The 10 Revision Stages of a Novel

by Jessica Sticklor

It takes a lot to write a novel. Even those who haven’t tried would say, “well, duh!” to this. But it’s not so much the mind space or the sheer time it takes to write a novel that is as daunting as how many times any writer must go back to the drawing board for yet another draft. To really ready a novel for publication, a writer must spend time with his or her book. Like any budding relationship, you, the writer, must court your novel, take it out to dinner, meet its parents, and see it through its most trying and desperate times. As a writer, you have to stay up all night with your novel crying and talking and sometimes even clawing your hair out before that perfect moment of inspiration can truly help you cross the finish line.

For many published authors I know, myself included, a completed novel takes them about 10, that’s right, 10 drafts, and at least a year of real editing. Will you be spending every single second editing your novel? No, of course not. Just as drafts need some real time on the surgery table, they also need rest in the recovery room. You don’t nurture a relationship by smothering a person, spending every waking second with them until you can’t stand the sight of each other, and you can’t nurture a novel by breathing down its literary neck. However, a novel should undergo many drafts—and different kinds of drafts—before declaring it ready for an agent or editor to see.

Everyone has their own way to write a novel, and not all craft advice (or even craft “rules”) should all be followed by everyone, but when it comes to the many drafts of a novel, there are specific things a writer should focus on during each revision to help create a smooth transition from the initial idea to final product. These are the 10 (or, really, 11) drafts that any completed novel will have to go through, one way or another.

Draft 0: Could this be a book?

Get to know your novel before you even put pen to paper. After you have the spark of an idea, sure, you might sit down and write, but you should also get to know your plot and your characters; you might even research information connected to your novel before writing. It’s best to do some brainstorming before really diving into the writing process. Try creating an outline of your novel and do some character sketches or some research on the time and/or place your novel will be set in—really get to know all of these aspects. Maybe even read novels that are similar to the novel you’ve planned before you start; that way, you’ll have a base to work with. That being said: Many writers get caught up in the research phase and neglect to start their novel. Don’t fall into that trap.

Draft 1: Am I really writing a book?

Ah, the first draft—also known as the Honeymoon Phase. It’s kind of like when new parents first take their baby home, before the 3 a.m. feedings and the crying at all hours takes its toll. Everything is nice and breezy, you love your novel, it’s your own magnificent creation.

Then the work starts.

The first draft is tough because this is where most of the writing takes place; in fact, the first draft is where so many drop out. In the first draft, you start with nothing—sometimes not even a title—and end up with a 200- or 300-page (maybe even more) draft. Here is where we get it all down.

During this draft, it can help to make outlines not only of the novel as a whole but also of each chapter as you go. A friend of mine once asked, “How do you write, like, an entire novel? Isn’t that daunting?” And it can be daunting, especially when you’ve just started. My answer to her was: “One chapter at a time.”

The idea of a whole novel may seem impossible at first, but if you think of it as only one chapter (“I only have to write this one chapter” or maybe even “I only have to write this one scene”), then the idea of writing a whole novel might seem less daunting. Try outlining each chapter as you go, and then write each chapter one at a time until you have a rhythm going.

During the first draft, just write. Don’t hold back. Let your characters grow and change and see where they’re going as the story progresses. Another word of advice for the first draft: Write every day. That’s important. If you write just three pages every day, which is a common goal among writers, you’ll have about 270 pages in three months. That’s a good start on a novel. If you start skipping days, that page count diminishes quickly.

Draft 2: Did I really just write a book?

This is a reread draft. A big part of the drafting process is reading. Read through your book. Make notes as you go. Do you need to fill in something? Add something? Change a scene? Make notes but do not stop to fill in unless something really gnaws at you. Other than the big, glaring errors, wait until the next draft to fix it up. Here you want to just focus on reading the manuscript in its entirety to see how it all fits together as a whole.

Draft 3: How much spackle am I going to need?

This is where you take the spackle and start to fill in the holes. Go over your notes. Rewrite scenes that feel clunky, check those transitions, and add and delete scenes as needed. In this draft you want to really smooth over your work to make sure the characters make sense and the story flows. Now ask yourself, does it feel like a book? Are my characters fleshed out? Does the plot make some modicum of sense? Is the theme present and clear? If yes: Good, keep going. If no: That’s OK, keep going.

Draft 4: How well do I know these people?

I like to call this the character-building draft. A lot of rewriting happens in this draft. During this draft, you look deeply at your characters. Yes, you knew your characters before, but now—after going over this book three whole times—you REALLY know them. You’ve read their story; they’ve lived inside your life (just as you’ve lived inside theirs) for months, possibly years, by now.

Is she really that shy? Could she come out of her shell more? Is he really a nice guy? Would it work better for the story if he were a little bit meaner, maybe even bordering on abusive?

Yes, we start knowing our characters when our novels are just twinkles in our eyes, but I cannot tell you how many times I start to realize new things about my characters as I write draft two, draft three, and draft four. Once I realized around draft three that my protagonist had been sexually abused. It was not the focus of the novel, but I could see how this development was coming out in the way she acted around certain men and her reactions to violence and sex. During this draft, I started to explore that aspect, writing scenes where she talks about past sexual abuse and fleshing out the scenes where her past might affect her.

Another time I realized after many drafts that my protagonist’s father wasn’t just a strange man: He was also abusive. It took me four drafts to realize that, but once I did, the entire story made more sense. Then I had to get in there and make that new character trait real in my novel, which required changing scenes, adding and subtracting scenes and foreshadowing, and rewriting descriptions—but at the end of the day, I had a better novel for it.

Real flesh-and-blood people are complicated, and while the real flesh-and-blood people we know (even intimately) are always more complicated than we will ever realize, in fiction it is our job to realize just how complicated our characters are and then convey that on the page. Just as it takes a long time to get to know a person so intimately that you might discover some long-held secret about their past, it takes a few drafts to know every intimate detail about our characters.

Draft 5: I have to cut how much?

You’re halfway done, almost there—now CUT. Cut, cut, cut. I tell all my writing students that each piece they finish should be the shortest version of itself possible. Sometimes the shortest version of something is three pages and sometimes it’s 1,000, but this is where you take everything, every detail, every scene, sometimes even every character, and put them on trial. Does this scene really need to be here? Did you write a very similar scene a few chapters back? Yes? Well, which one is better? Then the other has to go.

Does this character add to the story or are they just a placeholder? Consider tweaking the character or letting them go. In addition to repetition, look at your long paragraphs: Are they a little too expository? Maybe even long-winded? Really look at those words, those phrases, even those beautiful descriptions, and decide whether they truly help or hurt your reader’s experience. William Faulkner didn’t say “kill your darlings” for nothing. Look at everything that does not add to your story and cut. Then cut some more.

Warning: This draft is painful.

Draft 6: Does this sound right?

Sometimes I call this “the poetry draft” because what you’re looking at here is the use of language and how it flows in the novel. This is where you painstakingly mine every sentence. Is each sentence perfect, not just as a sentence but also as a sentence in your unique novel? How are your word choices? Did you overuse adverbs? (A friend of mine searches for all words ending in –lyand cuts about two-thirds of them). Is there a clear narrative voice? Really craft your writing here, your words and the flow, just as a poet might. Reread each sentence a few times to make sure it all works. This draft takes time, but it’s worth it.

Draft 7: Can you look at something for me?

Around draft seven is a good time to get your book in the hands of readers. You might have workshopped while you were writing your first draft, and it might have helped you a great deal to look at certain smaller parts with other writers, but now it’s time to have two, three, maybe four people, people whom you trust to be critical of your work, read your novel. How do you find these people? You might consider joining a writing workshop through a community organization, university, or a for-profit company. You might set up a meet-up to workshop a novel or go to the many sites that help authors find beta readers.

Be mindful of friends and family who might not be familiar with critiquing a novel; they might not know what to look for or they might not want to hurt your feelings. Thus, their feedback won’t be as critical and will be less helpful. You don’t want a pat on the back during this draft; you want cold, hard criticism. Remember, there might be a quid pro quo attached to this, and you should plan on reading and commenting fairly on the work of those who workshop you. This stage, on your end, might involve reading someone else’s novel and not your own while your novel is in the hands of readers, but you can learn a lot about your own work by examining the approach another writer takes.

Draft 8: How am I going to use all this?

It’s important to understand how to look at the comments of others and to always accept feedback—any feedback, positive or negative – graciously. That being said, this novel is YOURS and it will have YOUR name on it. So you also need to be critical of the comments as well: Did a sex scene personally offend one person? That’s probably not a big deal. Did three or four people not understand the point of said sex scene? That’s something you might want to look at.

Be sure not to get too attached to some of your darlings if a great many of your beta readers question them. But also know that the parts of your book that made your blood race, that made you feel as if you were about to stop breathing as you were writing, are probably going to have similar effects on the reader, even if people in your workshop had trouble with them. That might mean you have to tweak those parts, rewrite some scenes, or make sure you get the right ideas across if you see that readers are having trouble with them, but not every negative comment a beta reader makes means you should delete something or change it completely. Sometimes it’s just a matter of tweaking or clarifying.

Draft 9: How did I miss that?

Now that you’ve changed what needs to be changed, it’s time to check your grammar. This draft might be more daunting for some whose strengths lay outside commas and semicolons. You don’t want to do this draft too early in the writing process, as there’s no point in painstakingly going over work that’s only going to be scrapped or changed so much that you are going to have to go over it again (and again) later. Honestly, grammar is not my strong suit, and so while there are things I can check and change, I prefer to ask a professional. My grandmother-in-law is a pro at grammar, so I usually go to her. Chances are you might have to call in favors. You may want to hire a professional if grammar is just not your thing. That might cost a bit of money, but when it comes to getting your book out there, it’s worth it.

Draft 10: Could I be finished? Really?

Here is where you read for any glaring errors. A forgotten word or something not caught in the grammar edit. You read to see that it all makes sense, but mostly what you’re really reading for is to say, “It’s good, it’s really good.” This is where you ask the question, “Does it read like a book?” And answer wholeheartedly, “YES!” If the answer is not “YES!” do not fret; go back, keep editing. Repeat draft three, draft four; consider what still needs work and revise until it’s finished.

Once you answer, “YES! It’s really a book,” your novel is ready to go out into the world, whether it’s to an agent, a small press, or maybe you’re embarking on the self-publishing journey. And by the way, once an agent, editor, or small press gets their hands on your novel, there’s going to be a whole new round of drafts to go through. Take comfort in the fact that everyone simply wants your book to be the best it can be.

What’s important to remember is that creating a novel takes time beyond just its writing. Just like you didn’t know how awesome and complicated and weird your best friend or lover was until you spent a meaningful amount of time with them, your novel will grow, change, and show you things about itself the more time you spend with it. So be prepared to spend—and enjoy— that time writing drafts.

This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine