Last week I explained my process of moving on from an old project, so this week I figured I’d write about my current project: revising my new novel. It’s something I’m going to try to accomplish within a year, but even that might not be enough time. Revision can be a tough process. It’s more than spell-check, proofreading or even sending your manuscript to friends and family. Instead, revision is a process spanning many, many drafts (from four to six to upwards of nine or ten). It’s something I’m still, well, revising, but here’s what I’ve got so far.
Step One: The Writing Group
A writing group is a group of writers who meet to critique each other’s work on a regular basis. They could meet as much as every week or as few as once every few months or so. There are even some writing groups who are completely online. (My writing group is on the Reading Excuses sub-forum of Writing Excuses.) Regardless, there are a numerous advantages to writing groups. They provide in-depth critiques on a range of chapters which you probably wouldn’t get by simply handing someone your manuscript. They also provide several different perspectives on your work, allowing you to weigh criticism based on how many people are running into the same problem. There’s are quite a few things to keep in mind about writing groups (see some Writing Excuses episodes here), but here’s two big ones. One: you get what you give. Try to give good criticism instead of just demanding a critique while offering nothing in return. Two: Be civil and complementary when you give a critique. Being rough and heavy-handed isn’t going to do anyone any favors, even if you think you are just being “honest”.
Note: If you’re like me and you’re able to mostly turn off your inner editor, you might want to do this step second or even third or fourth. This was the first time I ran my novel through a writing group from start to finish, and my manuscript was rife with grammar mistakes and typos. It might be better to wait until you’ve had time to do a surface proof-reading first.
Step Two: The Alpha Readers
Alpha readers are your first line of defense (well, after the writing group anyway). There are fellow writers whom you trust. They could be part of your writing group (in which case you could skip this step altogether.) They may even write for a completely different genre, but they should at least know what you are going for. In any case, you send them the complete manuscript. Some writers have trouble sending an entire manuscript, but honestly, that’s where the trust part comes in. There’s a time and place to be protective of your ideas and work, but you need feedback on how the entire narrative works from start to finish.
Step Three: The Beta Readers
Betas and alphas are often used interchangeably, but I consider beta readers to be readers of the genre you are working in, whether its science fiction, mystery, young adult or all of the above. They could also be writers, but need not be. Beta readers are invaluable because they are knowledgeable of your chosen genre. What twists did they coming? Did this work remind them of any story they’ve seen before? What was their experience reading your work? Betas are very good at answering these questions, providing another layer of criticism.
Step Four: The Gamma Readers
Gamma readers are ones who are neither writers (alphas) nor readers (betas) of your chosen genre. Many times, they are friends, families and other supporters of our work, and despite their unfamiliarity, they can provide valuable insight by sharing a newcomer’s experience to your writing. What confuses them? Have your built your world enough to explain all the necessary details? While gamma readers are definitely important, they are sometimes over-utilized, especially by new writers, who don’t look for criticism outside of their immediate circle. While friends and family can provide a very important support network for one’s writing, they can’t always provide the necessary criticism to improve one’s work completely. However, they can be a very important supplement to ensure everything is working right in a narrative.
That’s what I’m looking for as far as revisions go. Keep in mind a professional writer probably uses a very condensed version of this. They may only use a trusted writing group, a few alphas and a gamma reader or two. If they are working for a publisher, they probably already have an agent, an editor and several others reading their work for quality control. When you’re trying to break in to the industry, however, you need all the eyes you can get. Also be patient – it might take readers a few months to get through your manuscript, so make sure you have other projects to work on while they are reading. Revision is a process, and all processes can be improved. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “great art is never finished, only abandoned.”
What about you? What’s your process for revisions. Feel free to share in the comments.