HOW TO REVISE A novel

Writers often spend years writing a book, but the better question should be how to revise a novel. This is where your fiction writing can really shine and take you to the next level toward your goals. Learn how to revise a novel and all about the novel revision process.

The Novel Revision Process

There are many options for how to revise a novel once you’ve written one. First, you can revise a novel yourself or with input from a critique group. These are the easiest and cheapest options, but buyer beware. Writers go notoriously easy on themselves during self-editing because it’s very difficult to see your own work objectively. We don’t know what we don’t know, after all. The same caution applies to critique groups—they’re only as good as the level of experience and feedback provided. Here’s how to implement both self-editing options:

REVISE a manuscript yourself

Self-editing is a learned skill that comes with practice. I recommend putting a novel manuscript away for up to three months to really get the benefit of the revision round. Nobody ever takes this advice because self-editing is so tempting right away, but it will help you see the work with “fresh eyes,” even if those eyes are your own!

This advice also applies to revising once you’re stuck in a rut. Put it away. You will come back to the page with new ideas. One great resource I recommend to all novelists mired in the novel revision process is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. This has a lot of great tips to get you started on your novel revision.

Most writers will, however, hit a wall at some point with their self-editing process. They will realize they’re tweaking words and moving sentences around without making substantial changes. And sometimes substantial changes are still necessary to create a strong novel that will get a literary agent or sell to a publishing house. This is when most writers enlist outside assistance.

GET a critique group

A critique group is also a great resource for kickstarting the novel revision process. It’s simply a group of writers that meets regularly to discuss work that’s submitted, usually according to some parameters (20 pages, etc.). A similar option is a beta reader, this is someone who you can ask to read over a project individually for personal feedback, outside of a group discussion and workshop setting. The two are similar, but the format of feedback is often different. But as I mentioned above, the quality of critique that you get from a critique group and beta readers is going to depend entirely on the quality of the group, and the level of experience.

Many writers lose valuable time with critique groups that are too “nice.” Validation feels great, but if your critique group isn’t providing any, you know, critique, they may not be giving you the true creative growth you want from the novel revision process. Also, while everyone has opinions, that doesn’t mean all opinions are created equal. Ideally, you will want to find a critique group or beta readers that are one step up from you in terms of skill level. They will be giving you tougher advice, but it will help you grow as a writer more quickly. As you find individuals you like working with, these may become long term relationships.

However, if a critique group isn’t working, you should look around. Find a writing organization like the SCBWI (for children’s writers), connect with writers online in forums or on blogs that you frequent, maybe even take a writing class at your community center, library, or local university. You can meet great critique partners there. Reach out to writers and bloggers you admire. There’s no guarantee that they have the room to work with you, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

professional manuscript editing

If you have gone through the novel revision process with self-editing and a critique group already, but find that you want something more—or you’ve started submitting and aren’t seeing the success you were expecting—it may be time to hire an editor or otherwise avail yourself of professional editing services. Here are two ways in which writers generally connect with professionals:

ATTEND a writer’s conference

If you have a writer’s conference, retreat, or workshop in your area, or are willing to travel, good news! Conferences often bring out professional authors, publishing house editors, and literary agents. Not only are these guests speaking at the conference, but many will often provide paid critique services. You will usually submit work ahead of time, then receive a critique and sit-down meeting over the conference weekend.

This is usually a cost-effective way to get professional feedback, which you normally wouldn’t be able to provide for yourself or source via a critique group. The only drawback here is that publishing professionals are busy. They are doing 20-30 conference critiques for the weekend, and your meeting is likely to last ten or fifteen minutes. The feedback will be valuable, but there are obvious time constraints in this scenario, and maybe little or no room for questions or follow-up.

Still, I recommend that every writer attend at least one writer’s conference and buy a critique. The experience is very legitimizing, and you will always learn something from your investment.

HIRE a PROFESSIONAL editor

The most intimate and personal way to receive editorial services is to hire an editor to work on your project. However, this is often the most expensive approach (though maybe not, if you have to travel to a writer’s conference). But for good reason. A good professional editor will focus entirely on your project, provide comprehensive notes, answer questions, give clarification, and otherwise be a one-on-one resource during the novel revision process. You will receive a lot of feedback, and some of it will be challenging, but there’s truly no quicker way to put rocket boosters on your development as a writer.

The benefits are clear. You receive personal advice on your project, you are paying the editor for their time, so they make themselves available to you, and a professional editor doesn’t usually get into that line of work without a lot of experience in writing, publishing, or both. For example, I have an MFA in creative writing, was a literary agent for five years, and bring over ten years of publishing experience to bear on every manuscript edit. Other editors I know are retired from positions at publishing houses.

Writing is a solitary endeavor, and the intimacy of a professional relationship is something a lot of creators crave. You’re handing your precious creative work over to a stranger and want to be sure it’s treated well. For many professional editors, this isn’t just a transactional relationship. I answer questions about agent submissions long after an edit is returned, celebrate my clients’ successes—I have relationships with clients that have lasted for years!

Novel revision next steps

With this information in hand, decide which approach is best for you. Maybe you’re happy to revise on your own for a while. But there will come a time when outside feedback becomes necessary, so you’re not in your own writerly echo chamber. This usually happens when you consider submitting to a literary agent or publishing house. Then, you have options, from beta readers to professional editorial services.

If you like what you’ve read here from me, please don’t hesitate to check out my writing craft book or reach out for editorial services via the contact form, below.

Click here to purchase Writing Irresistible Kidlit, my book on fiction craft for MG and YA novels, out from Writer's Digest Books. This will show you my writing craft philosophy and give you lots of valuable advice, including tips for the novel revision process and self-editing. There are over 35 example novels cited and discussed throughout. It’s a valuable resource for any writer’s toolkit.

It genuinely feels like you’ve handed me a golden compass so I can trek off in the right direction now to ultimately find buried treasure. I’m so excited to not be wandering around aimlessly on this story any more. I can move forward on it now with confidence.
— Kendra