Approaching a Big Revision by Johanna Harness

17 Aug

Not long ago, a Twitter friend said she needed to jump into a major revision and the enormity of the task made her feel defeated before she started.  She asked what I would do, so I’m sharing my recipe.

First, gather ingredients:

  • Notecards:  I like a mix of blank cards in different colors
  • Pens that provide the right sensory experience for jotting bold ideas. Ultra fine point retractable Sharpie markers do it for me.
  • A clothes line or a blank wall. I have an IKEA dignitet curtain wire strung along the top of my bookcases for this purpose. (See the picture at the top of the page?  That’s mine.)
  • Paper clips, binder clips, clothes pins—something to afix note cards to the line or wall. I find aesthetically-pleasing supplies make the process more enjoyable.
  • Some sticky notes in a variety of colors
  • A manuscript (no need to print)

Start with one note card per chapter.  I usually start with plain white.  Skim through your manuscript and observe key elements in each chapter.  Jot them down.  You are not judging or evaluating at this point.  Judging and evaluating take too much time.  Observe and jot.  That is all.  Get it done. String up your cards.

Look!  It’s your book.  How cool is that?

With a few notes jotted down from each chapter, you should be able to work from memory now.  One by one, take down each card and evaluate the chapter like it’s a short story.  I know, It’s not a stand-alone short story. It belongs in a series.  It may even have a cliff-hanger before the next story in the series, but each chapter should have a beginning, middle, and an end and it should have a purpose.

Pick up another note card.  It can be a nice bold color this time. As briefly as possible, write down the point of that chapter.  Why does that chapter exist?  If you’re not sure, don’t agonize too much. Put a big question mark on the card.  Paper clip that card on top of the first one and hang it back up.  Move to the next.  (If all or most of your cards have question marks, it’s okay, but you’ll need to do another run through before you move to the next step.)

Now take a look at your novel again, with all the main points.  Identify the chapters with the following information and hit them with sticky notes.

  • It becomes clear what your character wants
  • Your character hits a point of no-return (Impossible to say, “Oh forget it.”)
  • The critical turning point when all the action starts to move toward conclusion
  • The darkest point for your character
  • Resolution of the central problem in the story.

Now check out where these things happen in relation to the whole. If it doesn’t become clear what your character wants until 1/3 of the way through the book, you might be starting with back story.  The point of no-return should be fairly close to the beginning too.  Turning point?  Top of the story arc & middle of story. The darkest point is probably toward the end. If resolution happens too early, you might have forgotten to shut up when the story was over. (Oh yeah–did I mention?  One of the best parts of self-critique is that you don’t have to be polite with yourself. You can also laugh at your own jokes. It’s kind of awesome.)

So now you’re looking at the story arc. You know where the story begins, how it ends, and what the point of the whole thing is.

Now you go back to each note card and see if the chapters belong in this story.  Do they contribute to your overall story arc?  If not?  Take them down.  If they contain one or two tiny plot points, but they don’t really pull their weight?  Add sticky notes to surrounding chapters, reminding yourself to insert tiny plot point there–and then take the weak chapter down.

Remember:  you are not evaluating whether that chapter is fabulous.  It probably is!  After all, you wrote it.  How could it not be fabulous?  All you’re considering is whether that story fits in this particular book.  If it doesn’t fit, you can save it for a different book–or actually write it into a full short story.  It is fabulous, after all.  Just take it out of this book.

Next?  Use your notecards to revise the remaining chapters.  Now that you know what you’re trying to achieve, you can aim more accurately for that target.  Your working time will be much more efficient and your writing time will be more satisfying too.

Now go!  Get note cards!  It’s time to play.


Posted by on August 17, 2011 in Revising, writing


Tags: , , ,

27 responses to “Approaching a Big Revision by Johanna Harness

  1. Carley Ash

    August 17, 2011 at 7:35 AM

    Great blog, Johanna. It’s a keeper. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Marsha R. West

    August 17, 2011 at 7:40 AM

    What an impressive process, Johanna. I can see myself using this, but I’d print the book, and actually separate the chapters. Then I’d use your notecard system. It would take up way more space than your cool clothes line, but it’s easy for me to get lost on the computer screen.
    I recently completed a major revision–had to make changes to cut down on number of POVs–I started from the end and read the bottom half of the page and then moved to the top, etc. through the whole thing. (I was able to do this on the computer.) Tideous, but I found little glitches and erros (even used the wrong name in one place for a character) that my CPs and I had missed in numerous previous rewrites and edits.
    I’m going to try your note card system for my next revision. I’m prone to include things that don’t move the story along, and your questioins will help me zero in on those scenes. Great post. Marsha

    • johannaharness

      August 17, 2011 at 8:12 AM

      Yes! It’s so important to make the process your own. As I’m doing revisions, I tend to layer more and more notecards to each chapter. This is especially useful when I know I have a weakness in a particular area. I can analyze each chapter looking for ways to improve and then I have those notes reminding me as I revise.

      I do use print-outs of my book for detailed editing, but not for the big picture phase. (I get too easily distracted from the big picture by the delightful little things.)

  3. Peggy Staggs

    August 17, 2011 at 7:55 AM

    Very timely. I’m right in the middle of revising my whole book. Thanks for the hints.

    • johannaharness

      August 17, 2011 at 8:13 AM

      Great, Peggy! I hope it’s going well. 🙂

  4. Liz Fredericks

    August 17, 2011 at 9:12 AM

    Johanna – this is truly excellent! I just started using Write Way and can integrate your guidance from the blog into that software. I’m with you on aesthetically-pleasing – life’s better when you can integrate art in even routine activities.

    • johannaharness

      August 17, 2011 at 9:37 PM

      Yes! I love combining everything until I get something that works. 🙂

  5. Clarissa Southwick

    August 17, 2011 at 9:18 AM

    Perfect timing! I have spent the last three days mulling over revisions on one chapter. Do I cut it, keep it, or something in between? I’ll give this method a shot and see what I come up with. As usual, your advice is priceless. Thanks.

    • johannaharness

      August 17, 2011 at 9:39 PM

      Yes–it’s so difficult to know what to do unless we have some guidelines to push us along (and even then sometimes).

  6. Janis McCurry

    August 17, 2011 at 12:55 PM

    “Color” me stunned. Such a great method. Thanks!

  7. Mary Vine

    August 17, 2011 at 1:02 PM

    Thanks, Johanna. I plan to save this and look at it when my current work in progress is finished. One thing I particularly like is :Do they contribute to your overall story arc? If not? Take them down.
    On my first book, my publisher wanted me cut back on the word count and it was hard to do. With this step in process, it will help to know just where to cut.

    • Mary Vine

      August 17, 2011 at 1:03 PM

      Sorry, I don’t know where that smiley face came from!

    • johannaharness

      August 17, 2011 at 9:41 PM

      Exactly! Condensing sentences can be such a painful way to decrease overall word count.

  8. Meredith Conner

    August 17, 2011 at 1:08 PM

    Great process Johanna! Thanks for sharing! I love the photo.

  9. lynn mapp

    August 17, 2011 at 1:25 PM

    Johanna, I loved this blog. You’ve given me something to think about. I. Loved. It.

  10. Mike

    August 17, 2011 at 4:38 PM

    Never underestimate the power of notecards 🙂

    • johannaharness

      August 17, 2011 at 9:42 PM

      Note cards: Is there nothing they can’t do? 🙂

  11. LouBelcher

    August 17, 2011 at 5:53 PM

    Great post. I use note cards to get organized,but haven’t thought to use them during evaluation. It’s a great idea. Thanks. Lou

    • johannaharness

      August 17, 2011 at 9:45 PM

      There are so many great ways to use note cards. I was resistant to using them at first because I had them pegged as being useful only for research papers. Bah. It’s such fun to play with them. I love moving ideas around.

  12. Shari

    August 17, 2011 at 7:50 PM

    As always you amaze me, and I appreciate you sharing your methods! I have tried note cards before but not in this manner… thanks!

    • johannaharness

      August 17, 2011 at 9:46 PM

      Thanks, Shari! If you try it, send me a tweet and let me know how it goes!

  13. loubelcher

    August 18, 2011 at 3:48 AM

    Great post. I use note cards all the time in my writing. Haven’t used them during evaluation though. Good idea. Thanks.


  14. John Ross Barnes

    August 18, 2011 at 5:41 PM

    Wow, that really is quite the mind you’re showing there, M’am. Nowhere near anything like this of course, but someday perhaps I’ll have use of it.


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