Revising Your NaNoWriMo Mess-terpiece

By Heather Fenton

If you, like me, participated in the highly-focused, highly-caffeinated National Novel Writing Month this past November, hopefully you have a 50,000 word (more or less) first draft of…something. It could be The Best Book Ever Written, or it could be the epitome of a vomit draft. Most likely, it falls somewhere in-between. Turn your mess-terpiece into a masterpiece through the process of revision.

And what better time to tackle this task than the low-key, post-holiday months of January and February? We can funnel that cabin fever into feverishly revising. And then the Spring shall bring…the rebirth of your very own, fully formed novel.

I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time this year, with the goal of finishing a first draft of the YA novel I’ve been working on (well, more off than on) for the past year. Normally, I tend to stop mid-sentence to research whatever specific thing I’m writing about to make sure I have the facts correct. This leads to an hour or two of site-hopping, which can either be productive, or more likely, result in Facebook liking, the purchase of a snazzy new cardigan, or discovering inventive shoe storage ideas for the mudroom. Or, I will sit in front of the computer monitor agonizing over a particular word choice.

For me, the best part of NaNoWriMo was that it forced me to write quickly if I wanted to hit my daily and weekly word count goals. I was able to just plow ahead with the plot, using the highlighter tool along the way to mark what I needed to research later. Knowing that I could concentrate on developing my characters more during revision, I was able to focus on laying out the plot and weaving in the subplots. I’m sure scenes will get moved around, developed more, or deleted altogether during revision, but at least I have the main structure down.

Finish that draft!
First, finish that draft!

Step 1: Make Sure Your Draft is Finished

Unfortunately, I was sidelined mid-November by bronchitis, which then led to two months of pneumonia. Just a fluke. I’m sure NaNoWriMo isn’t hazardous to your health. Much. So, I didn’t finish my first draft by the end of November, but I’ve been able to work on it over the past month and am pleased to report I’m nearly there. You may be tempted to start revising what you have, but wait until you complete that last chapter. You don’t want to waste time revising chapters or scenes that you later realize should be removed entirely after you’ve finished your story.

Next, get away from that manuscript.

Step 2: Set it (aside) and Forget it

After celebrating wildly for finishing your first draft, set it aside and forget about it. Time away will help you revisit your work with more objectivity, closer to the perspective of a reader. Don’t open that file on your computer. Don’t pore over your research notes, again. Don’t think of better first lines in the shower. Put it out of your mind. Go work out. Find a hobby. Start a second book?

Step 3: Read it and Weep

When you feel it’s the right time, take a second look at your first draft. Don’t panic if it doesn’t read quite as brilliantly as you remember. Read it through completely before revising one word of it. This will help you see the big picture. As you read, make two lists: one list of what really works and shines that you don’t want to lose; and a list of areas that need attention and revision (pacing, continuity, POV shifts). When you’re done reading through your draft, prioritize your list, starting with major structural changes (like changing the POV or removing a distracting sub-plot, for example) before moving on to smaller changes, like word choice. Now read through your novel a second time, keeping your list in mind, or even in hand! Highlight, underline, make notes, all targeted to achieving your big-picture goals.

Step 4: Seek Professional Help

There are a myriad of books, web sites, and blogs available to writers wanting more information on the actual mechanics of revision. A great place to start is – they have a whole Now What?! section with tips, advice, encouragement, and a super official Revision Contract you can sign! If you participated in the recent NaNoWriMo, you’ve probably been getting their e-mails already.

One writer friend, Andrea, has been utilizing a video course, PlotWriMo, to revise her NaNoWriMo project, a middle-grade novel. “I’ve found the video course really helpful. They break your novel down into components and really help you think about the structure, plot, and themes.”

Step 5: Do the Work 04_reviseon

After doing all your prep work, start revising and rewriting, according to your lists from Step 3. Do not lost sight of those overall goals. They will help you focus. Start with the big changes, if any, and move down to polishing the prose and eliminating typos.

 Proudly Show off Your Newborn Novel

When you feel ready, solicit feedback from a writing group, critique partner, beta reader or professional editor. If you’re feeling brave, or are unsure of where to start revising, you can do this step earlier in the process. Either way, the feedback will help you determine if your novel needs further revision, or if it’s ready to submit to a publisher.

How do you approach revising your writing?

A member of SCBWI and three wonderful writing groups, Heather Fenton writes mainly picture books, but is expanding her literary horizons and delving into the world of YA.


  1. Love that word! I have a middle-grades “mess-terpiece” on my hands, not from NaNo, just from… me and my writing process. My book The Seven Day Manuscript Machine is aimed specifically for writers who want to self-edit their kids’ book (picture or chapter; fiction or nonfiction). This 7 day system really does work, but it does NOT include the very necessary (as you point out) time to let the book steep before you even try to revise it. 🙂


  2. Thanks! I gave it to a couple of people to read–so far they like it! Nano was helpful in that I discovered the “pantsing” method works better than the “planning”–the outlining, the character cards, plotting etc–I put into my first manuscript…!


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