The Vacuum Revision Technique

I recently finished writing the fourth draft of my novel, A Thousand Roads. I spent the last 4 months on it. I keep track of my writing time, so with my daily commitment of roughly 2 hours every day, 7 days a week, I clocked close to 200 hours of work on that draft.

This works out to almost the same amount of time I spent writing the first draft. It’s more than I spent on the second and third (which were about 130 hours and 80 hours, respectively.)

The draft was 209,000 words. Of these, 90,000 were new (I kept track using a red font). This is more than a standard length novel, I realize, but to put this in perspective, if my novel were 80,000 words, I’d expect to have rewritten about 30,000 words.

How did I manage to bring this amount of fresh rewriting to something as late in as a fourth draft? I discovered a new technique, which I’m going to share with you today.

The vacuum revision technique: creating opportunity through creating an absence 

I’ve posted on the difference between a draft and a revision before on my epic fantasy writing blog. The idea is simple:

  • A revision is a pass over your book with minimal changes. You are, in a sense, “trapped” within the framework of what you wrote so at most you might rewrite some paragraphs, cut away or add, but mostly you’re improving sentences and aren’t actually writing a new story. A beta reader who reads a revision will feel like they are reading the same book, with some changes in some spots.
  • A draft is also a pass over your book but it involves a complete overhaul. You aren’t trapped in your previous draft. You are free to completely rewrite wherever you want. A beta reader who reads a new draft will feel like they are reading a completely new book, that might remind them of the previous draft in some places (ideally, all the places they liked).

In writing the fourth draft of A Thousand Roads, I used the latter approach. I went through all the way from chapter one, paragraph by paragraph, until I got to chapter 28, then finally the epilogue. I had my editor’s notes (from the initial editorial assessment) to guide me. In addition, I’d made 200 notes throughout the manuscript, based on processing my editor’s notes. These served as prompts along the way.

It was like I was telling the story again, using the previous draft as a guide. I kept what still resonated with me, and whenever something was bad, I rewrote it.

This took on one of two forms:

1) I overhauled a paragraph / series of paragraphs using the old material, coming out with essentially the same passage with some touch-ups. A reader who’d read the previous draft would recognize this section as similar (i.e. that part would read like a revision).

2) I cut away all the bad writing (keeping it handy in a separate file), then inside the vacuum created where good writing ends and good writing resumes, I wrote from scratch. I’d use the cut material in the file as reference, but would rarely put it back. A reader who’d read the previous draft would not recognize this section at all.

Point 1) is nothing unusual, but it’s point 2) I thought worth sharing because it certainly gave me an edge to revision I would not have gained otherwise. This is mostly where the 90,000 new words came from.

Because of the vacuum effect created by the absence of bad writing, and the opportunity for rewriting it presented, I called this the “vacuum revision technique”. There might be an actual term for this technique, but in the writing books I’ve read to date I haven’t come across it yet.

Here’s how it goes.

Step 1: Recognize when you’re staring at a wall

One of my favorite computer games is Minesweeper. In Minesweeper, your goal is to click on cells in a large grid, hoping you don’t click on a bomb. If you hit a bomb, the game is over. The objective of the game is to click on every cell that doesn’t contain a bomb.

Now, after some initial frustration you will realize guessing isn’t a good approach. Fortunately, you are allowed to mark off cells you suspect might be bombs. The revealed tiles also show you numbers to tell you how many adjacent cells have bombs. You can then use deduction to mark off all the cells you are certain contain bombs, while clicking on cells you are certain are safe.

The process becomes pretty straightforward from there. However, you often will reach a point where you aren’t sure. You have to guess. Or so you think.

The right decision is to recognize the ambiguity, then go around it. Always work on what’s easy and flow from there. Eventually, almost always, you come back to the place where you had to guess and with more tiles revealed, you can now be 100% certain of which tiles contain bombs.

The analogy carries to the process of revision. Going through your old draft and using it to write you next draft, you will hit spots that are no-brainers, where you know exactly what to do. Then, you will encounter spots where you know something is wrong but you can’t find the right choice. You’re lost in your own words.

When this happens, recognize that you’re staring at a wall. The solution here is not to find out how to get over it. It’s to go around it.

Step 2: Identify the “bad writing” then create a vacuum with it

When we write a draft we are guessing. Sometimes we are very good guessers and nail the story. Most times we aren’t, or we’re almost there but not quite. The draft we write is the culmination of all those guesses.

This principle applies to any subsequent draft written from a previous draft. Provided we’re being objective in the process (and having an editor’s edits helps add perspective), going over a draft is very much like collecting driftwood blocking a drain: follow your story’s flow but when the flow is broken, it’s time to cut away the driftwood.

Step 1 is all about learning to identify the driftwood. You’ll know when you hit it. For me, I usually notice I’m there when I reread, then reread again, then start typing a revision and delete it, then eventually I sigh and rest my forehead in my hand, and after that I want to pick up my phone and check messages. There’s a whole chain reaction of things that happen, but it all comes back to this initial problem: you hit a wall, or driftwood in the story, and the way forward is not to be found in those words you wrote that you’re trying to figure out how to fix. While writing my fourth draft, I learned to identify this chain of action early, and apply the solution:

To cut tentatively.

If you use Scrivener, then you simply highlight the passage all the way to where you are confident the story is fine, cut the weaker/uncertain passage of text out, then create a new note and place it somewhere handy. I like to place this note underneath the note that contains my chapter, since Scrivener displays it on the left side of the screen in a tree list and I can easily click on it later.

I also give it a name. For example, Jak is my protagonist, and there was a scene where Jak learns a lot about a place in the world called Allamar that’s not needed in the scene. I called it “Jak Allamar dump”. This short, yet explanatory title lets me see without even having to click on the note exactly what it contains, in case I do need to go back to it, say, seven chapters later. For this example, it turned out this “Allamar dump”, while being no good in this story, ended up getting moved into the directory of notes I’m building for the eventual sequel.

If you don’t use Scrivener but work in Word, this is a little harder. I’m aware Word has a table of contents feature which you can use to set up a tree directory much like Scrivener does. However, this does not give you the same cutting edge to organize segments of your book with quick, visual drag-and-drop and create/destroy efficiency as Scrivener does — and is the very reason as a writer I switched over to Scrivener.

Either way, with the passage cut tentatively, you now can go around it.

Step 3: Bridge the break in story flow with fresher writing, using the cut as reference

I’ve always enjoyed the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. God tests Abraham’s faith by asking him to sacrifice his eldest son, the one who God previously told Abraham would be the bearer of descendants more numerous than the stars. Abraham didn’t question at all. He did as he was told. Likely, in his mind, he figured God had many ways to fulfill his promises and who is he to question with his limited understanding?

We all know how the story goes: in the end, he didn’t have to do it. But his willingness to do it opened up a future far brighter to him than had he fretted and tried to hold on to his previous understanding.

The vacuum revision technique is very much like this story. In your willingness to cut a whole swath of your writing away, which you may love and think is fundamental to the story, you will gain insight over just what it is in this passage that’s worth keeping. If you get it back, you know exactly why. If you don’t, then you understand why your assumption about it was flawed.

The beauty about this technique is you aren’t left staring at a blank slate the same way as in a first draft. You are creating brand new words, but you have the tentatively cut material as a guide.

I found at this point that one of two things would happen:

1) With the cut material gone, I was free of it and wrote something else. Sometimes I even just wrote a sentence or two of transition (in the case of seeing it as a darling that needed to be cut).

2) With the cut material gone, I found that a lot of what I needed to write was similar to the previous, but the act of retyping allowed me the freedom I needed to take it in the direction it needed to go. In this case, I used Scrivener’s split-screen feature to have the cut text note visible on the bottom half of the screen, and the chapter in the top. I then retyped from the original, sometimes word for word where I liked what it said, other times paraphrasing. (You can achieve this effect in Word using the split screen in the view option.)

In either case, performing this cut allowed me to quicken my writing pace and avoid wasted time from BCS (blinking cursor syndrome). Yes, I still had a lot of BCS, but for the most part this was where it was needed, such as having to think carefully about narrative choices and ramifications and rethinking assumptions about direction. Writing every day for 2 hours was also a huge aid to allow this extra process during time away from keyboard; if ever I was insecure about my writing, when the 2-hour timer finished for the day I could leave off wherever I was then know I could come back fresh the next day. Most days, usually during a traffic jam in the afternoon, I had the breakthrough I needed for the next day’s writing session.

Step 4: Avoiding paint-by-numbers

Writing the fourth draft of A Thousand Roads was a huge learning opportunity for me. I’ve fallen for many “paint by numbers” writing formulas and have read many how-to books that advertise dozens of “one and only” ways on how to write. None of them work.

Well, that’s not entirely true. What I’ve actually found is that all of them have certain aspects of truth about writing that have helped me (which is why I still read books on writing regularly, though now with a few grains of salt). And if anything, I’ve learned that, were I to stake a guess on what the “one and only” way to write is, it’s this:

There is no formula. The moment you think you’ve got it all figured out, all that’s happened is you’ve stopped learning and settled.

So, in sharing this technique with you, I emphasize that it is just a useful tool for your toolkit as a writer. Many times along the way in my fourth draft of A Thousand Roads, I made it through by faith and a prayer. I could blog about that topic in and of itself.

Writing is complicated. Every word you write, you’re creating something that’s unique not just in the combination of every word, but in the combination of every word with every other word you didn’t use. In a short story alone, there are (my rough estimate) as many possibilities for how this can come together as there are atoms in the known universe, probably more. This is why we will never run out of stories, because every person who writes a story is going to spin together something different. Why? Because we’re all different, we see the world different, and therefore we use words differently to tell a story.

Revision is about how you, as a writer, can refine your story to make it more and more true to your voice. It’s not about attaining some ultimate perfection that you have to guess at until you get it. That’s why there is no course on how to be a writer, nor one method on how to write a book. (Well, there are, but beware of snake oil.) Only you can figure out for yourself what you need to do to make your writing amazing, and that’s a lifelong learning process.

Please share! I’d love to hear about your revision process or if maybe you’ve heard of this technique before and can help me come up with something better than a Hoover ad. How do you revise, so that your next draft has the freshness of a first?


How to do a developmental edit yourself (and save lots of money on editing in the process)

Editing is expensive.

In an ideal world, before publishing you will invest in editing. But how much can you do on your own?

Today I’m going to provide a step-by-step procedure for you to address higher level editing on your own. This will not replace the benefit of hiring an editor. But it will equip you with tools to become your own editor should you not have the budget for full editing.

The core principles of developmental editing explained

Developmental editing is the first step in the editing process. It comprises two steps.

First, an editorial assessment. Your editor reads over your manuscript, front to back, making no markings in it. They will take notes. At the end, they will analyze your story, based on storytelling and craft principles. This is where an editor’s training, experience, and expertise comes into play.

The result of this analysis is an editorial letter. Think of it like a book report. A book report is about the strengths and weakness of a book, and your interpretation of it. An editorial letter is more rigorous. Imagine you could write a book report, and give the author instructions on how to fix what’s still wrong with it. That’s an editorial letter.

Your editor sends you the editorial letter and you then have the fun job of rewriting your book. The editorial letter gives you broader guidelines. It’s not focused on paragraph-by-paragraph issues. It’s focused on characters, scenes as a whole, plot, theme, and structure. When you rewrite your book based on an editorial letter, you’re changing whole scenes. You’re altering (sometimes deleting) characters. You’re mending the plot or even recasting the premise. Voice can change. Point of view can change. This one’s the wild wild west.

After you’ve completed your rewrites, your editor will go over your manuscript again. This time, they will leave you comments in-line. They will follow up on the effectiveness of your rewrites. They will push you further. Here, they will flag issues on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. They will nitpick sentences that aren’t quite working. They will point out every specific place where something doesn’t make sense, or where the plot is off.

When you get your developmental edits, you will be working through these comments. This is usually much more straightforward. You usually work in order, though I recommend you break it into two or more passes.

First, work through and address simple issues. While you’re doing this, read every comment. Anything you aren’t certain of, leave it alone.

When you’re done, go back to the beginning. By now you’ll be aware of all the issues in your manuscript. Work your through once more and pick your battles. Again, anything you aren’t ready for, leave that alone.

When you’re done, go back to the beginning. By now, you’ve seen the hardest issues twice. You’ve also had a lot longer to think about them. Again, work your way through and pick your battles.

Continue on in this fashion. Usually, by the third pass you’ve resolved most of the issues.

Once you’re done this revision, you send your manuscript back to your editor. They will go over your revisions and push you further where needed. You will revise further and send back. They will push you further where needed. You will revise further. And on and on.

I have worked with some authors like this into thirteen exchanges. We’ve called this the “ping pong stage”. It’s lots of fun.

How to do a developmental edit yourself

Now it’s time to switch hats.

Before we do, a caveat. If you have trained yourself in storytelling and craft principles you can edit your own work. If you’re a writer, no doubt you’ve got an intuition for story.

What you lose by eliminating an editor, though, is objectivity. As creator, you are usually too close to your work. You also see your work in a different way. An editor trains in how to assess how your book is going to translate with readers.

I’m giving you the “don’t do this at home” lecture. So, now that you’ve decided to do this at home, let’s proceed.

Step 1: Print your manuscript out, or put it in .epub or some other format where you CAN’T change it as you read

This step is very important. If you are self-editing your work, you must divorce yourself from your inner writer. To do this, you must remove yourself from the ability to “fix” what you see as you go.

Step 2: Read your manuscript through like you’d read a book

There’s another reason printing your manuscript (or creating an ePub) is important. You want to experience your book at reader speed. This is the same reason your editor first reads your manuscript without making any edits. Reading over your book at the same speed you’d read a book as a reader allows you to appreciate things you miss as writer.

Step 3: Take notes, but be sparing

You don’t stop to take notes when you read a book, so you’ll want to take notes without losing momentum.

It helps to develop a shorthand. Include a page number and general term. Say a particular dialogue on page 31 between characters Anabel and James feels pointless. You’d then write, “p31 Anabel/James dialogue pointless”.

It might not be linear. Say by page 100 you realize you overuse the word “darkness”. Or say you realize you use a lot of run-on sentences. You can make a general note, i.e. “overuse darkness” or “run-on sentences dragging me down”.

Especially avoid notes to your inner writer. While it may be tempting to write out the solution to a plot hole, remember, you’re wearing your editor hat. Take that off and you’ll lose the perspective of experiencing your book at reader speed.

Step 4: Analyze your story

Once you’ve finished, you can start going over your notes and reflecting. You can go back to earlier chapters now. You can start thinking about your book as a whole. You can also start taking more detailed notes based on this analysis.

Here are some questions I ask myself at this stage when I’m doing an editorial assessment:

1) Does each scene advance your protagonist’s journey in a meaningful way?

2) If the protagonist is not involved in a scene, does the scene still advance the protagonist’s story? Does the reader realize this scene’s significance later?

3) Do all promises pay off? If something gets introduced in one scene, does it get used later? Are there any dangling ends?

4) Are the scene narrators’ motives always clear to the reader?

5) Do scenes move with a reasonable amount of dialogue to balance passages of narration? Are there places where the story seems to drag because it’s “told” to the reader?

6) Is the pacing consistent with the scene mood and genre?

7) Do scenes all open on a hook? Upon reading the opening paragraph, is there a connection to narrator? Is there a sense of place and time? Does this hook move forward without relent until the closing scene hook?

8) Does each scene have a focus? How does it advance the protagonist’s inner journey of change?

9) Does every scene have a closing hook? Is something revealed that makes the reader want to jump into the next scene?

10) Is your the voice consistent in every scene? If there are more than one points of view, does each one have consistent voice?

11) Do elements of the plot feel contrived or confusing? Are the reveals at all times clear and logical or do they sometimes feel forced or thrown in? Does the plot move the protagonist’s inner journey forward in a meaningful way?

12) Is there repetition? Do certain scenes or sequences of scenes feel similar? What about characters or plot devices? Scenes? What about repeated words or phrases or sentence structures?

Step 5: Put all your notes together

You will now see something coming together in your notes. At this point, it’s time to start writing an editorial letter for yourself.

Try to organize your notes by grouping similar things together into categories. It helps separate plot, character, and craft into main sections. After this, you can include an appendix of scene-specific notes.

Step 6: Write yourself a letter, but pretend you are writing it for the author of the book, and that author isn’t you

Your goal is to create an editorial letter for yourself. Once you’ve organized your notes into major categories, you are ready to begin.

There are three parts: an introduction, body, and conclusion.

In the introduction, open by complimenting yourself. What’s great about your book? What’s done well? What’s working? This is important because it tells you where the gold is waiting after you do your revisions.

Then do the opposite. What’s wrong with your book? What’s not working? Be honest.

In the body, you’ll use the categories and scene-specific notes you prepared in step 5. You will likely end up revising and refining it once it’s in place.

In the conclusion you will give yourself a road map. What strategy does “the author” (remembering, with your editor hat on, that’s not you) need? Give your advice on how rewrites might proceed and some recommendations.

Step 7: Rewrite your manuscript using your editorial letter as a guide

Now you can become a writer again. Open your manuscript. Open the letter you finished writing yourself. Read it over and think about what you need to do.

I recommend you approach this in batches. Tackle everything that seems easy first. Then go over your letter and decide what you want to do next. Save the hardest work for last.

One technique I find helpful as a writer is using the strike-through in Word in my editorial letter. This lets me “cross off” items like a to-do list, but keeps it visible so I can see my progress.

Step 8: Become an editor again and this time do a developmental edit

After you are all done your rewrites, “submit” your manuscript to yourself (editor hat back on now).

This time, you can open it in Word. Use the comments / track changes feature to edit it, but remember, you must not do any rewriting. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you catch yourself in writer mode, try to be cognizant of this and switch out.

Easier said than done, which is one reason why writers usually prefer to hire an editor.

Step 9: Specific issues for developmental editing

You will still use the same focus as laid out in step 4, but you might add:

1) Does the given sequence within a scene move it forward? Has something occurred to disconnect you as a reader?

2) Is the description or narration in a sequence confusing? Does it feel rushed or inconsistent from the tone and mood of the rest of the scene?

3) Is the point of view consistent?

4) Is there an awkward part to a given dialogue?

5) Does a given scene narrator feel absent in what the narrator is describing at any time? Are there places they might share more of what they intend or think as they are learning new information?

6) Does something seem off to you but you don’t know why? If so, highlight it and say that. If you can’t put your finger on it, don’t spend too long. When you come back and rewrite, you can contemplate this note further.

Step 10: Become the writer again and do a developmental edit

“Submit” your edits to yourself, then take off your editor hat. Now you can open your manuscript in Word and address the comments like a writer.

Use the technique I mentioned above. Work your way through the entire novel in iterations, address easy things first. Leave anything not easy alone. Come back and pick your battles, leaving the bigger battles alone. Come back again and fight some more battles, until there’s nothing left.

Step 11: Now you’re ready for copyedits

If you can, submit your revised manuscript to beta readers. Beta readers are readers of your genre who you ask to read your book. You can find beta readers by asking in critique forums or group. Check out Reddit for the best places to ask for readers. This article on Reddit has some helpful discussion.

Once you get some beta reader input, you’re ready for finalizing. Usually this means hiring a copyeditor and/or proofreader. We’ll talk more about this another time.