Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 10, 2024

Untangling the Mess: Overcoming Common Revision Obstacles

By Janice Hardy

Image of a hand holding a red pen above a manuscript page with corrections in red ink sitting on a wooden desk. in the background on the far left is a green plant in a white vase on the right is an electronic tablet and the a mug of coffee.

Every revision is unique and each one offers a different challenge to overcome.  

Some manuscripts are clean first drafts that fall out of your head and 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 you gave up on—even though you still love that story and swear you’ll make it work one day.

I have novels in all of these categories and then some.

Most writers will have a draft that’s ready for revision. These will be split between manuscripts no one but you has seen and manuscripts that have been through beta readers or critique partners. How you approach your revision depends on what stage the manuscript is at.

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

This is a typical first-draft revision with a manuscript you haven’t shown anyone yet, and you want to make sure all the bugs are worked out before you get feedback.

Remember:

  • Give yourself the freedom to stink: Yes, first drafts don’t always stink, but a lot of them do, so don’t worry if yours is full of issues and problems. That’s normal. Revision is how you clean up that mess. I like to think of first drafts as brain dumps just to get the story out of my head and onto the page. Once there, then I can turn it into a book.
  • 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? Where would you cut them some slack? This can also help you be more objective about the work. Taking time off before revising can help give you distance here. 
  • Don’t worry about the time it takes to revise: I know you want to get it done and off to an agent, editor, or publish it, but rushing the work never results in the best work, and this can hurt you and your novel in the long run. If it’s worth doing, do it right.

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. Not every piece of feedback is useful, even if it comes from a good writer or critiquer.
  • If you’re not sure about a comment, think about why you’re resisting it: Sometimes feedback requires edits that scare you, or changes something you love, or even use a skill you’re not sure you have. Maybe that “they’re wrong” reaction is correct, but maybe you just didn’t want to hear it.
  • 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 actually in the setup, so the resolution isn’t coming through correctly. So if you’re sure the scene is right, look at the scenes that led to that matter and see if you missed something that didn’t set it up 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. Often, this only takes a word or two, maybe a sentence to fix. Remember—readers don’t know the story like you do, and maybe they put the book down for a week between reads.
  • 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 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, maybe there’s a reason. 

Photograph of a woman sitting at a desk, chin on hand, elbow on desk, while studying her laptop screen. Beside her is a stack of manuscript pages with different colored sticky notes and clips holding different setions.

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.

And then there’s the Frankendraft.

A Frankendraft has 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. Some are 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. The idea could still work if you approach it like a new novel, not a revision. 
  • Kill some characters: Hard as this will be, eliminating characters can go a long way toward stripping out what’s unnecessary. Pay particular attention to characters who have their own stories and might be hijacking the main plot. 
  • 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? If you have a lot of subplot and character arcs for multiple characters, this could be bogging down the story. 
  • 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? Start at the core and work outward, and think really hard about every element you add back in. Is it truly necessary? 

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.

  • An outline is your friend here: The first thing to do is identify what you want to keep and what can go, and an outline of the story you want to tell is the easiest way to do that. Then, create a new file and put the novel in the order you want it in. It’s okay if the transitions are missing, or things don’t make sense. Once the scenes you want to keep are in place, you can start smoothing the flow so it all fits together.
  • 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. Ask: Does it advance the core conflict in some way? Does it offer new and relevant information? Will readers miss something important if it’s not there (be honest)? If not, let it go.
  • Beware of revision smudge: Revision smudge is bits and pieces left behind that reference something no longer in the story, and it gets into every revision. Reading these scenes feels right to you because you remember what those bits all mean. But when you look closely at the current draft, you realize the details refer to a part of the story you cut three versions ago.

What a draft needs differs depending on which draft you’re on and what the manuscript needs. Approaching one of the less common revisions 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.

Workshop Heads Up!

I’m presenting a workshop on Creating Stronger Conflicts in Your Romance Novel on June 15 during the Wanna Write Romance 2024 Virtual Conference, June 13-16. The conference is free, and there’s a paid upgrade for additional goodies and a whole extra day of sessions. You can register here.

What type of revision do you usually face?

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About Janice

Portrait image of Janice Hardy

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author and founder of the popular writing site Fiction University, where she helps writers improve their craft and navigate the crazy world of publishing. Not only does she write about writing, she teaches workshops across the country, and her blog has been recognized as a Top Writing Blog by Writer’s Digest. She also spins tales of adventure for both teens and adults, and firmly believes that doing terrible things to her characters makes them more interesting (in a good way). She loves talking with writers and readers, and encourages questions of all types—even the weird ones. 

Find out more about writing at www.Fiction-University.com, or visit her author’s site at www.JaniceHardy.com. Subscribe to her newsletter to stay updated on future books, workshops, and events and receive her ebook, 25 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now, free.

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Top two images purchased from Deposit Photos.

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17 comments on “Untangling the Mess: Overcoming Common Revision Obstacles”

  1. I never thought about editing in these terms before. It's actually very helpful to clarify one's process. Thank you.

    My first published novel was definitely a frankendraft! Now I write cyclically and revise from comments. I'm hoping I'll never have another frankendraft. LOL.

    1. I know, those are the hardest. I've have a few myself and one I'm STILL struggling with.

      I just love how the slightest shift in perspective can make a huge difference in how we write or how we approach our writing. I think it's about figuring out what works for our process or our brain.

  2. Frankendraft made me laugh- it's really on point. I've also found revision smudges from drafts. I thought it was just me! It's amazing what your brain can ignore that can be right in front of your eyes. Thanks for a look at overcoming all those little (and big) drafting obstacles.

    1. It's not just you 🙂 We all do it. Revision smudge is tops on my list of reasons why all writers need crit partners, lol. It's impossible to catch smudge on your own. We know our stories too well, so it all makes sense, even when it doesn't.

  3. I'm still new enough I haven't gotten feedback on a full manuscript. I haven't done much revising either, I struggle a lot with first drafts. The one I'm drafting now I wonder if it's worth sticking with because I never really know what to have the characters do or say and I have to force myself to write everyday. I'm afraid it'll be the same of I jump to another story.

    1. What you're feeling, Tonya, is pretty common. Many (all?) writers struggle with the first draft. As Janice says above, allow your work to "stink." Everything is fixable in revision.

    2. That's pretty common for new writers, Tonya, so don't worry 🙂 Odds are good you're still figuring out your story and your process, and what works for you. You'll probably need to try different things before you find what really clicks with you.

      If you're having trouble knowing what they do and say, you could try outlining and planning your scenes before you write. Or you might look at story and scene structure and see what makes a good scene for some ideas. Maybe you just aren't sure how the mechanics of scenes work yet.

      You might also try looking at your main conflict. Often, writers struggle because they don't know what problem the protagonist is trying to solve in the book, so they have nothing to plot toward.

      Another common issue is trying to plot with an internal conflict, such as "find love" or "get over grief." Those are great issues, but there's nothing concrete and external for your characters to do, so there's no plot. Look at what your character might do to "find love" or "get over grief." Join a dating site? Seek therapy?

      You also don't need to write every day. I know that goes against a lot of advice out there, but I'm not an everyday writer. I get burned out if I don't get time off. I write during the week, but don't write on weekends.

      I hope something here helps you!

  4. This is timely for me. I'm working from a draft that just isn't coming together well. Right now I'm revising on my own, and the work is still in a pretty raw state. I changed POV early on in this revision, so that has caused a mess. (Some scenes need to be cut, rewritten, rethought...) But the most powerful advice I see here is the reminder not to rush. Rushing is the worst thing anyone can do to a story.

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