Novel Revision Strategies: Printing for Read-Through

2nd printed draft 2

Cheers! I’m celebrating a little milestone on my end, as I made it far enough through all those chaotic novel revisions over the last 2 weeks (Novel Revisions: Work is Messy, Book May Bite and Novel Revision: Revising a Flat Character) to be able to print a full novel draft again on Friday night.

Little celebratory dance. Cheers. Now time to get back to work.

Printing the draft feels like an accomplishment — so neat and finished-looking in its binder. But it is just a milestone before the next step of revision.

Each day I work on novel revision and engage in conversations with others in the same process, I notice there are specific techniques that writers use to manage the complex work of novel revision.

While we all probably do most of our drafting and revision on the computer, there are specific strategies writers use in revising from a print copy.

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When Do You Print?

The first time I wrote a novel draft, I printed copies all the time — I think I had a 4-foot high stack of at least 12 different drafts. But I’ve come to hate the messiness and waste of paper, so rarely print these days.

With my current WIP, I didn’t bother printing until I had my first complete, holds-together draft. In particular, I was going on a 3-week road trip, so printed to have the draft to take with me when a computer wasn’t available. There is a picture below of the draft I worked with last summer.

Even with changes, I haven’t bothered to print it again over the winter, because so much of what I was doing was outside the manuscript — character and story development, and writing new scenes. If I wasn’t going to work from the printed draft, there was no point in printing (caveat: other than to have a backup).

I knew it was time to print again when the next step of revision was to read through to see how things held together and test for the ordering of scenes in building the story structure. I’d already completed any petty tasks (ran a spell check to catch distracting corrections) and had pasted all pending material into the draft. I was no longer actively writing new material — I thought I’d filled all the “holes” and was ready to read for what worked, what was missing, what needed chopping, what needed moving.

For me, this will be an intermediate read: I expect big moves with this revision. I’ll have to chop scenes of motivation that were replaced by a new backstory. I’ll be merging or chopping duplicates where I’ve written the same scene more than once (not uncommon for me, as I keep “hearing” different perspectives or detail to a scene). And I’ll be making big choices about structure: I’ve written a handful of scenes from different character perspectives, so need to make a choice to structure multiple viewpoints or convert those scenes to something the MC would have known.

Others may print when they are ready for line edits or sharing with beta readers. I may be doing line edits in some places (polishing verb tenses, fixing/adding transitions, perfecting punctuation and word choice), but mostly I assume I’m not there yet. That will be the next print and read-through — which will hopefully be soon.

What is the Process of a Printed Read-Through?

Other writers use a neater process than I do. Ann Hood has said that she writes for 2 hours every day in a relatively linear order and begins the day’s writing by revising her work from the day before. When she has a completed draft, she prints it off and carries it to a local coffee shop where she goes all the way through the draft marking her edits.

Revision checklist-Similarly, young adult writer Alissa Grosso shared her process in this post for Teachers Write! last week, describing how she reads through a printed draft, marking all corrections in red ink.  She said it takes her about 4 days. She then makes the noted corrections on her computer draft.

My process is similar, with the exception that I use more than just pen in marking changes (see strategies, below).  So far, I’ve made it about one-quarter through, in one day.

  • In places where the text is polished (the opening is essentially done), I’m doing a close reading, noting decisions that need to be made (a date, a year, a city name, the name of a background character) and scrutinizing word choice.
  • In nearly-there sections, it’s time to insert any missing quotation marks (I’ve become minimalist in not typing them during initial writing, but they’ll be needed in submitting).
  • If you’ve read any of my quick drafts, I sometimes draft loosely, allowing almost stream of consciousness in details and thought; now, as I decide which scenes are working, I’ll be editing together the sentences that will stick. (That’s a burdensome approach, but it seems to avoid the overwriting that can come about when first getting to know a story.)

I will probably begin implementing changes into the computer draft before getting all the way through the read-through. Other writers finish all reading/notations on the full draft before going back to the computer.

If you’re going to make the changes on the computer anyway, why waste time with a printed draft? Read on to see some of the visualization strategies the printed draft allows.

What about really messy drafts?

Honestly: I printed this copy off completely ready to cut scenes apart and shuffle them like cards if that’s what it took to envision how they best fit in the storyline. We do that with student writers in workshop, sometimes, when their ideas are good, but the writer needs the ability to kinesthetically shuffle their sentences and paragraphs into a more powerful order. In my case, the linear telling of the story needs adjustment to control when the external and internal conflicts converge and reveal, for resolution.

That ability to visualize and physically move text around is a main advantage of printing a draft. On page 72 of her book Real Revision, writer Kate Messner shares Darcy Pattison’s “shrunken manuscript” technique. Kate shrinks font to the smallest size, single-spaces and minimizes margins so an entire novel manuscript can be printed on few enough pages to lay out across the floor of the living room. Shrunken to this scale, it’s possible to see the “big picture” of entire novel in a single view.

What do you look for, when viewing this big picture? Where are characters introduced? Where does the inciting incident occur? When is information revealed? Where do internal and external conflicts converge? Resolve? Where are there holes? Or, are there too many scenes happening to slow the action down? Do reveals happen too early or too late?

Some Technical Strategies for Printing

The shrunken novel approach gets us into interesting territory. We’ve all been taught that finished manuscripts should be submitted in 12 point classic fonts, double-spaced, with a 1″ margin.  A full-length adult novel can take 200 pages to print. But, for revising, forget those requirements: when printing for revision, use strategies that help you see and work with your manuscript.

Condensed drafts left you visualize more per page, in a less cumbersome draft. Over time, I’ve come to prefer working with drafts in 10 or 11 point font (closer to book text), and in 1.5 spacing, rather than double. (Set yours to a comfortable size: yeah, I can relate to having difficulty with small text up close.)  I customize to narrow margins (half-inch at left, top and bottom), but I leave a full inch at the right. On drafts where I planned to write lots of comments, rewrite scenes or plan research, I’ve left a 2-inch right margin; otherwise, I use the blank backsides for comments.

Play with the look of the page. You may notice in the picture above that I printed “2 pages per sheet,” creating a book-like layout. Tech-specs: I used 10 point, Times New Roman font. Spacing is 1.5, with half inch margins. Using landscape layout, I used the Word option to print “2 pages per sheet,” which is equivalent to columns, but without fit issues. This book-like layout has been easy to read, condensed, and with enough room to work with the text.

Display or print in different formats. Similar to the note above, simply printing in a different font (go from TNR to Calibri, or the other way around) can help you see your manuscript with fresh eyes. An extreme version of this comes from the fact I seem to notice typos more once I’ve posted to my blog. Using that, I’ve saved sections of text as a draft post (not published), and viewed it on my blog to spot revisions.

Scrivener or Word? You can print directly from Scrivener (“compile to print”) but I compiled from Scrivener to Word, then tweaked the manuscript in Word before printing. Word allows more control over margins, printing layouts, fonts, etc., and you can preview before printing so you don’t waste paper.

Working with my WIP's first draft, summer 2012. c. Elissa Field

Working with my WIP’s first draft, summer 2012. c. Elissa Field

Pen, pencil, highlighter…or all those fancy flags? If you are visual, go all in. Both as a writer and a teacher, modeling for students how to take control of their reading, I am all for using color and tools that take control of your draft:

  • Back to Kate Messner, with her shrunken manuscript spread on the floor, Kate uses colored Post-Its to mark key moments, characters, props and reveals in the manuscript.
  • With my draft last year (in this picture), I used large, tabbed Post-It flags to mark chapters, with room to write summary of the chapter or list pending questions. Smaller flags marked key scenes. Color helped signal different characters and conflicts.
  • In my current draft, I am reading with different colored highlighters, so I can highlight my favorite wording and key scenes or details. With these highlighted, I can make clearer decisions about the sections I will cut. I can rescue important details from scenes being cut. I can make clearer choices about which wording to use when merging a scene I’ve written more than one way.
  • If you don’t use highlighters during your review, you can use the trick we teach kids in writing workshop: write your corrections in ink, then use highlighter to mark comments once you have implemented them into the next draft. A good way to keep organized and know where you left off in your work.

color keyDon’t take my word for it… Check out this picture-diary of how I use colors and other strategies as I get to work with this manuscript in Tuesday’s Novel Revision Strategies: A Day’s Work in Pictures.

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What About You?

What revision strategies have worked for you?

Do you have specific strategies for print revisions, or do you do most of your revisions on the computer? Or what questions do you wish someone could answer about revision?

I’m debating a post on using Scrivener software — do you have questions (or feedback) about it?

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Filed under Novel Writing, Revision, Writing Process & Routine

16 responses to “Novel Revision Strategies: Printing for Read-Through

  1. Well, I finished a first draft. I print it, and set it aside for a few months, so when I come back, I have something physical to mark up, and I’m not all emotional about it. Those markups tend to be about what works, what doesn’t work with the plot, and what new ideas come to mind. When I did my thesis, I substituted chapters as I finished, so I could see how items related to the next chapter. I’m a big fan of the red pen, red makes me feel powerful, but I edited a friend’s ms with Blue or Green because red made her feel like a failure. My current MS is a total rewrite, but I used the technique to help me figure out what went wrong. Now, it’s time to use the original as a plot device, and move ahead with the new, so the coloured flags are awesome for that. Keep me posted on your editing techniques, I’ll be getting there soon!


    • elissa field

      Heather, thanks for sharing about your process. There are definitely strategies — ink colors, flags — that help you take control of that big chunk of paper! It’s funny what you said about red — it is the clearest to spot when putting changes to use, but lots of people think it is the color equivalent of screaming, so avoid it. I used purple on student papers. Thanks for your feedback, and good luck with your writing!


  2. Elissa,
    I’ve only done the one novel (so far). But this is how it went. Wrote through the first draft (and wrote and wrote – took a year). By the time I was finished, it was about 300k words (!) but tried not to stress at that point. A first draft is a first draft. Stepped away and tackled a renovation project – my office. About 6 weeks later, printed the draft out and started working through.
    I was reading Donald Maass at the time :) and as I went, I summarized each scene (first line, last line, inner conflict, external conflict, what changes for the story, and what changes for the POV character). I used the backs of an old page-a-day calendar that I saved for the purpose.
    I reorganized them and created a timeline, then pinned them to my cork board. I used both the printed copy (for all my marks and chops) and the notes on my board to revise.
    Did the same with the next draft.
    Only much later did I chop the novel in half and make it into two. Whittling the first half down to 110k (I hope) now.
    Here’s a post I did about it (with a pic of my bulletin board). It was for the third draft, second go though with the bits of paper.
    I’m just figuring things out as I go :)
    Don’t think I’ll do it the same way next time though. It was a lot of work. More than it needed to be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • elissa field

      Melanie, I really like hearing about your process — especially the way you summarized each scene creating an outline. Another writer had just been saying that this is her approach to outlining (done when she was partway through writing, as you did). In my post today I shared pictures of how it went as I worked through the draft and the outline I used to “keep me straight.” I ended up with more of a checklist outline, but still wanted to try out the method you describe — maybe for the next revision stage.

      Thanks for sharing! It’s great to see you here. And good luck with your work. :)


  3. I print the first draft but let it sit for weeks or months before I read it. Then, I’ll generally print a few later drafts, but not all of them. Maybe the third and fifth drafts, for example.

    There really is something about having the first draft finally printed and in your hands — it makes all that work seem worthwhile, never mind all the work that is yet to come!

    Liked by 1 person

    • elissa field

      Laura Maylene, didn’t you just (sometime recently) go on a writing retreat? (Or am I confused?) When you travel, do you take a printed draft or work on a laptop? Good luck with that book as you move forward.

      You’re right about the first printing. I generally focus on just getting the work done, but I had a nerdy little pleasure in finding just the cutest binder to put it in at Staples the other day — too silly. And I made my sons ooh and ahh over it. Oh, and took a picture. But then I got right to work. ;)

      Thanks for commenting.


  4. Elissa, as I was reading this I thought ‘she’d love Darcy Pattison’ – and there she was!
    I love hands-on ways to analyse what’s in my novel. I’ve developed various paper-based tools that I always use when planning, fixing and finishing. I write a big chart of the book that I call a beat sheet – like the Hollywood scriptwriters’ beat sheet, but heavily adapted for novels. It’s helped me take control of the mess draft, then to do further drastic revisions if they’re necessary. They usually are.
    I don’t do computer printouts but when I’m fairly near the end of editing, I make a Lulu copy. Seeing it in a proper book somehow triggers my most ruthless editing mode because I can treat the manuscript like a foreign body.


    • elissa field

      Roz, I have pictures of Darcy & Kate’s manuscripts laid out as shrunken novels, marked with post its so the method is really clear, but don’t have copyrights to include them here — so it’s great to hear someone else who gets how visually satisfying that process is.

      I love your example of a beat sheet. I did something similar today (in the next day’s post) in a “bouncer” of an outline. It literally lists characters-scene-key reveals (or beats) of the scene. Like you said, I am really big on tools that let you control a document — break it down, make it manageable.

      Doing a Lulu copy sounds interesting. Thanks for sharing! It’s good to see you here.


  5. Pingback: Sept. 15, 2007 – Target Date | Emilia Jordan

    • elissa field

      Thanks for including link to my Novel Revision Strategies at the end of your post. Good luck with finishing your book by your deadline!


  6. I use Ann Hood’s method! When I write, I re-read the previous chapter or two, revising as I see fit, and then begin my day’s work. When I get to the end, I’ve got a decently pre-revised MS that I print out and try to read in 1 or 2 sittings, looking for large-scale things like plot-holes, etc.

    So fun to see all these different styles!! :)


    • elissa field

      Writerlious, considering how long “messier” approaches take, I am feeling a little process-envy at the process you use. (I think I may have done that with my first manuscript, where my discoveries were relatively linear, but I don’t know that I could have written this current one any more efficiently, unfortunately.) All things being equal — that is, if you are equally comfortable with any method available — I do think it’s wisest to try the fastest approach first. This stuff takes long enough; no sense dealing with a mess if you can do it more efficiently.

      By the way, congratulations, right? Didn’t you just finish your first MFA residency? Yay for you. Thanks for stopping by to share your process, and let us know how your writing goes. It really is great to see all the different ways of approaching things. :)


  7. I really enjoyed your post. I have finally completed my novel and am in the throws of the editing process. Some days better than others, where it’s truly editing whereas complete revision. I feel like I’m struggling more on the time factor than anything but where there is a will there is a way. Thanks for the tips, techniques, and references. (Reblogging)


  8. Reblogged this on My Etch-A-Sketch Life and commented:
    Wow – it’s the last month of the year. This year has been an adventure. I completed my first NOVEL!! I’m excited and exhausted.
    I took a small break and now I’m in the throws of the editing and revision process. I completed my first read through and realized the first half is crap, but then the last half was surprisingly not awful. WIN!
    Now it’s time management and the process of getting through my novel so that I can move along to my goal of self-publishing. I came across Elissa Field’s post and she provides great tips, techniques, and references for those in the editing process like me.
    Sharing is caring so enjoy! Let me know in the comments any edit tidbits you’d like to share with me – inspiration is always welcomed.


  9. Great article, very helpful. Thank you! :D


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