So. You’ve got this manuscript. It’s got a great central idea. It’s strong and vital. It’s not trendy, so it’s not out of date, nor is it likely to go out of date. You still get that little frisson of excitement when you think about it. Not only that, the subplots are good too. They’re strong, but they don’t overshadow the main plot. They support the central idea and make the main story more complex and layered. The major conflict is strengthened because of them, and the tension in the overall book really soars because of the interplay of the subplots and the secondary characters with your protagonist.

The characters, at least in idea, are good too – they’re three dimensional, complex, interesting and real. The problem is that complexity doesn’t quite come through as well as it should on the page. But when you started this, you were just a beginner. You’ve learned so much since then! (This is true whether you’re digging an old manuscript out of the trunk, or you’ve just finished the first, great novel of your career.) Just reading the first two chapters, you can see how you can bring these people to technicolour life.

BUT . . .

But . . . the descriptions could use some work. There’s either not enough, and you feel as though you’re floating in black interstellar space, or you’ve written a blueprint an architect would love.

And . . . the technical stuff isn’t that great, frankly. Being honest with yourself. You’ve used, on average, 18 adverbs per page. You know now that’s not allowed. And your attributions don’t repeat for at least 100 pages. You characters never “say” anything. They chirp, they groan, they laugh (have you ever tried laughing and talking at the same time?) they yawn (ditto), they sob (again, ditto), they whisper, they growl – you get the idea.  Instead of  saying that the character does something, you say they “began to do something” or they “are doing” something. Very passive, very weak, you now realize.

Worst of all the voice changes part way through – the end is the real voice of the character, while the beginning seems to be speaking in tongues, if not showing signs of multiple personality syndrome, and the improvement in your writing shows clearly when you compare the beginning with the end of the book.

How do you salvage this? Can you salvage this? The idea really is good, you think. But . . . the rest is so, just so . . . beginner!


You’re not going to revise this. If you do that, then you’re simply going to fall back into the same old ruts and habits and patterns that you had when you first wrote these words. This is especially true if the book has been sitting for a couple of years while you worked on other writing. Furthermore, revision means taking out what doesn’t work and leaving in what does. What that means is that the stuff that is weak and poor writing but gets across what you’re trying to get across will stay in, next to the strong and lively writing you’re doing now. It’ll bring the quality of the book down and make the whole thing feel more like a patchwork than ever.

You can salvage this, though, if you’re willing to make the effort. If the idea is a good one, if it has stayed with you while you went on to other projects, improved your technique and abilities, as you learned your craft, you can still capture the essence of the book. It’s not easy, and you have to be firm and disciplined with yourself about it.

First, make a copy of the book on CD or DVD. If you’re a belt and suspenders type of person, print it out as well. Then remove it from your computer. Yes, that’s right, take it right off. Put it in the trash, and empty the trash. Give the print-out, the CD or DVD, and all (all, not most, but every single one) printed copies to the strongest person you know. Someone who will laugh in your face when you ask for it back. Someone who knows where to hide it so you can’t find it, no matter how hard you look.

Good. Now sit down and rewrite the book from scratch. Yes, I said rewrite from the beginning. I can hear you howling from here. But it’s the only way to do it. Your improvement in your writing, and in finding your voice, and the book’s voice has been so great since you first sat down and wrote “Chapter 1” that it’s the only way you can “revise” the book with any hope of improvement. No, you won’t remember everything. What you will remember are the important things, the parts of the book that stood out for you and were the liveliest. You’ll have to figure out the rest. Some of it will be remembering what comes next, some of it will be improving on the original idea, and some of it will be brand new ideas that your improvement as a writer now allows you to see.

You’ll be reinventing the characters so they will be the three dimensional, complex, real-feeling people you’ve known they were. They’ll come alive more quickly and will influence the course of the book, so that it will be a better novel. Moreover, you won’t be holding them to the earlier definitions of who they were, which you yourself admitted were cardboard and one-dimensional.


It sounds harsh and it sounds like a lot more work than simply revising the book, but I promise, if you do this, you will end up with a much superior story. One that might even attract the attention of an editor or agent.


3 comments on “Writing

  1. […] up on my writing page – about revision and rewriting. Check it out – it might surprise you. Published […]

  2. Ralph says:

    That was clear. Now for the hard part. Execution.

    • bevcooke says:

      That is the hard part, but it’s really worth it. The voice is consistent – or more consistent – throughout the book, your improvements don’t get dragged down by your old habits and skill level and the book has a chance to come alive and take twists and turns that really boost the tension, conflict and character development.

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