Good writing, great writing is all about revision. And writing the first draft requires a lot. In Part 1, we talked about just putting words onto the page—no matter the pattern, the order, or the tangents—just getting them down. Ignoring your inner editor to write that first draft took courage, and it’s going to pay off. Nietzsche said, “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.” The chaos on the pages you’ve written came from within you, and when you start revising, untangling your work, you’ll find surprising connections and new insights that give you and your readers a new way of seeing the world.
So you’ve written your first draft, and stepped away to give your ideas time to percolate. Now you’re ready to haul yourself back to the keyboard and whip your piece into a form you can work with. This part of the process can fry your brain. To help you out, here are 4 organizational tips I use to keep me in the chair and at the keyboard instead of huddled in the corner chewing my hair.
1. Start with the big picture
Most of us want to start revising by tinkering with the sentences, but at this point, editing at the sentence level can be a waste of your time. Why go to all that trouble when you’ll probably end up cutting out huge chunks of that material later? It’s much more efficient to do your big picture editing first. Tackle major cuts, additions, and rewrites before you start digging down into the individual sentences and word choices.
2. Organize the parts
If you’re writing a book, it’s easy to get lost in the details. Shuffling so many pieces and tracking them all is mind numbing. A spreadsheet can be a big help. I use Microsoft Excel to keep track of what’s going on. When you’ve completed the first draft, write down the main points of each chapter in the spreadsheet. That way, it’s easier to build one point on the next and create a smooth flow. And most important, recording these points helps you to avoid making organizational mistakes—such as introducing a character after you’ve killed them off. Or referring to a concept you haven’t yet introduced. Your spreadsheet will vary depending on the type of work you’re doing and what you want to track. For books, your spreadsheets might contain columns for:
- Chapter #/Title
- What happens? (Just include an overall bullet list or summary. Usually a sentence or two.)
- How does the action propel the story forward?
- Characters involved
- Comments (Does this information belong here? What’s missing? What can I add?)
- Chapter #/Title
- Information covered
- Does this section build on the previous one?
- Comments (Does this piece belong here? What’s missing? What can I add?)
For shorter pieces or even chapters, I don’t use a spreadsheet. Instead I insert headings in the document to help me organize the sentences into paragraphs and the paragraphs into a cohesive pattern or form. These headings can be actual headings you’ll retain in the finished product or placeholder headings to remove later. At the end of a piece, I always create a placeholder heading called “Seemingly Random Thoughts” to store information I sense might be important, but I’m not yet certain why or can’t figure out where it should go. As I continue to revise, I often find one or more of the points under this heading strengthens another point or adds a unique perspective. If not, I remove them.
3. Dig in and sort out
Now that you’ve organized your work, get in there and throw out, flesh out, and rearrange. Here’s what to look for:
- Chapters or sections that need to be cut out—maybe they go into too much detail for the piece you’re working on or veer too far from the main point.
- Missing information that you need to add—perhaps a whole new section or chapter.
- Scenes or sections that need to be moved or radically revised to fit in the piece, fill in what’s missing, and/or tie all parts together.
4. Walk away
Once again, just as you did at the end of Part 1, step away. Then come back and look at your work with fresh eyes. You’ll be amazed how you can spot chapters or sections that don’t fit, holes in your argument or plot, inconsistencies, and other issues you’ll be able to fix. You’ll probably want to repeat steps 2 and 3 a number of times. When you get to a point where you feel you might be causing more harm than good, stop. Maybe let a friend look at what you’ve written. And when you’re ready, you can move to the best part—polishing.
Need some inspiration? Take a look at what these famous authors say about revision.
Now it’s your turn
What do you think? I’ve talked about 4 ways to revise your first draft. Which was most helpful? Do you have any to add?
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How can I help?
No matter where you are with your writing, no matter what stage of the process, I offer services as a writing coach and editor to help you with your work. If you’d like to discuss your project, contact me to set up a free, 30-minute consultation.