Editing your novel: How to revise, rewrite and redraft your book
Writer and tutor Lynne Bryan explains the stages of revising a novel, from words to chapters and beyond.

In August 2022, we spoke to writer and tutor Lynne Bryan for The Writing Life podcast on the subject of how to revise, redraft and rewrite a novel. This is an edited transcript of that podcast.

You can listen to that podcast here, or subscribe in your chosen podcast platform.

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Lynn explains

  • The difference between revision, rewriting and redrafting
  • The importance of revising one’s work
  • How revision is different for different types writer
  • When to do what kind of revision
  • The role of third-party feedback.

What is rewriting?

Rewriting is what writers do all the time, even beginners. For example, if you’re giving an exercise to write a thousand words about a character, you’ll start that. Then you’ll go for lunch and return after an hour. You have to read what you’ve just written in order to get back into it, and when you read through, you will start tweaking it.

There will be a word you didn’t spell correctly so you’ll amend it. Or a word you’ve missed out. Or perhaps you’ve called your main character by the wrong name or reading through you decide Amy is really not the name you want to use and so you change it to Katrina. Perhaps one sentence doesn’t sit right with another. You may fiddle with this. It’s like a form of limbering up into your next lot of writing. It’s your stretching exercise before your full work-out.

‘Nothing will work, unless you do.’ – Maya Angelou

And it’s part of the writing process. In order to know where I’m going next, I read what I did the day before. As I read, I edit: I move, change and delete words, phrases, clauses and sentences.

Rewriting is a delicate tweaking, just to get you back into the world of your novel. It’s permission to write onwards.

But also, those amends won’t necessarily be the ones that stay there forever. You will keep revising them.

What is redrafting?

Redrafting implies that you have an entire draft now. And that you’ll be doing another one – a second draft of your book or your story. So you need to read through it. That read through should present ideas about what’s not working and what you need to tackle.

The nature of that redrafting will depend on what kind of writer you are.

The two types of writer

There are two types of writer. What Zadie Smith calls the Macro Planner and the Micro Manager in her essay That Crafty Feeling.

  • The Macro Planner is a writer who makes notes, creates a structure, builds a plot before they even begin to write their story or novel proper. They envisage the entirety of the novel. Then they set out to write it, but are always willing to play with the structure if something seems awry, for example if the tension is lagging. They will introduce another character or tell the story from another point of view. They reconsider where the climax happens in the story. They are not afraid to chop and change in a big way.

‘To write is human, to edit is divine.’ – Stephen King

  • The Micro Manager is the writer who is perhaps more literary and works from character and/or a sense of place. A writer who is trying to tease out something quite subtle from story and, as a consequence, they often can’t envisage its ending when they begin. Zadie Smith says that the Micro Manager finds the first twenty pages the hardest and they will write and rewrite these pages obsessively, until they begin to understand what it is they want to write. After this first twenty pages the rest of the book then begins to move more freely, and little revision is required.

Redrafting as a Micro Manager

A Micro Manager will only do small redrafts because they’ll have sunk themselves so much into this text that ongoing rewriting, that there won’t be that much that needs changing. It might be that the ending needs to move to the beginning, and they might fight that, but it’s something they acknowledge they need to do. Perhaps they will need to work a scene up to make it more atmospheric. They might lose the first 20 pages because they’re preamble and actually comes back later in the book, so they can get rid of it.

Redrafting as a Macro Planner

The Macro Planner, will read through their first draft and think ‘aagh!’. They may take big leaps, deciding that the text shouldn’t have been written in the third person but actually – to make it more immediate – needs to be in the first person from the protagonist’s perspective. They may decide that the end needs to be at the beginning to create a sense of mystery or to grab the reader by the collar and drag them in to the story. They may decide that the main character needs two lovers instead of the one to add more drama.

The main thing they’ll think about are:

  • whether the plot is working (whether there is rising action, some conflict, a crisis, falling action etc)
  • whether the characters convince
  • whether the book/story moves at the right pace (too much rewriting and you can freeze a book, make it turgid, stagnant), and linked to this
  • whether there is sufficient air around your words (space for the reader to breathe),
  • whether the book conjures up a world (can the reader imagine the places in your story, the people, what is happening and where and why).

The name Macro Planner sounds like they’ll have everything sorted, but actually they’re the ones who do the most writing in the end.

‘The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer.’ – Zadie Smith

I am a Macro Planner, whereas my partner, the writer Andrew Cowan, is a Micro Manager.

He moves slowly from sentence to sentence shifting a comma here and a comma there.

I blast out words. I write huge chunks and sit them together and when one chunk doesn’t seem to work I either move it somewhere else or replace it entirely with something new… or both. Sometimes I find my story is missing depth and so I add another layer. When writing my memoir about my disabled father, I felt I hadn’t explored how his crutches and his leg iron affected the way people viewed him, so I explored the subject of looking different and being viewed as different through writing letters to visual artists and including them as a thread throughout the book.

What is editing?

Editing is 99% of the writing process.

At some point you will decide that your book is as good as you can make it. You then need to do a final check through, but only once you have put the book to one side for a while. Let it rest. Take time away from it. Zadie Smith suggests two years!

The important thing is to be able to come back to your text having forgotten a lot of it, to read it as a reader would, and not a writer.

‘Write drunk, edit sober.’ – Ernest Hemingway

You will notice minor errors and so your book will need some line-editing – punctuation, typos, literals and so on.

You will notice larger errors, for example a jump in time that doesn’t make sense or a jump in location.

Bigger still, you may notice things such as chapters that don’t sit comfortably next to each other and need to be moved around. You may also need to redraft sections so you will have to return to the drafting process.

Beta readers

Once you have redrafted your book or story, it’s time to show somebody else. You might choose someone who is well-read, or another writer or a professional editor.

There are plenty of editing organisations out there, for example The Literary Consultancy and Gold Dust.

Listen to what they have to say and act accordingly, but always have faith in yourself and the parts you love.

But also, quiz them about the bits they didn’t like. If they didn’t like a character, ask them why? What was it about them?

‘Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.’ – Thomas Edison

It can be very scary to show your work to other people, you feel vulnerable and exposed. I still hold onto my writing for a long time, before I’ll ask my partner to read it.

Expect to have to make major changes. It would be amazing to turn in an almost perfect story first time, but I don’t know anyone who ever has.

Once you’ve redrafted based on their feedback, you might want some professional editing support, and there are plenty of editing organisations out there, for example The Literary Consultancy and Gold Dust.

How to get the best from a beta reader

If the person who reads your novel or story isn’t a professional, they may give your specific feedback:

  • ‘I didn’t like the main character, maybe make them a wizard.’
  • ‘Maybe it could be set in New York instead.’
  • ‘There was lots of talking in the middle, maybe cut that down.’

These may or may not be the solutions to problems, but this feedback doesn’t reveal the real problem.

Encourage your reader to reflect on how they felt, about things, this will be a guide to how to solve the problem, for example:

  • ‘I didn’t care about John/Sue.’
  • ‘I was bored by the middle.’
  • ‘I was confused about the time travel element.’

It has also been said that, if three or more people read your draft, only take feedback seriously if more than one comment on the same thing.

Lynne says: ‘Eventually, you will find a reader you trust. It’s great to have a reader who says, ‘it’s fantastic’, but it’s more useful to have one who says ‘it could be fantastic, and here’s how’.’

Why not look on Facebook for Beta Reader groups?

I recently worked with a student on their manuscript. Her draft was good, but I felt that one of her sub-characters lacked meat, they felt thin. The writer said they had felt reluctant to confront a race issue within the text – the race of a central character. If a subject or issue is difficult then many writers will try to write around it which can leave a big gap or confusion in a text. So she went back and built out the character.

‘I was working on the proof of one of my poems all this morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back in.’ – Oscar Wilde

Also, she is a short story writer trying to write a novel so she was trying to turn each chapter into a whole story, with an epiphany at the end of each chapter. It was making each chapter and the novel as a whole too weighty and claustrophobic. It isn’t necessary to do that in a novel.

The final sweep

The very last stage is the fine-toothed comb, sweeping every line for the little typos and literals and spelling mistakes and maybe some minor grammatical changes. Also look out for the consistency of your punctuation, for example whether you’re using “speech marks” or ‘inverted commas’ or neither for dialogue.

And stop…

It is also important to understand that, at some point, you have to stop. You will never write the perfect story or book. It will always have something not quite right with it. And your book will never satisfy every reader. Taste comes into the equation too.

Remember that, in the end, it is your story. If an editor wants a change that you really don’t want to do then don’t do it. Have the courage of your convictions.

When we spoke, you said that every project will need to be revised in a different way. How do we know?

That’s a very hard question to answer and knowing comes with experience. It will also depend on the kind of writer you are and often, the kind of genre you’re writing. Many genres will have specific rules to obey. In more literary forms, writers often play with form and style more and so they might begin to set their own rules.

Also, as you become more experienced and your editor/beta reader is more experienced, they will be able to give feedback based on the relevant rules.

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