November 13, 2013

Using an Outline to Revise

I've been deep, deep, deeeeep in the revision cave for the last several weeks (and I'm headed back in again NOW), but I wanted to take a quick minute to share something I learned about revision. I've revised plenty in the past--altered settings, changed characters, improved world-building, etc---but I had not really undertaken a major revision, ie: making big time plot changes.

If you're at all like me, the idea of making a huge change to a well-woven story induces no small measure of panic, but I decided to try something new this time around to help me get through the work. Because of my days in the product design world, I'm super process-oriented. I have complete faith that if I just follow a process step-by-step, I will eventually make it through to a conclusion.

The conclusion, in this case, was switching out one major plot line for another. Now, I'd done the creative work--I had a seed of an idea about the new direction I wanted in my story, but the substitution was not a clean apples for apples swap. I needed to remove one complex storyline and inject a completely new one.

The big question: where to start?

I looked to process for an answer, and realized that before I could even theorize on changes, I needed to have a solid understanding of the story as it was. Enter the outline.

My outline is the paper divided into 3 columns right below the keyboard.
Now, I'd made plenty of outlines in the past, but this time I needed something different: I wanted space to record what was currently in the MS, and also space to add ideas about changes. So my paper-based method was to divide pages into three columns, and title each column with the chapter number and name, leaving a long, empty column of space below.

Then I went through the manuscript. As I went, I noted the scene setting at the top of the page, and jotted a very short list of the key plot points in each chapter. If there was a scene break, I drew a line, noted the new scene setting, and again recorded plot points. I made sure to limit myself to JUST the key emotion, action, and mystery plot points.

As I completed this first pass, I also took the opportunity to make wild guesses about the changes I would make--but not on the paper. On POST-ITS, my most favorite revision tool ever. Post-it's give me the freedom to guess at anything, or even just leave myself a series of questions (often, those questions are super key to finding the answers on a later pass). You can see the post-it's in the picture above; I stuck them right below my plot point notes.

I try not to dwell on this first outline pass--the goal is to accurately note the current MS structure and capture all of my random ideas and thoughts. After this pass is done, I start over from the beginning, and this time, I really read the MS and attempt to make decisions. I take the chapters one at a time, referring to the outline as I go to keep up with what's happening overall. Slowly, my post-its that are covered in questions end up covered in solutions. Once I have a decision, I write changes directly on the paper copy of the MS--but if I'm not sure yet, I just stick with the post-its. They can always change later.

This pass takes a tremendous amount of will power and time to get through. John Cleese says that we have to build up a tolerance for solving problems, and I agree with him. Revision is never easy, but the outline really helped me keep track of the things I needed to change while keeping up with the many things I wanted to keep. The final step for me is typing my edits into the computer--which gives me another opportunity to fine tune the writing--and then my round of revision is complete.

What's fascinating about revision is that it's a different process every time. Sometimes your changes need to be executed front to back, because they encompass the whole story arc, and other times they need to be addressed in layers. However I revise in the future, I know that the outline will continue to play a role in my process. If anything, an outline gives you a free place to start, a place where you do not have to make decisions quite yet--and sometimes that's exactly what you need to get a challenging revision underway.


  1. This is a terrific post, full of good tips, and very timely for me as I face a big revision myself. Thanks.

  2. Great tips for all the revising I have ahead. Copying this and pinning on my wall. I can't believe what a massive amount of work you've done--AND, crawled out of the cave to tell us! So we may have it just a wee bit easier. Thanks, sister. :)

  3. I like the post it thing; I tried it in the past but didn't use it to its fullest advantage. I may be revising an MS soon so this is really helpful!

  4. This is going to be really helpful once I'm done with my WIP and go back to editing my other work. Thank you for this! =D

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