Fish Can’t See the Water: 6 Revision Hacks for a Fresh Perspective

fish-1070316_960_720At the beginning of this year I started up on a new revision of a book I’d been working on for two years.

And for two years I’d been swimming inside the world of the story, intimate with its characters, at home in its settings, lip-synching along to the dialog. This full-body immersion was great for drafting, for developing the story.

But when it came to revision, I was just in too deep to see the thing clearly.

Successful revision requires a new perspective, seeing with new eyes, literally re-visioning. Here are techniques I found useful in being able to gain objectivity and insight for the revision process.

1. Read it Backwards

This is a technique stolen from copyediting. Copyeditors will often read sentences backwards in order to actually SEE the words and punctuation and avoid the problem that the brain will often fill in missing items or overlook typos when reading for comprehension. I wouldn’t suggest reading your novel backwards sentence by sentence (unless you’re really, really dedicated to having beautiful sentences), but why not read the chapters in reverse order, or the scenes, or even the paragraphs?

2. Make it Mini

I once printed my manuscript in single-spaced size 4 font in order to save paper. But in doing so I discovered a great way to gain a new perspective on the draft. What might seem like a normal sized scene when you’re reading your draft on a screen could be revealed as strangely long when it takes up ten of a hundred page print out. When your words are nearly too small to read, it becomes much easier to see the big picture on how much page space different elements of the story are taking up.

3. The Drawer

A classic technique. Print your manuscript and put it in a drawer. Start something, anything else. Write a short story, begin a new novel, scribble out some haikus, or blog posts. Or take the time off writing entirely and read or watch something you’ve been putting off due to your book-baby taking your every waking moment. When whatever feels like enough time has passed (but at least a week), give the book a read as if it were a manuscript you’d never seen before, handed to you by a stranger.

4. A Friend in Need

Another classic technique: giving it to a peer to read. Two tips, though. First, give your reader clear instructions. If you want to know where they got most interested and most bored, tell them. If you want to know if the characters were believable, let them know that too. Figure out what feedback would be most helpful to you and ask for it up front. Second, give your reader a deadline. I agreed to read the first chapers of my friend’s novel and was told I could get it back to him “whenever.” As time went on I would mention that I was making (embarrassingly slow) progress, and he would occasionally ask when I thought I would be done. Weeks, and maybe months passed. Finally owned up that I needed a deadline or it was just going to keep dragging on. “Do you think you could finish it by the end of the week?” I could, and I did.

5. Two by Two

Print your draft and break it into chunks of two chapters. Paperclip these chapters together along with a cover sheet for evaluation that lists the general parts of revision that you’re interested in improving (or use very general categories such as Conflict, Characters, Dialog, Themes, etc). Then approach each packet as if it were a separate homework assignment handed in and you are a teacher assessing it using the cover sheet as an evaluation rubric. When you’ve finished, gather all the cover sheets together and compile the notes. This helps you take a zoomed in look at chapters and how they relate to each other, as well and forcing you to keep looking at the important things throughout the novel, rather than getting caught up in reading.

6. The Crazy Wall


This one requires a blank wall and a lot of post-it notes. There are a lot of different ways to approach this technique, but what I did was put up each scene as a post-it in one color and then below the name of the scene different colored post-its for different elements that I wanted to track, such as characters, sensory details, subplots, etc. Using this technique I could easily see that a main character was introduced too late and I’d missed a number of opportunities to develop a subplot. The great thing about the post-its was that I could easily move them around until I was satisfied before committing it to any kind of new outline or revision plan.

Do you have any techniques for gaining perspective during revision?




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