Ages ago (but still in my lifetime), one of the coolest and most respected experts and teachers on fiction craft was a motorcycle-riding, cigar-smoking, long-haired, restlessly brilliant scholar in classics and literature named John Gardner. And one of his most famous and oft-repeated pieces of advice for young fiction writers was to carefully reread your finished draft at least a hundred times, revising as you go along, becoming ever more deeply aware of what’s really happening in each scene, then laboring to more vividly and honestly portray it in clear words.

I don’t get the impression at all that this number 100 represented any exaggeration in Gardner’s mind. I think he meant it. And I’m convinced he was on to something. (I also think his basic principle applies equally to nonfiction manuscripts: Just keep reading and revising, as long as there’s more to understand—deeply and intricately—about your message, your manifesto, your story).

Fast-forward to one of today’s coolest and most respected experts and teachers on fiction craft, veteran agent extraordinaire Donald Maass. In his book The Fire in Fiction, he writes, “The majority of writers seek representation or publication years too soon.” Yes, he said years! And “years” means plenty enough time to wisely invest in carefully rereading your manuscript draft a hundred times or more as you continually seek to refine it into something of true and powerful excellence, a work of art that captivates readers’ attention from page 1 on through to the end. Make that kind of quality investment before you rush out to find an agent or a publisher for your work.

I find that in order to reread my manuscript in the freshest and most clear-minded way, it’s best to have a sufficient gap of time before revisiting any particular scene or chapter. Of course, with a fairly long novel, rereading straight through the whole thing slowly, closely, and carefully (and revising along the way) will take enough time that you’ll probably have a sufficiently fresh view of it if you decide to immediately start in again at the beginning.

Here’s another tip for a fresh perspective: Before diving into today’s portion of your text to reread, first read a page or two or more in another author’s well-written book that you enjoy. Allow that author’s standards and craftmanship to inspire and stimulate your own thinking (even subconsciously) about good storytelling.

I recommend also that you alternate between rereading a hard-copy of your manuscript (red pen in hand) and rereading an electronic file of the draft. In fact, I find that one helpful technique is to go through the entire manuscript marking changes and revisions only on the hard copy, and then doing the next full reading on an electronic file while you’re page-by-page assessing and evaluating all those earlier hand-marked corrections and changes.   

Finally, make sure to repeatedly back up a digital copy of each day’s revision work (even multiple times in a day, if the day’s revisions are extensive), since you’ll occasionally want to go back and revisit former versions, for a variety of reasons. 

And after finishing a complete go-through of the entire draft, you may want to specially mark a backup copy of that version by numbering it wherever it happens to fall in the one to one-hundred range of your revisions. You can be certain that your Version 100 is going to be amazingly better than Version 001!

Thomas Womack
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