by Janice Hardy
While there’s something exciting about writing a first draft, I always look forward to the revisions. It isn’t until I see how my story unfolds that I fully understand where I can make it stronger, and turning that literary lump of coal into a diamond is quite rewarding–and a lot of fun. I won’t lie, it’s also a lot of work, but well worth it.
The list-maker in me has a whole folder filled with revision tips and tricks, from lists of words that commonly indicate weak prose, to templates to check my goal-conflict-stakes structure, to questions to ask in every scene.
Here are my three favorite tips for revising a novel.
Also called a book map or a story map, an editorial map is a hugely useful tool to identify what’s in my novel and where it happens. This lets you quickly capture the action, conflict, stakes, and resolution in a few sentences and see the plot elements that will move the story forward.
Simply summarize what happens in each chapter and scene. I mostly look for plot and character arc details–the protagonist’s goal, what they physically do in that scene, what problem they face, how it turns out and how this leads to the next scene. But you can break down your scenes however you’d like, so if lists or bullet points are what works for you, use that.
This also creates a handy reference guide for later when you need to remember when something happened or when a character first did or realized something critical to the story. You can even make notes in the editorial map on where you want to flesh out the story and easily see how it works with the overall novel. I like adding those revision notes in a different color to help differentiate them.
If you find a scene where nothing happens, that’s a big red flag that you might need to add goals, conflict, or stakes, or even get your protagonist out of their head. It’s also a good way to see if you have a lot of scenes where basically the same thing happens, such as like five chase scenes, or six “almost caught” scenes. Too many similar scenes will make the novel feel flat and repetitious.
One neat trick here is to pinpoint the action and see how it causes the next scene's goal. For example, if you have a lot of scenes that link together with “and then X happens, and then Y happens,” that’s a red flag that you have no real forward plot movement. But if you have a lot of scenes that say, “and then X happens, so the protagonist has to do Y, but Z happened” then you can see how the plot is moving forward.
Weak prose can make even a great story read flat. Although it’s not a hard and fast rule, there are words that are commonly found lurking in weak prose, such as those pesky “to be” verbs. For example, Bob was running isn’t nearly as strong as Bob ran. Just looking at all the “to be” verbs and adverbs that creep into a manuscript can help you spot a slew of potential areas to tighten the prose.
Other words to watch out for: adverbs, filter words (such as looked, heard, thought, saw, etc.), telling red flags (to verb, as, when, before, etc.), and prepositions. While there’s nothing wrong with any of these words on their own, they do frequently equate to lazy writing.
Then there are the words you know you overuse, and we all have our favorites. Maybe you have a lot of scowling, or smiling, or a simile you can’t help but use all the time. My overused crutch words are, just, only, and the phrase “eyes widened.”
Make a list of your words and search for them in each scene (use your find function of your writing program), then look at the sentence. Ask yourself:
If editing to eliminate the word makes it better, then do it. If it says exactly what you want it to say, leave it in.
Searching for these words individually allows you to focus on the sentence and not get caught up in the larger story. It also forces you to notice any lazy writing that might technically be fine, but could be stronger with a little effort.
Adverbs are very useful placeholder words, and they’re often used in areas that can be fleshed out to better show that emotion or action. Most times, if you see an adverb, it’s an opportunity to show a little more and tell a little less.
Author Elmore Leonard has a famous quote: “I cut the parts people skip.” Scene breaks are a great example of this advice in action, as they allow transition between scenes without all the pace-slowing “and this is how we got from Point A to Point B” description. It’s not a bad idea to go through each chapter and see how scenes end and how they hand off to the next scene. If a scene isn’t ending with a reason for the reader to keep reading, that’s an opportunity to tweak it so it does.
Sometimes this means cutting some travel description or stage direction, or even end a scene much earlier. Look for moments that would make a reader want to turn the page and revise to end there instead. A book a reader can’t put down is one where the author made sure every scene break and transition keeps that reader hooked.
At the end of every scene, ask yourself what will make the reader want to keep reading? If the answer starts with “To find out if…” or something similar, odds are you’re on the right track.
Look at the last line or two of every scene. Does it leave a question hanging the reader will want an answer to? It doesn’t have to be a literal question, as a sense of foreboding can work just as well and create a “what’s going to go wrong?” question for the reader. Do those final few lines tease or just end the scene with no sense of forward momentum?
Revision is often where the real writing magic happens, turning a rough idea into a polished novel. A writer has a myriad of ways in which to do that, but these three tips are my favorites and always get me started on the right path. Once I do these tasks, it’s a lot easier to see what else in the novel needs to be done and I can revise effectively.
What are some of your favorite revision tips? Have you tried any of these? Please share with us down in the comments!
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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. Sign up for her newsletter and receive 25 ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now free.
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Thanks for having me! Let's talk about revisions 🙂
I love your attitude on revisions, Janice. It makes it feel less onerous and more necessary. 🙂
These tips are awesome, Janice!
I think the story map will be particularly helpful for me, especially in my WIP.
The word problem search is one I use all of the time. I started using this one after it was pointed out to me I included far too many expressive eyebrows and foreheads. 🤣
Thanks! I love the story map. I even update mine as I write to make it easier. LOL "expressive eyebrows." What a great phrase.
Good article. Many of the things on your list are built into ProWriting Aide (and probably Grammarly), which I highly recommend to everyone. I try (and been told I'm successful at) to end each chapter or scene with either a hook to get readers to wonder what's ahead. When fitting, I try to do this with a little humor, too. Often, my chapters end with the last internal thought or speculation of a key character within the scene, which helps frame the question for the next scene or chapter.
Even with this set-up though, I often next take readers straight into chapters part of one of my sub-plot story lines-to keep all the balls in the air and present in their thoughts. I try to keep a balance, of course, then like to have story lines converge towards the climax. More exciting that way, I think-as long as I'm careful and do it well.
Thank you! That doesn't surprise me, as they're very handy to use/have/do. That's a great way to do endings. Sounds like you have a solid handle on how to weave a compelling story 🙂
This was an excellent post. It may even help me to get back on the writing horse. Every time I look at what I've written I keep thinking “what this story needs is a map, an outline”, then I think if I abandon the whole story it would an awful waste of time. So, I think during the Xmas holidays I'll try to make an outline, try to filter out all the “weasel” words, and make myself an editorial map. Your book about revising the first draft to the finished draft may help too. Thanks for doing this post.
Thanks! I hope so. A lot of times, the map or outline actually helps you figure out what's important in your story and what isn't, so you can find what matters and develop that more. It's not uncommon for a first draft to be pretty messy and all over the place as we find our story, and once it's down on paper, we can see what works and what doesn't and then adjust as needed.
Put chapter/scene info on 3-5. Cards. These can be rearranged easily on the wall or floor.
I do this and it is SO helpful. 🙂
Great tip. I used to outline this way back in the day. If you have different POVs, using different colored cards for each character is helpful to tell which scenes are for which character at a glance.
I absolutely adore that you can do this on the corkboard feature in Scrivener.
Yes! So handy
I check for overuse words and other problem words.
Same, but that's another pass once the story is the way I want it. I split my revision and editing passes. To me, revision is for the story and editing is for the text. Helps me focus to think of them as two separate things.
Great tips, Janice. I've found the best way to identify my "problem words" (and they seem to change with every manuscript) is to create a word cloud. The visual of a word that's bigger than the characters' names is always startling, and of course it's never the only one that needs to be addressed.
Great tip! That would work really well for the visual folks, too. It would make it pop out.
I always have different trouble words every boo, too 🙂 My current WIP... "than I realized" is popping up all over, lol.
Great post, Janice. A good one to keep as a reference.
A great article. Thanks Janice. I have been a professional writer since, well.... likely before you were born but I just read this and thought. You write more professionally than I.
I just produce the story, revise it a few times (lol- read "a few" as sometimes "very many") Never have I thought of doing so much. I now see that I should.
Thanks again for a great article.
Thanks! I'll take that bet! (checks your website) LOL, you're all of eight years older than I 🙂 But I appreciate the compliment.
Whatever process works for you, works. I tend to be more analytical about my writing, but not every writer is the same. But if you think it'll help you produce better work, then go for it. Revision is where the story starts to shine for me.
This is a very useful guide, and quite timely for me. The story map will be especially helpful to me at this point in my revisions. Thank you so much for the great advice!
You're most welcome, and I'm glad it'll help. I love the edit map. It keeps me focused and helps me work things out before I write. I catch a lot of issues there, which saves me time and hassles later.