How to plan (and complete) a first draft revision strategy

A woman sitting at a desk with her laptop, biting a pencil in frustration

You’ve done the thing, the astounding trick that makes every novel possible: you’ve taken a single story idea and turned it into tens of thousands of words.

Getting there has required a big vision and lots of creative discovery. It’s also required days when the only things getting you through were the thesaurus, pure determination, and a strong beverage of choice.

And if you’ve done your work well, your completed first draft is an absolute, glorious shitshow.

Now it’s time for the second big trick: taking those raw words and transforming them into a fully developed story. This next feat of creative magic takes a very different approach, and it’s not always easy to make the shift.

Writing the first draft was all about maintaining momentum and getting content on the page, no matter how rough. Revising the first draft is about excavating the true shape of your story (no more, and no less).

The key to success is to have a straightforward novel revision strategy, so you won’t get overwhelmed with possibilities or sidetracked by details. This guide will show you how to your plan your first draft revisions with confidence and clarity.

Here are the key tactics to follow:

  • Find your top three revision threads

  • Prioritize the threads

  • Revise each full thread in order

  • Don’t copyedit

Sounds simple, right?!

Read on to discover how to approach each of these tactics, why they matter, and my most important tip for completing your first draft revision.

Seeing the big picture: Creating your novel revision strategy

Here’s my first piece of encouragement. It’s absolutely normal if you don’t know where to begin. In fact, working through that question is part of finding your actual novel among all those words – and making sure your next draft captures the real potential of your story.

Tactic 1: Find your top three novel revision threads

Before you make a single change to your manuscript, take the time to identify the three most important big-picture revisions you need to make.

This step is a game-changer for strategically revising your first draft, because it keeps you from wasting energy making changes that will ultimately get thrown out of your novel.

Here’s what I mean: Let’s say you remember a logic hole in Chapter 10 of your book. You got stuck there for a bit while writing, then decided to keep going and fix it later. You know it’s a problem, so you spend your first couple revision sessions figuring out the fix. Best to just dive in and get working, right?

(You probably see where this is going…)

Later, when you’re revising Chapter 20, you realize there’s a much bigger logic hole you didn’t pick up on as you were drafting. Fixing it will completely change multiple other chapters – including Chapter 10, where you’ve already sunk several hours into the wrong changes.

Full disclosure: this sort of thing will likely come up at least once during revisions, no matter how much you plan. After all, if you already knew exactly how to revise your first draft, you’d probably have just written it that way the first time around.

But over the course of a full novel revision, these little time-sinks really add up. Even worse, they can sap your motivation to see the work through. By figuring out your top three revisions first, you can save yourself a lot of extra effort (and get your second draft finished a lot sooner).

I call these most important, top-level revisions “threads” because they’re woven all through the fabric of the story. Pulling on each thread will change how the entire story is built – which is why they need to be revised first.

So, how do you find these top three revision threads?

To discover your threads, I recommend taking a two-step approach. First, do a brainstorm session without looking through the manuscript. Make notes on structural weak spots you remember from the writing process, and any initial ideas you have for fixing them.

If you’re planning to take a substantial break from the novel before revising, try to make these notes just after you wrap up the first draft, before you set it aside for your break.

When it’s time to start revising, read through your complete manuscript. Yup, the whole thing. Take lots of notes, but don’t make any changes while reading!

Create a read-only version of your document if you can’t trust yourself not to break this rule (I always have to do this). As much as I hate wasting paper, reading a printout can also be a good way to get a fresh look at your work and discourage premature editing.

Once you’ve done your read-through, compare your new notes with your initial brainstorm. Start looking for any changes that will override or influence other items on your list – this is sign you’ve found a key thread.

For example, let’s say one of your revision notes is about a pivotal action scene that’s falling flat. You know it needs to be rewritten and expanded. But you’ve also made a note that some of the technology in your story contradicts other elements of the worldbuilding.

Rethinking your tech will almost certainly affect the way your characters interact with the setting, and with each other. So that revision is likely a key thread, and it should be addressed before you rewrite any individual scenes (no matter how central those scenes are to the plot).

Tactic 2: Prioritize the threads

Once you’ve settled on your threads, create a triage plan for which thread needs to be tackled first. If you’re having trouble narrowing down your list to the top three, this step will help you make the final call.

To prioritize your threads, look for the change that will have the biggest impact on the full novel.

Think of your revision changes as a row of dominos (we’re mixing metaphors here, but just go with it). Which thread is going to create the biggest chain reaction throughout the manuscript? That’s your top priority.

Take the same approach to rank your second and third revision threads. If you’re having trouble with the ranking, consider how many chapters or scenes will be affected. That’s a good indicator of how deeply a thread is woven into the book.

If you’re truly stumped on the ranking, decide based on which revision thread is most important to you. Do your favorite books all have deep, poignant character development? Then start your revisions there.

The key is to make sure your most important revision thread is shaping the decisions you’ll make about the revision as a whole.

Tackling this thread first, and addressing it in full right away, helps ensure your second draft is actually closer to your vision for the finished novel – not just a different version of your first draft.

Following through: Implementing your revision strategy

These next tips sound deceptively simple. But once you start in on the work, you may find yourself wanting to stray from the plan. (Read: You’ll almost certainly find yourself wanting to stray from the plan.)

Here's my advice for keeping focused and actually finishing a successful first draft revision.

Tactic 3: Revise each full thread in order

When it's time to start writing, allow yourself to work on whatever parts of the book need to be changed first, regardless of where they fall in the manuscript.

To avoid getting sidetracked, don’t just jump in at Chapter 1 and start working through the manuscript. It’s too easy to slip into making changes that aren’t connected to your revision strategy threads (and remember, you’ll save tons of time and effort if you fix the big threads first).

Before you start on your top priority thread, take another quick, read-only cruise through the book. Make note of where the necessary changes fall in the manuscript. Then find the scene(s) that should kick off the changes – this is where you’ll start your work.

To illustrate, let’s go back to our technology and worldbuilding example. You might find that certain scenes have the most important tech content for you to play with as you figure out how to rework your setting. Reimagining those plot points first will help you know what changes to make in the book as a whole.

After you’ve completed one revision thread, it’s time for the next. Follow the same process for each thread: make your notes, then start with the most relevant scenes and follow the thread through the book.

Tactic 4: Don't copyedit

If you only adopt one tip from this guide, let it be this one: don’t get sucked into copyedits when you’re working on big-picture revisions.

I know, it’s painful. There are so many meandering sentences to fix, and unruly adjectives to change, and just look at the dialogue in Chapter 5!!!

But this is my number one tip for a successful first draft novel revision. Working on sentence-level polishing is one of the fastest ways to slow down your progress when you’re revising that first draft. In my own experience, avoiding copyedits is the biggest key to actually implementing a first draft revision (instead of playing word Tetris until I forget what my story was even about to begin with).

The problem is that once you start making sentence-level stylistic changes, it’s extremely hard to stay focused on the big-picture issues. By jumping between the macro and the micro, you’re toggling in and out of different creative modes – which makes it more difficult for you to come up with the best ideas for your revision threads (and to catch all the changes you need to make).

So, how can you distinguish between big-picture revisions and sentence-level copyedits?

A change that’s part of your revision thread will change the content of the story; a copyedit will change how that content is conveyed.

Back to the hypothetical tech worldbuilding one last time: As you rework the tech, you might decide to change the power source for your main character’s home, from a municipal power grid to an off-grid solar array. That’s part of the revision thread.

During your first round of revisions, you want to focus on finding each place where that power source is mentioned, so you can update the content of those scenes and reimagine how your MC interacts with their tech. But you don’t want to spend much time massaging how each sentence actually reads on the page. You may already have a lot of notes about language edits; that’s great! It’s just not time to address them yet.

Revising your novel’s first draft is about making sure the structure and big-picture content of your story is solid. Once that’s accomplished, then you’re ready for copyedits.

For example, most early drafts include repetitive descriptions. We tend to get certain evocative phrases stuck in our heads, and while they’re awesome the first time around, readers don’t want to see your MC’s solar array described as a “glossy sheet of lacquer” forty-eight times (sorry).

But if that’s the phrase that keeps coming to mind as you rewrite the tech content, don’t worry about it yet. For your first round of revision, just make sure that every time you mention the power source, it’s a solar array. Think of the repeated description as a placeholder for something better you’ll write later (and when the time comes, you can even use the search function to track down the repeats).

So no matter how much it hurts, stay away from those sentence-level changes until the major threads are addressed. That’s when it’s time for polishing your language – and ultimately, for getting your story to its readers.

Your story may not be fully realized on the page yet. But stay the course and follow your novel revision strategy – you’ll find it! And no matter what, keep creating and keep revising. The world needs good stories. There are readers out there waiting for yours.

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