My Take on One-Pass Manuscript Revision

I’m approaching the revision process for the last two books of The Steam and Steel Chronicles, and thought I might share my revision process, as it stands now. It’s based on Holly Lisle’s One-Pass Manuscript Revision process (I highly recommend reading that post before you finish this one—go ahead, I’ll wait), though I’ve made a number of tweaks to it that fit my own way of writing and revising.

A couple of points before I begin, though:

  1. One-pass revision is probably not going to work well for first-time novelists or first-time revisers. If you’ve never revised a novel or if this is your first novel, you’re almost certainly going to need to do more than one pass. That’s okay.
  2. You need to figure out what method works best for you. If you prefer to go over your manuscript ten times, then that’s fine. Personally, I don’t. My goal is to continue writing new things, and get the old things as perfect as is reasonable in as little time as is possible. That means 1-2 revision cycles, tops.

So, without further ado, here is my method:

What You’ll Need

  • A printed copy of your manuscript. To conserve paper, I print mine 2-up on a page, in Courier New 12 point, double spaced. This means I have two pages next to each other on a single sheet of paper, with the back blank. This creates generous margins on the top and bottom for notes.
  • A notebook, paper, or note cards for making notes. Color-coding your notes either by using multicolored pens or by using colored paper/note cards can be very helpful from an organizational standpoint. Basically, you want to differentiate between notes about story, notes about characters, etc.
  • Pens (multicolored or not, depending on your preference).

These are the basic tools that make revision your manuscript easier. You might also want to keep sticky notes handy for adding notes directly onto a page for later reference, if you run out of room in the margins.

Before you really start

Depending on how much time has passed between the time you wrote your novel and when you start revising it, you may want to read through the entire thing, front to back. Doing this in one sitting can be very beneficial. And it’s okay at this point to skim parts you remember well, as  you’ll be going back over them in-depth later. It’s important to resist the urge to start editing now. You’re just reading!

Next, turn to your notebook. Write down the following on the first page, where you can easily find it (alternatively, you could post these on a whiteboard over your desk or on a bulletin board where you can easily see them):

  • What is the theme or focus of your story? What is the point?
  • What does your protagonist want, both internally and externally? This should be the driving factor behind everything that happens.
  • What does your antagonist want, both internally and externally? This should be in direct opposition to what your protagonist wants.
  • What do your other main characters want, especially POV characters?
  • Write down what your story is about, briefly, sort of like the “back cover blurb” of your story.

This gives you a good idea of the direction your story should take. With these things in mind, it’s easier to make decisions about what really belongs in your story and what doesn’t.

Check each scene

Now comes the nitty-gritty of checking each scene. Like Holly Lisle says, you first need to make sure that your story is written in scenes. Scenes are the basic building blocks of a novel, and without them, your story isn’t likely to be very engaging. A scene should take place in a single location, at a single time, from a single point of view. If any of those things change, you need a scene change.

For each scene, as yourself if it belongs in the overall story. Does it move the main plot or any important subplots forward? Does it further develop your main character? Does it contribute significantly to your story’s theme? If it doesn’t do any of these things, cut it or figure out a way to rework it so it does. Ideally, the vast majority of your scenes should move your plot forward. But it’s useful to have occasional scenes that do the other two: either develop characters or theme. Just make sure that those aren’t taking up the bulk of your story or it will drag.

Does each scene have conflict? Without conflict, or tension, a scene will fall flat. There’s no reason to keep reading it. There needs to be some kind of tension or conflict present in every scene, even if it’s internal.

Make notes in your notebook during this process about any story threads you’ve killed or changed. The same goes for characters you may have combined or eliminated. You want to make sure they’re removed from future scenes.

Re-type the whole thing

This is where the one-pass revision system almost cheats a little bit. When you’ve gone through the entire manuscript, you’ll have piles of pages that are marked up. Holly Lisle says that you’ll likely have a ratio of clean pages to marked-up ones somewhere between 1:2 and 1:4. In my own estimation, it’s more likely you’ll have a ratio of 1:10 or even higher, if you include simple things like changing verbiage or other minor corrections.

So, make a copy of your original first draft file to work from (I NEVER overwrite an old file, because the last thing I want to do is accidentally delete something I meant to keep or otherwise completely butcher the editing file). Then, start typing in your corrections. Feel free to make additional changes as you come across them, such as repetitive word usage or awkward phrasing (see, this is the part where it’s almost cheating, because you’re effectively doing two revision passes in one).

This may take a few days, but overall it’s a fairly quick revision process.

Why not do multiple passes?

I’ve heard more than one writer bemoan the idea of not doing half a dozen or more revisions on their novel. They feel that it’s lazy, or that you can’t get a polished enough draft with just one pass. I have two answers for that:

First of all, over-editing a piece is just as bad as not editing at all. It’s easy to get so caught up in trying to perfect your manuscript that you edit the emotion right out of it. That’s not good. As an example, look at Amanda Hocking’s self-published books. A lot of people say they’re in pretty desperate need of a good editor, but at the same time, they have so much raw story and emotion that it makes up for it (though I would agree they could have used a good copyeditor to catch all the little things). If she’d gone through an editor or gone through dozens of revisions, it’s possible that what makes her fiction great would have been edited right out of them and they would have been just another self-published ebook series.

Second of all, if you want to be a writer, you need to keep writing. That means writing new things, not rewriting the same story over and over again. I know there are all sorts of stories of writers who took 10 years or more writing a novel, and I can’t help ask myself how much of that time they spent actually writing, and how much of that time they spent just posturing and thinking of themselves as the struggling artist? I have a feeling they probably spent the same amount of time actually writing that your average writer who can manage a few books a year did. And there’s no guarantee that revising your book ten times is going to make it any better than revising it twice, once you’ve mastered the basics of both writing and revising (which is why this isn’t the best method for a first-time novelist).

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One thought on “My Take on One-Pass Manuscript Revision

  1. Thanks for this. I’m on revision 3 of my first novel, 100k+ and I’m wondering if I should continue or find an editor so I’m not going in circles (down the drain). I remember reading somewhere to keep in mind, ‘this isn’t the best novel I’ll ever write’, and your post made me remember that too! Cheers. (I got here from your ‘supercontroversialcalifragilistic’ post on Mashable.

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