So, here’s the first most important thing about revising. You should write your draft knowing that you not only don’t have to get it perfect the first time through, you’re not expected to get it perfect. That’s one thing about NaNoWriMo that’s pretty great. The demand is so enormous (having to average close to 1700 words a day, every single day of November), you can’t possibly revise as you go. You just have to barrel ahead, getting the words down. But you have that freedom every time you write. You can always fix it later.
Here’s the second most important thing–nothing that you’ve written is sacred. Nothing. Nothing. Every chapter, scene, paragraph, word, even character must be subservient to the story. If something doesn’t work, even if it worked at first, but in the course of revising is no longer relevant, that beautiful chapter, scene, paragraph, word, or character must go. And you must be ruthless in cutting out that dead weight.
Here’s the third most important thing about revising. You must approach your revisions as if you were the editor rather than the writer of the book. You must go in there looking for trouble, not expecting a masterpiece. And you should never take it personally. Even the best manuscripts go wrong sometimes.
Now that we’ve got those three basic musts down, here are a few other things I’ve learned over the course of writing and revising 20+ books.
- Give it a rest. After you’ve finished your manuscript, give yourself some time so you can return to it with a fresher eye. How much time? I personally don’t like to go longer than a week, and it’s usually just a few days. But you might need a couple weeks or even a month.
- Give it a read and think story as you go. Are the story questions answered? Are all the setups paid off? Is there extraneous material that doesn’t move the story forward? Are there characters who don’t pull their weight? This is where your major revising will be happening, where your bigger problems are solved.
- Give it another read and look at characters and details. Are your characters’ actions & dialogue consistent for them? Have you introduced word or phrasing repetitions in the course of your first big revision? Ditto for typos?
- Give it a final read. Are there any parts that just don’t flow? Awkward phrasing, expository dialogue, settings that are either overly detailed or not detailed enough? Anything confusing that you think a reader might stumble over or have a problem following?
- Let someone else give it a read. If you have a critique group or a beta reader, preferably someone who has never heard about the story, ask them to read it. It has to be someone whose opinion you completely respect and trust. And you have to be open-minded about their feedback.
- As needed, give the manuscript one last revision based on reader feedback.
So is it a hard and fast rule that you must give your book three (and only three, no more, no less) readthroughs? No. But is it necessary to pay attention to all of the above elements while revising? I’d say yeah. If you can do that with one pass through the book, that’s great. As long as you’re reading with an editors eye, and are brutally honest with yourself about what’s working and what’s not.