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Five Ways to Approach Revision

January 2, 2012

Revision literally means to “see again.”

But how do you to see your writing from the detached perspective necessary for revision when you’ve been immersed in it? Here are five ways you can approach revision with a fresh look at your manuscript.

1) Put It Away. Take the longest break possible between finishing your draft and revision. Time away from your work will give you the emotional and psychological distance you need to see it anew. Unless you’re bound by a contest or contract deadline, let your book-length work rest for up to six months.

2) Change the Scenery. If it’s your habit to write on a computer, print a hard copy of your manuscript for review. Make the printout look different from the screen version by changing the font. You might be surprised by how reading your work in Helvetica rather than Times New Roman not only changes how your eye sees the work, but how your mind sees it, too.

Similarly, try revising in a different place or time of day than you create.

3) Read it Aloud. Hearing your writing read aloud brings it out of your head and gives you a new opportunity to see it (hear it!) with revitalized attention. Read your manuscript aloud from beginning to end, even though a long work might take several days. Resist the urge to stop and tinker with a sentence or scene. If you come across something that needs work, mark it for further review and move on quickly.

You might also try recording and playing back your reading or having a trusted friend or writing partner read your work to you.

4) Take a Bird’s Eye View. Spread a chapter or two out on a long table—or on the floor—so you can view each page individually. Look at your pages from above. See walls of unbroken text or dense paragraphs (all narrative)? See pages with nothing but short, loose paragraphs (all dialogue)? See sections where all the paragraphs are virtually the same length? Mark these sections for review, because they may indicate issues with a balance between dialogue and narrative or problems with proportion, rhythm or pacing.

5) Do It Again. Retype your entire manuscript (or a problem chapter). This tactile approach—going over your work word by word—is bound to spark new ideas.

Mary Ann de StefanoMary Ann de Stefano is a writer, editor, and writing coach with 30 years of experience in publishing and writing consulting. She does business at MAD about Words, named as a play on her initials and love for writing.

  1. January 2, 2012 10:09 pm

    What a great idea to print your manuscript and then lay it on a long table. I was skeptical when I first read it, but I tried it with the ms I’m currently revising. It works. I was able to spot a couple of areas for improvment. Thanks.

  2. January 3, 2012 1:15 am

    Great suggestions, Mary Ann. Thanks.

    I have an addition. Although I know this would be almost impossible for a book-length manuscript, it works for short stories. If you have a willing participant (guinea pig? stooge?), it helps to have them read it aloud to you. As they read, they might stumble over something that you smooth out automatically because you know how you meant it. You also hear it without the inflections you add and which an reader unfamiliar with the story might not.

  3. January 9, 2012 6:44 am

    Excellent advice, Mary. Thank you for sharing this information.

  4. January 27, 2012 2:44 pm

    Mary Ann: Such a good column, and at a time when I’m doing exactly the steps you outline. I gave my ms. a rest, then read it through, then had five copies of the ms. transformed into a bound book through Lulu (cheaper than having it printed out at Staples or Office Max). It was amazing the difference that made. Looking at it like a real book changed the way I read it. I read it swifly, as I would a real book, and when I saw problem areas (and I did) they were marked quickly with a sticky note for later. Then I went back through and reworked the areas that had caused me to stumble or pause on the first read.

  5. Mary Ann de Stefano permalink*
    January 29, 2012 9:31 pm

    @Bruce It’s just a trick to get you to look at your writing in a new way. I’m glad it helped.

    @Lori Yes, I think hearing the words out loud really help. I often read my stuff out loud. My dog loves everything I write, but sometimes when I hear it, it is truly cringe-worthy.

    @Gil I’m happy if it helped you.

    @Jennifer What a cool idea to make the manuscript into a bound book! Great way to get a new–and more serious–look at it. I love it.

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