Lessons from Camp Revision: Split Screen

Late last year, I finished the first draft of my first novel. I celebrated. I printed it out. I re-read it and scribbled across its pages in glorious red ink. And then I ignored it for a couple months.

I sat down to start revising, earlier this year, and I felt my soul wrench. I skimmed the page and, with the calm of a impartial observer, realized that the words on the page didn’t match what I thought I had written. It wasn’t just that the draft was bad — it was — but it was broken. It was incomplete. An entire sub-plot made no sense. Inconsistencies galore. A hook that existed only in my head. Here I was thinking that I could rip through a second draft in a few weeks and be ready to send it off to beta readers and start querying agents. Instead, I needed to start over and do a rewrite.

Well, not quite a complete rewrite, but at least a redrafting.

I have to admit that it was hard not to despair. A lot of work went into that first draft, between research, world building, and actually writing it. It felt like I’d already failed. I sulked for a while, and then I made a plan.

Before raiding the castle, one should take stock of their assets. I had a solid start to the novel I wanted to write and the complete story in my head. But I needed to figure out how to revise.

I usually write longhand. Give me a notebook and fountain pen (preferably filled with purple ink) and I’ll write until my hand is ready to fall off. The thought of turning to a fresh page and rewriting everything from the beginning was, let’s just say, not good.

Editing on the computer presents its own problems. I didn’t want to trash what I’d already written; I wanted to preserve the first draft, as reference, and maybe as an to my future self on how not to first draft. I was also worried that it would end up being a line edit rather than a true revision. I needed to cut paragraphs and take whole scenes and throw them out, to write new ones in their place.

I use Scrivener, so I figured that there had to be a better workflow than retyping it all. I started clicking around and reading how other people used it, and I stumbled across split-screen view (Patrick Hester has a lovely write-up of using it here). I could have a blank chapter on one side of my screen and the first draft on the other. I was free to copy and paste, to rewrite, or to add new words. The unedited first draft remained intact in all of its glory, while creating and reshaping something new from its bones.

Progress, at last.

We all get stuck from time to time. What matters is that we figure what is holding us back, find a way around it, and finish things.

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  • Wendy N. Wagner

    I keep thinking about using Scrivener, and this post might just be the tipping point! I write terrible first drafts and have to do extensive rewriting (usually), so this sounds useful!

    • It can seem intimidating at first but it really is worth the time spent learning how to use it. It’s something that I’ve learned to use in increments. The more I use it, the more I find it can do. Now, it helps me outline, structure, revise, and format submission-ready copy (I still draft longhand, though!)

  • Bobby Hunter

    This is kind of similar to how I write. I work with 2 Word documents open side by side. One has my majorly detailed outline and the other has my draft. For revisions I’ll do the same thing: one Word document has the original draft and the other has a copied version where I change things with track changes.

    Good luck on your revisions!

  • Steven M. Long

    “A hook that existed only in my head.” Ha! At any rate, I think the hardest part of writing in general – especially novels – is setting aside big chunks of work, for one reason or another. The first two novels I wrote didn’t work that well, IMO. They had their moments, but I needed to move on.

    I’ve played with Scrivener, but never gotten into it, I think because I have my own, crazy outlining style.

  • Andrew Romine

    Good tip, Adam!

    Good luck with the revisions! I’m more or less at the “hmm, this first draft is a mess and I’m going to avoid it stage” myself. 🙂