Major v. Minor Revisions: The Surprising Relationship between Draft #1 and Draft #2

When you revise, do you do minor surgery or major surgery on your novel? Most of us revise multiple times, but some revisions are bigger than others. I believe in making incremental changes, that is, getting it mostly right and then doing a series of tweaks. The change isn’t huge, but the results are important. It’s a striving for perfection! Most of us can’t write a perfect novel the first time round. Instead, you go back and fix, tweak, play with and otherwise revise, till it satisfies that inner critic and is sent off into the world.

Google Glass is not an incremental change from previous ways of consuming digital information. It's a quantum leap ahead of other ideas.
Google Glass is not an incremental change from previous ways of consuming digital information. It’s a quantum leap ahead of other ideas.

But sometimes, incremental changes aren’t enough. In a fascinating report, Jon Gertner wrote an article, “Inside Google X,” Fast Company magazine, May, 2014. In order for a project to be accepted by Google X labs, it must pass three criteria:

  1. It must address a problem that affects millions or billions.
  2. It must be a radical solution with a science fiction component.
  3. It must tap technologies obtainable today.

They want the scope of the problem solved to be huge. But notice that beyond that, they aren’t asking for a technological break-through; in fact, if a product NEEDS a technological break-through, they will shelf it until the technology is available. They aren’t doing research and development for technology, but for the application of technology. Google X labs is asking for an idea breakthrough, a breakthrough in the way they think about a problem.

The biggest projects coming out of Google X (so far!) are driverless cars, Google glass, high altitude wi-fi balloons, and glucose-monitoring contact lenses.

Sometimes, writing fiction also needs a breakthrough in thinking: I call these revision Quantum Leap Revisions. This type revision shakes the very structure of your story and asks you to rethink anything and everything about your story except the “Heart of Your Story,” or that thing that made you write the story in the first place.

Just as Google X Labs operates with existing (or obtainable) technology, Quantum Leap revisions relies on your current knowledge and understanding of the craft of writing. We’re not asking you to be a better writer; rather, we’re asking that you think harder about the story and how you’ll tell that story.

You may cut characters, add characters, change the ending, replot with drastically different themes, delete half the book, expand the book to double its current size, and so on. The point is that this isn’t an incremental change–a tweak. It goes back to the basics, rethinks the whole story and builds it from the foundation up. You gut the building. You bull-doze everything but the foundation.

Will you re-envision your novel? See it in fresh, new ways?
Will you re-envision your novel? See it in fresh, new ways?

Types of Incremental Revisions

When you editing for grammar, spelling and punctuation, it’s an incremental change. Fleshing out a story can often be incremental as you add details here or there to make the story more specific in hopes that it comes alive in the reader’s mind. Minor deletions, addition, moving around of scenes/chapters can be incremental.

Types of Quantum Leap Revisions

Here are examples of potentially huge re-envisioning of your story.

  • Change POV
  • Add characters
  • Combine characters
  • Delete characters
  • Delete chapters/scenes
  • Expand chapters/scenes
  • Replot with major changes
  • Use a different voice
  • Switch genres
  • Switch age level of your audience

Draft #2: Focus Shifts from Novelist to Reader

When should you do an incremental change and when should you do a Quantum Leap revision?
The function of the first draft is to find your story.
The function of every other draft is to find the most dramatic way to tell that story.
This change in the focus of your story–from you to the reader–means that draft #2 is probably the best time for a Quantum Leap revision. You may need several such huge revisions before you find the right way to tell your story. Once you figure out how to grab the reader and keep them reading, you can switch to incremental changes and keep at it till the story is polished.

Do you do a Quantum Leap revision for every story? Or do you mostly do incremental changes?

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