Not all revisions are created equal. Some manuscripts are clean first drafts that fell out of your head onto the page like they wanted to be written. Other stories fight you every step of the way and you have to whip them into submission to make the novel work. Still others are stories you wrote and revised countless times until they became a tangled mess (even though you still love that story and swear you’ll make it work).

Most writers will have a first draft that’s ready for revision. These will be split between manuscripts no one but you has seen, and manuscripts that have been through a round of beta readers or critique partners. The more uncommon revision will be a novel that you’ve revised countless times to make work and need extra help to finally get it there.

Let’s take a look at a few revision situations you might be facing:

Revising on Your Own

This is a typical first-draft revision, where no one but you has seen the manuscript. You want to make sure all the bugs are worked out before you show it to anyone, or you want to make sure it’s as complete as possible before asking for feedback.  Remember:

  • Give yourself the freedom to stink: First drafts don’t always stink, but a lot of them do, so don’t worry if yours is one of them. Revision is just how you clean up that mess.
  • Approach it like you’re doing a critique for a friend: Pretend your manuscript was written by a friend. What advice would you give about this story?
  • Don’t worry about the time it takes to revise: Rushing the work never results in the best work, and this can hurt you and your novel in the long run.

Revising From Feedback

This is a draft that’s been through critiques and has feedback to help guide you in your revision. It might be a first draft or a later draft. The hard part here is figuring out what feedback to heed and what to ignore. Some guidelines to consider:

  • Take every comment seriously: Ask yourself why the critiquer said it and try to see the underlying problem, then decide if it’s a comment that needs to be addressed or not.
  • If you’re not sure about a comment, think about why you’re resisting it: Sometimes feedback requires edits that scare you, or change something you love, or even use a skill you’re not sure you have.
  • Think about why the critiquer made the comment: Sometimes critiquers spot a problem and know something is off, but the trouble spot isn’t where they see it—it’s all in the setup, so the resolution isn’t coming through correctly.
  • If it’s a clarity issue, fix it, even if you think it’s clear: If a reader was confused, something wasn’t clear.
  • Do whatever serves the story best: Even great ideas can be the wrong ideas if they don’t fit the story you’re trying to tell.

Every writer gets a rough critique at some point, and it’s only natural to ignore words that hurt or sap your confidence. The danger comes when you consistently ignore the very advice that can help you just because it hurts or you don’t like it. If you’ve been revising novel after novel (or the same novel multiple times) and don’t feel you’re getting any better, step back, look at the situation objectively, and ask:

Revising Overly Revised Manuscripts (The Frankendraft)

The more troublesome manuscripts are those you’ve revised over and over. You’ve changed so much you often forget what story you were trying to write in the first place. These revisions require a slightly different approach than a typical revision. Until you decide what you want, you won’t know the steps to take to get there.

A Frankendraft differs from a draft you know needs heavy revising. It’s been cut and stitched together so many times the scenes no longer work together, and the story is either so deeply buried or so watered down that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anymore.

Often, there’s not much you can do with a Frankendraft, so be prepared. Sometimes, it’s so terribly flawed that it’s best to be merciful and pull the plug. But there are steps you can take to bring this monster back to life.

  • Say goodbye: Accept that the Frankendraft is dead and put the manuscript in a drawer. You got into this mess by revising it over and over, and it’s time to start fresh.
  • Kill some characters: Hard as this will be, eliminating characters will go a long way toward stripping out what’s unnecessary.
  • Trim the fat: Figure out what’s needed in the story and what’s not. What’s the single most important goal in the plot? What events are critical to resolving that goal?
  • Pick five elements and plot from there: What are the five critical events that have to happen to resolve the core conflict? Who are the five (or fewer) critical characters necessary to achieve those goals?

Revising From Multiple Drafts

If you’ve been revising for a while, you might have several drafts that explore different directions. This is especially true if you weren’t sure how the story might unfold and needed to write a draft or two to figure it out. Problem is, you’re now faced with several drafts that all contain scenes and ideas you like, and you have no clue how to merge them all into one draft.

  • Rethink your favorite scenes if they don’t fit: Forcing a scene can create a stumbling block for readers—it doesn’t flow, it doesn’t quite make sense, it doesn’t advance the story. Does it advance the core conflict in some way? Does it offer new and relevant information? If not, let it go.
  • Beware of revision smudge: Revision smudge is those bits and pieces left behind that reference something no longer in the story. Reading these scenes feels right, but when you look closely, you realize the details refer to a part of the story that is no longer there.

Approaching one of the less common types of manuscripts often requires a different tack than the average draft—and a little more effort to make it work. But the results can be worth it if it turns that mess of a manuscript into the book of your heart.

What type of revision do you usually face?

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To celebrate the release of my newest writing books, I’m going on a three-month blog tour–and each month, one lucky winner will receive a 10-page critique from me.

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Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my new book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

Janice Hardy RGB 72

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft and the upcoming Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It). She’s also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at or @Janice_Hardy.

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