Revision and Editing: creating a basic plan for whipping your manuscript into shape.

Often, when swept up by magnificent prose, I find myself overwhelmed. It is easy to look at a well-crafted story and think instantly that the genius of the author is impossible to replicate, especially when compared to my lackluster writing. In truth, the big difference between what I read and what I’ve written is not so much genius as it is careful revision and editing.

Every writer will tell you that the most important part of the process is just to get your story on the page. As Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” Here is an excerpt about the importance of shitty first drafts from Lamott’s book, but I highly recommend buying the whole book, if you haven’t already. The trick when reading superb writing is to study it carefully, identify the decisions the author made, and learn from them. Then take your shitty first draft, and revise it like mad.

As Stephen Koch says, the parts of your writing that make you feel like a hopeless, unskilled writer and make excellent writing seem genius in comparison are the most important parts of your story, because they will indicate what you need to do, where you need to go, and how you will get there. The trick is learning how to read them and not be overwhelmed by their crappiness.

Rules of thumb:Revision Plan

  • Give your manuscript a break before you begin revising.
    • You want a fresh set of eyes before you begin the revising process, and in between passes.
    • The duration of the break is entirely up to you, but the longer you go, the better you will be able to identify the issues that need fixed.

Giving your manuscript space is important because of how efficient and effective your brain is at filling in holes and gaps. When you are too close to a story (especially after spending months immersing yourself in your characters’ brains and backstory), your brain fills in the blanks in your plot and character development. It can be hard to spot issues that will leave your reader confused or that present the wrong kind of ambiguity in your narrative.

  • Start with a wide lens and get more focused with each pass.
    • It doesn’t make sense to focus on language when your story has parts that might need expanded or cut. Spend time making sure your story is dialed in first, and then put some effort into polishing the language.
  • Get outside eyes, but not too early in the process.
  • Keep a revision notebook:Revision Journaling Revision Journaling
    • Jot down ideas you want to implement, but aren’t ready to yet.
      • Be specific and detailed about your ideas.
    • Be sure to cite the exact point(s) in your narrative that you plan to implement the idea at–down to the page and paragraph number.
    • There are three different techniques I have used for this.
      • Choose the one that interferes the least with your rhythm and flow as you revise.
      • Note: For the third option, I often use it in combination with option 1 or 2. For example, I will record all my ideas, and then when I am finished with that phase of revision, I listen back through my ideas and either record them in a notebook or as comments on my manuscript.
    • At the end of each revision phase, I spend some time reviewing my ideas and elaborating on them or expanding them.

Using a journaling technique will keep you from getting distracted from your current revision focus and prevent you from skipping over or missing sections as you revise.

In general, I recommend your revision passes follow a wide to narrow lens, starting with plot, character arch, and narrative structure. In simple terms, that means what moves your story forward, how your character changes as the story progresses, and the narrative elements that you use to create both plot and arch. Tied in closely with these three are backstory, character development, and setting. Once you have revised all of these to the point where you feel like your story is mostly complete, it is time to start narrowing your focus.

Revision Stages:

Stage 1: Story Development

Stage 2: Language Development

Stage 3: Workshop and Critique

Stage 4: Polishing Narrative Elements

Stage 5: Fine Tuning Story

Stage 6: Refining Language and Making Style Choices

This is the basic structure of my revision process. Each stage requires several revision passes where I focus on a specific element. As you dig into your revisions, you will find a rhythm and structure that works best for you. Start with a structure you like and then tweak it as you get to know your own writing preferences and styles.

Stage 1: Story DevelopmentProtagonist

First Pass—Character Arch

This pass does not include any changes to the narrative. You are simply reading, thinking, mapping, and listing.

  • Chart your characters: Wants, needs, major conflicts, backstory, role, descriptors, flat vs. round.
    • I also ask myself:
      • What would happen if this character were eliminated from the narrative?
      • Does the reader have enough information about this character?
    • Highlight characters that are unintentionally flat.
  • List where you introduce character backstory and development
    • For each spot ask yourself:
      • Does the reader really need to know this?
      • Is there a better way to demonstrate this about the character?
      • Is this interesting?
    • Map character conflict—when does it occur? Who is involved? Is it for better, Conflictor for worse?
    • Map character change for important characters—when and where do they change, or refuse to change? Why?
      • Note, I often combine this map with the conflict map as change and conflict are closely related.
    • Character development and dynamics.
      • What wants/needs get met. When? Why?
      • Why do you choose to withhold certain wants or needs? When (if ever) do they get that want or need?
    • List scenes where there is no conflict or change.

Second Pass—Plot Arch

This pass does not include any changes to the narrative. You are simply reading, Plot_thinking, mapping, and listing.

  • Map out the plot points for the entire story and each chapter.
  • Make a cut list of scenes or chapters that don’t contribute to the plot.
    • Note: You aren’t cutting anything yet, just keeping track of what may not be doing its full duty in the narrative.
  • Identify potential plot holes.

Before you begin the next pass, which involves changing your draft, make sure you save a copy of your manuscript as is. For each pass that involves changes to the manuscript, I save a copy prior to starting. That way if I regret a cut or change I made, I still have an unaltered version that I can go back to.

Third Pass—Cut or Expand

This pass is where you make decisions based on the information gathered in the first two Plot Holepasses.

  • Take a look at scenes where there is no plot movement or character conflict.
    • What would happen if you eliminated this scene?
    • If there are no repercussions later in the story, cut it.
    • If the only reason for saving it is the revelation of information important later in the story, see if you can incorporate that information elsewhere in the narrative or revise it so that it contributes to conflict or plot movement.
      • Note: Conflict is often plot movement.
    • Add in scenes or revise scenes to fix plot holes.

I will often use track changes during each revision pass. When I am finished, I go back and double check the changes I have made, and either accept or reject them.

Fourth Pass—Setting and World Development

  • Diagram where and when your story takes place:Setting
    • List setting and world info by scene or chapter
      • Where do you supply the reader information?
      • Are there spots where you give the reader information that is uninteresting or unimportant?
    • Identify important gaps in setting or world development
      • Have you oriented the reader?
      • Is there important information you have left out that impacts the characters, conflict, or plot?
    • Brainstorm setting and world clues that can be inserted into the narrative.
    • Revise your draft.
      • Expand or add in information where there are gaps missing.
      • Make sure every scene has setting details.
      • Eliminate unimportant or boring details.

You don’t need to tell your reader everything, but you need to be intentional about what you give and what you withhold. You should be able to justify every decision you make with the intended impact it will have on the reader or the story development. This holds true for all narrative elements.

Fifth Pass—Stage Direction

In this pass, you are repeating much of what you have already done on a more focused scale. Instead of looking at the story as a whole, you are looking at each individual scene.

  • Map each scene.
    • Characters involved.
    • Dialogue: Who speaks? Is it essential?
    • What sensory details to you provide?
    • What point of view (POV) did you choose? Why? Is it effective? What would happen if you changed the POV? Are you consistent with POV (and if not, is it intentional and can you justify it)?
    • Setting details.
    • Main conflict.
    • How does this scene contribute to character development?
    • How does this scene contribute to plot?
  • Cut the unnecessary
  • Expand the missing elements or gaps

This stage includes a lot of mapping. For more on mapping, check out this article, Charting Your Novel.

At this point, I try to give my draft at least a month resting period before I move on with revisions. I often work on more than one story, so I move to a different project for a while.

Stage 2: Language Development

First Pass—Showing and Telling

  • Look for chunks of exposition
    • Don’t be afraid of exposition (this is a form of telling that is essential in all narratives). Just be sure that your exposition is:
      • Essential to reader understanding.
      • Interesting and important.
      • Short and sweet.
      • Embedded in showing.
      • Sprinkle exposition through the narrative, rather than having one long explanation at the start.
    • Show as much as you can.
    • Sprinkle chunks of description.
      • Show the descriptions, rather than telling.
      • Make your descriptions dynamic—That is, tie them to actions and movement.
    • Cut the implied.
      • These are parts where part of your description or character action is implied by what comes before it. Think of things that the reader would naturally be able to assume or conclude without you having to state them.

Second Pass—Double Duty

  • Reread and try to ensure that all of your prose is doing double duty.
    • For example:
      • Your descriptions of a person should not only help the reader imagine them but also contribute to their characterization (reveal who they are as a person).
      • Your setting can contribute to conflict, characterization, and mood.
    • You get the drift here. Double duty is the key to getting the most out of every word on the page.
  • If something isn’t doing double duty, consider revising or cutting it.
    • Is it essential? If it isn’t revealing something or contributing in some way to a major narrative element (plot, character development, conflict, mood, or tone), you probably don’t need it.

Third Pass—Power Language

This pass involves careful reading and word searches.

  • Look for adverbs
    • Adverbs are descriptive words that modify your verbs.
      • They often indicate a weak verb, a sentence that is more tell than show, and they can interrupt the flow of your prose.
    • As you find each adverb, ask yourself: Could I make my verb stronger by choosing a different word? Does my verb already imply the adverb? Does the adverb truly help convey the intention of my message?
    • Cut as many adverbs as possible. Be very intentional about the adverbs that you leave.

A word search for adverbs (which often end in ly can help with this search).

  • Double check your adjectives.
    • Adjectives are descriptive words that modify your nouns.
      • Sometimes, they can indicate weak nouns.
    • As you locate each adjective, make sure that it is strong, precise, and contributes to the realness of the world you are building in your reader’s head.

Fourth Pass—Structure and Repetition

If you can give your manuscript a little space before you complete this pass, you will catch more issues. I try to give a week before attempting this pass. Another technique is to start at the end of your narrative and work toward the beginning, this disrupts the narrative flow and allows your brain to focus on the words.

  • How do you start each paragraph? Make sure it is varied.
  • How do you start each sentence? Try to vary your first words.
  • Do you use a variety of sentence structures?
  • Watch for repetitive words or phrases within close proximity to each other.

Note: repetition is not always bad, in fact, it can be a very impactful narrative technique. The key is to be sure you are using repetition intentionally and be able to explain to yourself what you are hoping to convey by using the technique.

Fifth Pass—Grammar and Spelling

At this stage, I run a basic grammar check. I like Grammarly for this as it catches issues that a built in checker won’t catch, such as incorrectly used words. Also, it explains the grammar rule you are violating, that way you understand why you are making the changes. As with any grammar checker, it isn’t perfect, and a solid basis in grammar is recommended.

Note: There are style issues that will not come up with a grammar checker. We will talk more about style in your final phase of revision. At this point, I am just trying to make sure that I don’t have any embarrassing mistakes before I share my work with others.

Stage 3: Workshop and Critique

This stage is fairly self-explanatory. To get your story to its best version, you need outside eyes. There are tons of ways to do this and I will go into more detail on workshopping and critiquing in a later post. For now, check out the articles I linked to above on getting feedback.

Stage 4: Polishing Narrative Elements

First Pass—Mapping Changes

  • Go back through all the maps and diagrams you made in the first phase and update them to reflect all the revisions you have made.

Second Pass—Narrative Structure and Conventions

This is the part where you start to transform your prose from ‘meh’ to ‘oh my god.’

  • Take a look at your updated maps and charts,
    • What narrative structures and conventions are you using?Narrative StructureNarrative Conventions
    • Are you subverting any conventions or structures?
      • If so, be sure this subversion is intentional and effective.
      • If not, is there a structure that could be subverted to make your story more powerful?
    • Make any changes needed based on your observations.

Stage 5: Fine Tuning Story

First Pass—Maximize Narrative Decisions

  • With your maps and charts in hand, consider each narrative element, how you are using it, and if it is effective. For each element consider
    • What was your intended effect or impact on the plot, character, or reader?
    • Do you use this element to its full potential in order to accomplish your intent?
  • Here’s a list of the narrative elements to look deeper at:
    • Subtext versus Text.
      • What do you leave unsaid?
      • What hints do you provide for subtext?
      • What mood do you want the reader to feel?
      • How are you evoking this?
    • Figurative Language.
      • Does the figurative language you use add to the story and help convey the intangible, indescribable, or abstract?
      • Is the language unique?
        • Be careful of clichés and overused similes or metaphors.

At this point, I often find another critique partner or two to review my story and ensure that the changes I made are as effective and precise as I intend them to be.

Stage 6: Refining Language and Making Style Choices

This stage varies greatly from writer to writer. It involves taking focused looks at the language and style of your prose and depends largely on your intent with the narrative. For example, a writer of a literary narrative is probably going to spend more time on language than a writer of a commercial narrative, though this is not always the case.

Underlining Passes—

Use underlining to help focus in on specific language. For example, underlining all transitions can help you to focus on sentence structure and narrative flow.

Style Passes—

Read through your narrative with your favorite style guide in hand. Make sure your style choices are intentional and consistent.

  • Sentence and paragraph length:
    • This is tightly related to pacing. The longer your sentences and paragraphs, the slower the reader moves through the narrative.
  • Narrative flow:
    • How the words sound when read out loud.
  • Comma use:
    • Be consistent.
    • Commas disrupt the flow of a reader; they indicate a pause. Use them correctly and wisely.
  • Colons, semicolons, and em-dashes:
    • Know what they are and how to use them.
    • Be consistent.

Grammar and Spelling—

This often goes hand in hand with style. Go through your narrative with a fine tooth comb. Some things to double check:

  • Capitalization.
  • Dialogue punctuation.
  • Word use.
  • Comma Splices and run-on sentences.
    • Note: a sentence can be as long as you want so long as it is correctly punctuated. Sentence length is a style issue.
  • Unintentional fragments.

To disengage your brain from the narrative, start your editing with the last sentence of your story and work backward. This helps issues and mistakes to stand out.

Final Read-Through:

I will often find one last critique partner to complete a final reading of my story, with a focus on language. Once I have their feedback, I complete one more grammar and spelling revision pass.

That’s an overview of my revision process. I will be delving into each stage in more detail. For now, go forward with Stephen Koch’s wise words in your mind:

“Use every mistake. The inarticulate parts point to where you must make the words say exactly what you mean. The ragged parts point to what you must polish. The gaping holes tell you what has to be filled. The dull parts tell you unfailingly what must be cut. The blank spots show exactly what you must go out and find. These are infallible guides, and though they talk rough, they are your friends.”

When I finally send my work out, into the world, I am confident that any rejections I receive are indications that my work is not a good fit for that publication, publisher, or agent.

Featured Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash