Writers in the Storm

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June 24, 2024

Quick Fix Pacing Tips for Authors

By Kris Maze

If you have ever gotten manuscript feedback that asks you to check your pacing, you know that can be a tricky task to manage. Where do you start? What parts of your writing will fix this vague problem? Pacing in a story is based on many factors and targeting areas of improvement can be overwhelming.

You are not alone. Many writers struggle with pacing issues. And many can sense when something is off but have a hard time identifying what is causing the problem. Digging into podcasts, articles, and taking classes can refine your skills as a writer, but maybe a tactical list of common pacing issues that impact a novel is all you need.

Have you heard any of the following when revising your novel?

  • Avoid Sagging middles.
  • Build more compelling characterization.
  • Cut more of your prose.
  • Delete unnecessary scenes.
  • Engage the reader more.

It’s an alphabet of well-intentioned advice, but annoying if you don’t know where to start. Writers have many tools and bits of knowledge to help them revise their pacing. But how? And how much revision will be enough?

Sometimes the adjustments that make a difference in your novel can start small. Maybe a slight characterization or POV change can improve the story. Sometimes it is cutting a whole secondary plot that drags and slows the main action. Sometimes the conflict is just not compelling enough and you need to up-the-stakes. 

Although writers develop their own ways to edit and pace-proof their work, how to fix pacing can be solvable a mystery for your manuscript. Reading up on pacing can easily become a time sink hole keeping you from writing, but it’s easier when you have a plan. Try my pacing issues revision list to fix your novel.

Included in this post are my simplified go-to repair suggestions for pacing. Aimed at giving you an actionable list of fixes, you can use these ideas to make your book more engaging and appropriately paced. 

Power Pacing Tips for Revising your Manuscript.

1. Check your chapter word counts.

One way to quickly check on your pacing is to compare the word count for your chapters. What do you notice when you list the word counts for each section? Depending on your genre and style, the chapter counts can tell you a lot about variations in your writing.

For the most part, the amount of words in each chapter should not throw off the reading experience. This will mean different things for different authors. Some authors write in tiny potato chip chapters that suit their thriller novel style. Other authors take their time to let readers discover their characters and setting and delicately build up their scenes for readers who want to savor their stories. But chapters that are outliers (and perhaps too long) in your book can show places where you may need to edit extra side stories or fluff.

I tend to write about 1500 to 2000 word chapters. For me, this keeps the momentum in the story and gives the reader a place to digest what has happened before propelling into the next part of the story. Your genre and style may require something different. Looking for long chapters may be an opportunity to cut slow scenes or to separate actions into their own chapters. Breaking down long chapters into parts can give you a chance to develop the key scenes more as well.

Look for chapters that are exceptionally long or short. These places in your novel may need work. There are exceptions to this pacing-problem-spotter tip, so be aware of these considerations: 

  • Short chapters can be used to emphasis a scene or to highlight a key event in your story. Perhaps your novel has a sequence of short chapters where the high-stakes or intense action is better suited by quick, brief chapters are appropriate. 
  • Longer chapters may be appropriate. Perhaps your character is in a new setting, and you have detailed exposition to show the reader this new world you have created. Letting your reader wander in your new space will take more words.
  • Are all of your chapters very similar? Eerily at the word count within a word or two? Some variety is needed to keep your reader interested. 

The important matter is to see what the word counts mean to your story. Just because you have long chapters or short chapters doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be fixed. It can be a place to check for parts that either pull the reader out of your story with side plots and lengthy exposition. It could mean you have too many short chapters that don’t give the reader enough information, confusing them, and losing them. Consider revising.

My WIP Word Count Discovery - An Overbearing B Story

Here's an example from my current work in progress (WIP). I recently re-started a project that I put on pause a year ago and organized the draft in Scrivener. While I looked over the scenes, I noticed a few shorter ones. These ones needed development and fleshing out, so I took time to build those scenes, filling in characterizations and details to make the story pop. I added more of the world building elements found in my genre and characterizations to help those scenes flow better and to better impact on my story.

And then there was a mega B story floating in the middle of my manuscript. A chunk that represented one beat for my book but had become its own living thing with multiple character arcs and settings. The point of this scene within my plotline warranted only a few pages of book real estate at most. And since only one of the plot lines complemented the overall story, it needed to be cut. Removing most of this beat helped my manuscript stay focused and as a bonus I now I can revise the new side story and turn it into a novella. Score!

2. Check paragraphs vs. white spaces

Do you see blocky chunks of text? Or a lattice patchwork of delicately balanced system of text and breathing space for the mind? One way to check for pacing issues is to see the physical layout of your work.  If you have ever had the extreme pleasure to work with Margie Lawson, you will have heard about analyzing your white spaces.

Check the layout by printing off your manuscript and setting multiple pages in order on a large table or floor. What do you notice? Bricks of text in my work tend to tell me that I need to pull out more telling and show the story to my reader instead. I may need to add dialogue or internalizations to break up these blocks of text.

A digital way to check this is to find the multiple page view that most word processing software programs have. Zoom out to 8 or 10 pages and scroll through your manuscript. With careful observation you may discover areas that flow easier for the reader, others that are like bricks, walling off your story from easy access. 

Have fun looking at your story’s visual form. It can reveal clues about pacing without analyzing the words. And getting a bird’s-eye view may be what you need to identify the hard-to-find pacing issues.

3. Check sentence length variation throughout your work.

If you use a program like GrammarlyProWritingAid, or AutoCrit, you know there are many reports you can produce from your work. Try looking at the sentence variation.  

How varied are your sentences? Like the chapters, the variation should flow with your story and not hinder it. There should be shorter sentences with dialogue. And longer ones for world-building. This is another quick check for problematic pacing you can try.

4. Check sticky sentences

Using a text editor like Grammarly or ProWriteAid can also help you to identity sticky places and smooth them out. These programs give you a report on sentences that are very sticky or just sort of sticky. Sticky may keep your reader from continuing, so these are worth paying attention to. Try these sticky sentence solutions.

  • Break up longer sentences into smaller, more manageable pieces by the ideas contained within them. 
  • Find the main point of the sentence and rewrite it with more clarity.
  • There may be too many ‘little words’ like ‘of’ and other prepositions. Try rewriting these and get out the clunky little words that could make your reader stumble out of your story.
  • Combine sentences for better flow and less repetition.

Finding sticky sentences is one way to keep your story's pacing on track and to keep your readers happy.

5. Check POV

Giving the reader different points of view (POV) can make your story more interesting by giving the reader insight into the characters’ world view. The main POV should come primarily from your main character. See if most of your story is revealed through their eyes.

Do you have consistent POV throughout your story? Be sure to start each new chapter with clarity and through the eyes of the character it represents. Add details about that character, dropping hints and new information as your character moves through your plot. A strong use of POV can add pizazz to a story, or it can throw off your reader. Check this aspect of your novel if your pacing needs some help.

6. Check for Showing. 

Showing but not telling? Use dialogue to spice up boring chunks of text that could invite your reader to skim. Consider smoothing out your pacing by letting your character’s share their world through dialogue. Let the reader see what your character sees to add interest. If what they say is revealing the key events, mood, and motivations, the writer doesn’t have to. 

Figure out how much of your manuscript is dialogue. Many writing software programs have this option. This is another way to improve your pacing and balance out your exposition with dialogue. 

7. Check for redundancies

One common reader-speed bump writers often miss in their novels are redundancies. Go through your main story structure and see where your readers get the main ideas for each plot point. Do your characters do something different at each twist and turn? At a story structure level, see how your plot line varies. Maybe you can change a portion of it to keep your story from being too predictable.

Does the solution to their problem change and evolve as they grow in their character arc? Wow your reader with new resolutions for each conflict they get and keep the story flowing with interesting twists along the way.

8. Check for fluffy and unnecessary words.

Create a list of those words you like to overuse and nix those in your manuscript. Some of mine are words like back, up, and down, that really do nothing other than slow down the reader. Do a simple search for these words in your writing software. Are they needed in the sentences where you have them?

See my previous posts on fixing fluff words HERE and HERE for ideas on how writers can edit the excess from their work.

Final Thoughts on Pacing Tips

I hope this list of pacing fixes can help you revise your manuscript in a meaningful and manageable way. Keep on writing and revising.  The payoff of a well-written manuscript is on the horizon!

Tell us about your most recent project below and fix tips that you can share for revisions.

About Kris

Kris Maze

Kris Maze, an education enthusiast with a knack for the written word, has dedicated several years to the world of academia. She writes for various publications including Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish and award-winning blog Writers in the Storm where she is also a host.

You can find her YA fiction, writing resources, and keep up with her author events at KrisMaze.com. Find her darker, scarier fiction at her sister-site KrissyKnoxx.com.

A recovering grammarian and hopeless wanderer, Kris enjoys reading, learning languages, and spending time outdoors where she ponders the wisdom of Bob Ross.

And sometimes she plans a writing road trip.

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And hot from the presses—Kris has a collection of award-winning stories that was just released in June. Check it out at any of the main retailer bookstores. Click and share to help support indie writing. 

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19 comments on “Quick Fix Pacing Tips for Authors”

  1. I find that the beginning of my novels tend to be slow. I find it difficult to fix, as it's setting the background of the work. For example, I have a young boy and his sister taken prisoner by the Roman army. They end up on Britain as slaves.
    I can't go straight from the capture to Britain. Too big a jump, and some characters need to be introduced, as well as the reaction of the boy to the new experiences of being a slave so we can see his character arc change as he grows up.
    This is an example

    1. Hi V.M.

      Your work sounds like an emotionally charged and exciting story. If you don't mind me asking, why can't you start with the capture of the kids?

      We don't have to know anything about them except that they are about to lose their freedom. The time and setting are important for the reader at the start too, but almost everything else you have mentioned seems like juicy details that can propel a reader to keep-finding-out-more.

      The story Maze Runner begins with the Main Character(MC), Thomas, in a pit with a screaming pig. He is lifted into a mysterious world where we learn who is friend or foe in real time as he does. We learn about the world he is in (dystopian) and the challenges they face (get through the maze or die.) We don't truly learn about why the maze exists or how they became a part of it until the very, very end of the story. It makes for a good trilogy as we are now compelled to read book 2 in the series. Which is very good indeed for the author and a strategic way to unfold their story to sell more books.

      Saving Private Ryan, a war story about saving one young soldier, begins with an epically charged fight scene that builds the world and setting, but it has very little to do with the main mission in the plot. Packed with emotion and tense situations, you are hooked at the start and want to understand the meaning of all the violence. An answer to the enormous cost of war.

      Thank you for reading and sharing your book with us, V.M. Best of luck in your revision process. It takes time, but is worth it!

      Kris

  2. "... actionable list of fixes ..." Thank you!

    Pacing has been my most elusive nemesis. I have had trouible pinpointing it and with fixing it. The fixes and and advice out outline make sense in so many ways, and I am happy to have stumbled on a few fixes haphazardly, like dividing sentences and reducing sticky words.

    I think what you and this article have done most for me is confirm that I was not struggling with the pacing plague alone, and that I am not going crazy -- although that last bit may be a lttle harder to dispell.

    1. Hi Jennifer,

      You are not losing your mind. 🙂

      We all are in this conundrum of fixing pacing in our stories, in part because there are so many routes our books can take us. The pacing is one of the focus points for us to improve our stories. And that is part of the fun--seeing our books develop as we practice our writing craft.

      I'm glad that this list will be useful for you. And I'm glad you are part of this writing community as well. Happy writing!

      Kris

  3. Very helpful article! Looking at the white space is such a quick, easy way to check your pacing and sentence/paragraph variation. Great tips I will absolutely be applying. Thank you!

    1. Hi Kim,

      That is a trick I have picked up from many sources, but mostly from working with Margie Lawson. She really has a great system (EDITS) to get writers to see what makes compelling writing and then gives them tools to do it better themselves.

      I have taken a few immersions with her online, which are more cost effective, but her packets are a great place to start if you want more meaty writing resources that dig deep into the writing craft. The packets are comparatively low cost and can be done at your own pace.

      Many readers at WITS have worked with her and can share the impact it has had on their writing. White spaces is just one little sliver of the skills she teaches (along with other amazing teachers who also contribute and comment at WITS.)

      Happy writing!

      Kris

    1. Certainly! It's good to hear from other writers about how fixing pacing is a universal part of writing. And it takes most of us a very long time to master.

      I believe you also are an instructor at Lawson Academy. Currently teaching a class on tension? Sounds like a great resource also!

      Kris

      1. I am! Thanks for asking. Tension and conflict are just sisters in writing and both are SO important. And, of course, the other sister is pacing, so it fits right in with your great post. I would like to share your post in class, if that's okay.
        Thanks!

  4. Pacing is tricky. So much depends on the genre and story style. This is an excellent list of where to look for pacing problems.

    Margie Lawson's Edits process is my number one way to see pacing problems. Her system includes looking at the white space which is a give away. Yet I still fall under the spell of sticky sentences and too many internal thoughts. ProWriting Aid helps me identify those areas.

    1. Hello Lynette!

      It looks like we have some similar writing processes - including EDITS. That has been a very valuable part of my growth as an author. And ProWritingAid is helpful for me too.

      Before I figured out what worked for me, it was often confusing and time-consuming to work on a project. It felt like I was always starting over and not making much progress. It still can feel like a chore too, but these systems help me to work with focus.

      I'm glad you found value in this post. Thanks!

      Kris

  5. Thanks for these tips, Kris! Great suggestions. When I read a book through for pacing, I try to make sure that we have both fast and slow places... giving the reader that moment of recovery before we hit 'em again. But of course keeping the suspense so they can't recover enough to put the book down!

  6. Great article to remind us. Yes, Margie's classes are fantastic and have been extremely helpful to me over the years. One thing I have no idea how to do is find the word count per chapter (I just see the overall word count at the bottom of the screen). Not that it's important to me as I keep my chapters to around 5 pages, shorter as the tension builds toward the climax.

    1. Hi Julie,

      The amount of pages per chapter is another way to quickly assess for odd outliers in your manuscript. It should work in a similar way. Ones that are too long or too short may need attention (with room for exceptions depending on your writing style and specific tension points in your novel.)

      Some ways that I would look at word count per chapter may be helpful, or not. It seems like you have a good system already!

      I work in Scrivener at this stage in my writing. Going through the left side bar quickly gives me a word count at the bottom of each section.

      There is also the good ol' hot keys to help figure out amounts. Select (or Command on a Mac) A for all, or just the section you want to do a word count with, and the number should appear at the bottom of your Word doc (and many word processors mimic this system).

      Thanks for sharing your page count idea. 🙂
      Kris

  7. Hi Kris,
    These are all great suggestions.
    I am a big fan of varying sentence length and using shorter chapters as part of tension building.
    Thanks for the helpful ideas!

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