Three Principles for Revising a Novel Manuscript – NaNo-Now-What Part 1

So you have a complete first draft of a manuscript. That’s incredible! Fantastic work.

Whether you finished it in one month via NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), or you’ve been working on it for some time, that’s an incredible accomplishment. Now it’s time to get serious.

I see two common mistakes when it comes to editing a novel manuscript. The first is to assume that your work just needs a quick fix up for grammar and spelling, and then it’ll be ready for a publisher. The second is the exact opposite – the author who won’t walk away despite revision after revision because he feels that his work could always be a little bit better.

Setting up some ground rules will help you avoid these mistakes. Whether you’re starting a business, a home construction project, or revising a novel manuscript, you’ll always be more efficient if you begin by carefully defining what you’re setting out to do, and what the parameters of the task are.

Your manuscript needs revision. It probably needs a serious overhaul. All manuscripts do, nothing leaves the word processor ready for publication.  Use these guidelines to complete your revision efficiently and with the best results.

There are three principles that we’ll use to define our manuscript editing process. While your exact method and operation can be flexible, these precepts are inviolable.

1. Revision is a function of sale. The core purpose of revising your manuscript is to make it more suitable for sale to a publisher, or to readers.

If you wrote your manuscript to express yourself, or simply to accomplish the feat, you’re done. You have no business revising at this point. You’ve done expressed yourself already, and revising will only tarnish that. Move on to another project.

If you have no intention of pursuing publication (either traditionally or self-publishing), don’t spend a moment editing. You can find a better hobby.

Revision is the process by which we take our expression, this story and these characters that we’ve pulled from within ourselves, and make them palatable for someone who might like to pay you for your work.

This doesn’t mean that you need to abandon all of your artistic principles and write Die Hard the book. It simply means that when we edit, we need to take into account the real goal, which is sale of the book.

2. Evaluate for Return on Investment (ROI). Cold hard fact: this manuscript may not be your winner. At every step of the revision process we need to evaluate the manuscript to determine if it’s worth putting more time into.

There’s a good chance, especially if this is your first book, that your manuscript should be used as a learning tool for future writing, but isn’t worth investing a lot of time into. That’s OK. If you decided to start building cabinets on the side for extra cash, you’d probably give the first few away until you got really good at it.

There’s also a good chance, especially if you wrote this book for NaNoWriMo, that it’s a big pile of word-shaped crap, piled up to about 50,000 words high. It’s an incredible accomplishment, and there are certainly some notable books that were first drafted during NaNoWriMo, but it’s also OK if you wrote a lot of words, but the book isn’t terribly good. It’s OK if the best move is to pitch this one, take the lessons and the writing habits you’ve developed over the last month, and do something better.

At any point in the revision process, you need to be able to evaluate your manuscript and determine whether more time into this project is likely to net a sale, or a sufficiently higher sale (reference Principle #1), or if your time will be better spent on a new project.

The caveat is that you need to take into account your personality. I meet lots of authors who think that everything they crap onto a page is gold destined for the bestseller list. On the other hand, I also meet lots of incredible authors who won’t let their work see publication because they’re convinced it’s worthless drivel. The hardest part in this step is accurately evaluating your work, and giving yourself the proper credit.

This principle also comes into play later in the process. After a revision or two you may find that your work is quite good, but that there are a couple of little things that can be fixed. Sometimes you need to leave well enough alone. At some point you can ask the question, “If I spend ten more hours with this manuscript, is it going to increase the saleability or sale price enough to make that time a worthwhile investment?”

3. There are objective standards. Simply put, there are some things that are better than others. Not all analysis of writing is subjective on the part of the audience.

Certainly, there’s some room for creative expression, and doing things your own way, but don’t forget Principle #1. There are some things that American audiences nearly unanimously agree are better in books. There are other things that virtually all people don’t like.

I’m not suggesting that you adhere to a bunch of arbitrary academic “rules” for creative writing. But there are times when there is a right way and a wrong way to do things.

Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of saying, “That’s the way I meant it/like it/want it/feel it.” Especially when it comes time to get objective third-party feedback on your manuscript (more on this in NaNo-Now-What part 2), be aware that your gut is not going to sell your manuscript. While the world would love to see you bust open the box in a way that is awesome and effective, in most cases you need to be open to the fact that you’ve done something incorrectly, without a good enough reason, and your method needs to change.

With these three principles for revising a novel manuscript in hand, you can move forward effectively and efficiently. When you’re considering whether a task is important or a good use of time, simply compare it to these three principles. If it falls in line, do it. If it doesn’t, there’s a good chance it’s a waste of time, or maybe a little vanity poking through.

In NaNo-Now-What Part 2, I’ll outline some specific steps to take to effectively revise your manuscript. Stay tuned for that coming soon.

Brad Pauquette is the director of Columbus Creative Cooperative, which is a volunteer position.  He is also the CEO and a developmental editor for Columbus Publishing Lab, and the owner of Columbus Press.  Find his book, The Self-Publishing Handbook, on Amazon.