Rewrites: Your Revision Road Map

You did it.

You finished the first draft of your novel. You’ve been dreaming of this moment for a long time.

When you write a first draft, it’s good to set it aside for at least six weeks. Don’t touch it. Don’t look at it. Just let it be.

Except now you have a problem. You have to revise your draft and turn it into something that works as a novel. And you don’t have a clue how to do it.

Which is why you’ve put it off for so long.

If we’re being honest, you finished that draft quite a while ago, didn’t you?

It’s time to get a little brave, print it out and give it a read. Maybe it won’t be as bad as you think. Or maybe it will.

But you’ll never know unless you read it.

Your Revision Road Map

The process of rewriting can seem overwhelming. That’s why it helps to break it down into small steps.

Here are 11 steps I follow for rewriting a first draft:

Note: This process is faster and easier if you’ve planned your story out before you wrote the first draft. If you didn’t, this process will still work. You may just have to take more time to do the “figuring it out” part. 

1. Read the Draft Through From Start to Finish

Start your revision by reading your first draft from beginning to end.

For this read-through, don’t worry about bringing your red pen to the table. Just read, no judgment, no criticism. See what’s there and what you have to work with.

If you’re a control freak (like me), you’ll probably take mental notes anyhow. (Which can be helpful once you move on to step number two.)

Time Estimate: four to six hours, depending on manuscript length. I stayed up ’til 3 a.m. the night I read my draft for the first time. Once I got started, I couldn’t stop.  

2. Read the Draft Again, Pen and Notebook In Hand

Now you need to read the draft again and go nuts making edits and notes. I like to write my notes directly on the printed copy.

Time Estimate: Anywhere from 10 hours to two or three weeks (maybe longer, if your draft is a total shit mess). I spent about two weeks reading and re-reading my draft to see where things needed to be fixed in order to make a cohesive novel.

3. Create A Scene By Scene Post-Draft Beat Sheet

Make a beat sheet of all the scenes you have. This is usually a bulleted list of every scene and will help you get a more concrete overview of exactly what you have to work with using this draft. And you’ll find out how much of your draft is usable, which depends on how much planning you did (or didn’t do) before you started writing.

In my case, I spent eight months planning my story. I detailed all the characters, the plots, the central conflict. I wrote note cards for all four parts of the story, explaining each scene, the scene’s mission and when it took place.

Being this detailed from the get-go did two things for me:

  1. Helped me know what to write and where to write it
  2. Gave me a better first draft

No, my first draft wasn’t amazing, but it was a damn good start.

Regardless of how you came to the draft you have, you can save what you’ve got by creating a post-draft beat sheet.

Time Estimate: 15 to 20 hours (give or take). Developing a post-draft beat sheet (especially if you didn’t work from a pre-draft beat sheet) can be a little time-consuming. But it’s totally worth it and necessary if you want a story that works.

Bonus: Here’s a blank beat sheet template you can use.

4. Re-Read Your Favorite Parts (Just For Fun)

Go back and read your favorite parts of your draft. Obviously, there are parts you don’t like and other parts that need to be fixed, but you will also have some parts just right.

For example, in my original draft, the scene where my two characters kiss for the first time came out exactly as I wanted it. So I went back and reread that part whenever I felt fear or doubt creeping in. It motivated me to keep working on the rewrites.

You can repeat this step whenever you need a confidence boost or motivation.

Time Estimate: up to 30 minutes (give or take). 

5. Review Post-Draft Beat Sheet

Go through the beat sheet and see what needs to happen. Do you need to:

  • Delete scenes?
  • Move them?
  • Add some?

You’ll likely find a lot that needs to be changed or recreated from scratch. This all depends on how much you now know about your characters and your story.

Make more notes for changes, moves, additions, deletions, etc.

Time Estimate: up to 20 hours. This part of the process will, again, depend on how much pre-draft planning you did. Because I did so much planning, I was able to tear through my beat sheet changes in about 10 hours.

6. Make A New Post-Draft Beat Sheet

Now that you have everything figured out — which scenes you need to add, move and replace — create a new beat sheet with everything that has to go into your rewritten draft.

It’s a pain in the ass to repeat this step again, right? But trust me. You’ll feel better having a clean beat sheet that doesn’t have notes and arrows all over it.

I like to make a detailed beat sheet for my story, and for each scene I include:

  • Scene Title
  • Mission
  • Location
  • Time/Time of Day
  • Notes

Time Estimate: two to three hours. Since you already have a post-draft beat sheet (albeit covered in notes and red markings), you’re essentially just recopying it on a clean sheet of paper (or a new document on your computer). This is an opportunity to have all the scenes in the correct order, to make any final changes or notes, etc.

7. Begin Rewriting Using Your New Beat Sheet

Get started rewriting your draft. This is the fun part because you have the story completely figured out. All you have to do is write. Write, write and write.

And the best part is if you had a decent first draft (again, based on pre-planning), you can reuse parts of it and write around what you already have. This can make the actual rewriting in the rewrite process go faster.

Time Estimate: up to three months, depending on length of story. I started doing the rewrites on my draft three weeks ago and already I’m a quarter of the way through, so timing is really up to you.

8. Finish the Rewrites and Send to Beta Readers

Once you’ve finished the rewrite of your draft, it’s time to let it sit again. In the meantime, send it to a few Beta Readers to get their feedback.

Beta Readers are people who read your genre of novel. They can also be editors (if you’re lucky enough to know any. I have a good friend who beta reads and edits all of my novels). They can give you feedback on the story, the conflict, characters, where you need more description, where the story is too fast or too slow, and more.

Time Estimate: about six weeks. You want to make sure you give your beta readers enough time to read the story and give you feedback. Plus you want to give yourself enough time away from the draft. I like to set timeframes around the beta reading of my draft, so I can stay on schedule to launch the book by a certain date.

9. Read Your Rewritten Draft

After about four to six weeks, read your rewritten draft, noting anything else that needs changing or fixing. You should have a pretty decent draft and shouldn’t need to do too much work. But there will still be some things you want to tweak, and your beta readers may have more suggestions.

Time Estimate: four to six hours, depending on draft length. 

10. Give It A Final Polish

Using feedback from your beta readers and your notes from the final read-through, do a final polish of your novel. Make the final changes.

You should be feeling damn good about yourself right now. You have a finished draft of a novel. Congrats!

Time Estimate: three to four weeks, depending on depth of changes needed. 

Bonus: 11. Get Professional Feedback

Get professional help and feedback, in the form of professional editing or an agent, if you’re going the traditional publication route.

A professional novel editor will be able to see things, like structural mistakes or holes in the plot. Hopefully by now you’ve worked all of that out (highly recommended to do this during the post-draft beat sheet step). But if not, the professional will find it so you can fix it.

Time Estimate: up to six months (or longer). I’m personally going the self-pub route with my novels, so I’m hiring a pro editor to support me in finalizing my novel draft.

There you have it; a complete road map for taking your first draft from “eek!” to “sleek.”

Now go read that draft.

Coming Thursday

The Novel Studio — a 90-day program to help you turn the draft you have into a draft you can publish.

Image courtesy of Kitty Terwolbeck 

14 Replies to “Rewrites: Your Revision Road Map”

  1. Okay, Jen…stop reading my mind! LOL! Seriously, this article is **exactly** what I needed to get me to stop dodging having to face my first draft. Fortunately, I did use a story mapping process (thanks to you!), so a part of me is thinking it won’t be too much of a complete train wreck. BUT…there is an equally loud (and annoying) voice that says, “Congratulations. You just wasted a tree printing out this pile of crap. Good luck making it into something readable!” But I know if I don’t stand up to that inner critic, she will have me shoving my draft in a drawer and running for the hills (or worse, the television).

    All of the post is awesome, but I really love how you give estimated times as to how long things will take. Oddly, seeing that some things will take weeks or months didn’t scare me…it actually motivated/comforted me. I tend to think I should have everything done yesterday, and when that doesn’t happen, I berate myself and start to give up. Of course, I would like to see that final draft sooner rather than later. But going into that rewrite with the realization that it’s okay if it takes more than a quick spit shine to get this book in shape, I feel a lot less anxious. SO…once again, thank you Jen! You are a true gift to all us writers. : )

    1. Thanks for the comment, Mary! I think it’s easy to see a novel in print and think–that author made it happen way faster than I did. And while that might be true, if you look below the surface you’ll see that it took them a long-ass time to make the book happen. There are no “overnight successes” and if there are, they were years in the making.

      The process of turning your draft into a novel won’t happen in a day’s time. It’s a process, just like writing the draft is (and that took like 3 months or so, right?). You’re doing so much better than you believe you are, so trust it and get in there and rewrite your draft!

    1. @Nancy No, I don’t pay my Beta Readers. Honestly most of them are my good friends who just really want to read my novel, so they read it for me and give me feedback. As a thank you, they get a free copy of the book once it’s published. I’m sure if you reach out to your friends or people you know who read your genre, you’ll find some people willing to read and give you feedback. And if not, you could always pay someone.

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