. Read. Do something other than revision. That way, you'll return to your draft with a fresh perspective.


2. Let someone else read your draft.

Now, some writers like to hold their work close and not share with anyone for a long, long time. The concern is valid: if you share too soon, you open yourself to outside points of view that may end up shutting down you and your project. If the critique of your draft is less than stellar, you might be more inclined to give up.


One way to get around this is to present your reader with just a small section of your work. A page. A paragraph. In addition, ask pointed questions rather than just a general "What do you think?" For example, if you share a brief description of a setting, ask your reader what emotions they felt while reading. Ask her what parts confused her. Ask if, when she closes her eyes, she can imagine being within that scene fully. What's missing? A smell? A sound?


3. Work it out alone.

Besides being emotional, we writers also like our alone time. So, if you don't want to bring in anyone else's perspective and you don't have a lot of time for revision, go ahead and dive in to your freshly-constructed draft.


Just do one thing first: read it aloud.


Reading your draft aloud will highlight all sorts of things that reading silently can't do. It's like a microscope: you'll see all sorts of neat (and gross) stuff.


Then make changes.


Then repeat. Read it once from the point of view of your intended reader. Then read it again from the point of view of an unintended reader. And so on.


Again and again and again.


So goes the life of a writer. It's work, and any kind of work can become drudgery at times. But as tough as it can be, it's also highly rewarding, especially when you see your writing improve and your confidence grow over time.


If it's so difficult, why do we keep writing? For me, it's for the simple fact that when I don't write, I'm miserable.


What keeps you writing (and revising, and revising)?