How to Revise a Novel

The revising process culminating exercise: A story of revision in three acts

How to Revise a Novel

Welcome fellow writers to the final entry in my chapter on revising (as well as the culminating exercise for this installment on the writing process).

Before we get started I want to offer you my heartfelt congratulations. I am so proud of you for making it this far, for it is finally time to begin the final draft of your novel, a crucial milestone in your journey. By now you should have made it through the rest of this guide and have a list of goals for aspects of your story you wish to improve sitting beside you.

In this exercise I will provide you with a plan for transforming your book into a complete manuscript, ready to self-publish or shop to potential agents and publishers. Just a heads up, this last step is a big one, and it will require a considerable amount of time and effort to complete several passes over your existing text.

There really isn’t any way for me to arm you with a perfect “one size fits all” strategy for going through this process, as your work is highly individual and will vary considerably from that of other writers. That being said, using the system I outline below, you can craft your own personal revising strategy. For my own novels, I prefer to use a three stage revision process, consolidating the various steps that I described in the last entry into three distinct passes of revision, each focusing on a different “depth” of your story.

My three pass system for revising a novel

Now, although I call this a three pass system, it might (will likely) involve reading the bulk of your text several times during each stage/pass. The exact number is based solely on whether or not you have completed all of your goals and feel ready to move on.

The first pass is all about revising and enhancing plot structure, and during it you will build a comprehensive map of your overall plotline and various subplots. The second pass tightens the focus to individual scenes (chapters or subchapters), ensuring that each is contributing to the plot and is as powerful as you can make it. This is also where you will focus on improving the prose of your novel. The final pass deals with correcting any lingering errors as we as ensuring that the consistency and formatting of your book is up to snuff.

Here is a detailed description of what goes into each major pass:

The plot pass

Key focus: Plot and character development.

1) Plot completeness and complexity

  • Finalizing your story structure and plot development.
  • Identify any missing or unnecessary scenes.
  • Set up and execution of major events (cliffhangers, plot twists, climax).

2) Plot Structure and character arcs

  • Critical examination of character arcs.
  • Meeting the overall objectives of your story.
  • Fully resolving your novel’s central conflict.
  • Bringing your story to a logical conclusion.

3) Continuity

  • Subplots and mysteries set up, fulfilled, and resolved.
  • No people, objects, or plot devices have fallen through the cracks.

4) Character balance

  • Making sure that everyone is where they should be and present in their relevant scenes.
  • Ensuring that each character possesses an appropriate level of “presence” from scene to scene.

The prose pass

Key focus: Words, sentences, and paragraphs.

1) Big picture items

  • Overall balance of action/dialogue/description.
  • Vary the length and structure of your prose (sentences, paragraphs, blocks of description and dialogue).
  • All of your transitions should be smooth and clean.

2) Character presentation and development

  • Make sure to reveal character through action.
  • Especially for the PoV character(s).
  • Use your characters’ emotion to provide context and atmosphere.

3) Settings

  • Help the reader feel like they are standing here.
  • Choose details (and adverbs) with the mood in mind.
  • Set your descriptions in motion.

4) Dialogue

  • Improve overworked, cumbersome dialogue tags (often by using no tag or action tags).
  • Make each conversation serve a purpose (plot, tension, character development, atmosphere).
  • Ask yourself, “Does each unique voice shine through?”
  • Give each speaker clear agendas.
  • Balancing your speakers (especially in a multiple speaker conversation).

5) Descriptions

  • Pare down and improve your adjectives and adverbs (repeated words, weak/vague words).
  • Cut out all filler words and redundant modifiers.
  • Remove vague metaphors, awkward comma splices, and clichés.
  • Use all five senses.
  • Describe details as they become relevant to the character.
  • Ask, “Does this text reflect the atmosphere of my scene?”
  • Reword passive constructions.

6) Action and impact

  • Gage your momentum and pacing.
  • Ensure the tension is present and never goes slack.
  • Establish an atmosphere that serves your action.
  • Add/remove words and sentences as needed.
  • Make sure you have a hook at the start and end of each scene.
  • Remove unnecessary stage direction.

The proof pass

Key focus: Final decisions on word choice, proofreading.

1) Consistency and formatting

  • Make sure your chapter titles and subscript are consistent.
  • Do the same with your inner monologue (usually by using italics).
  • Subchapter break formatting (e.g. —–).

2) Proofreading and punctuation

  • Be aware of the limits of spell check.
  • Be especially careful for mistakes you make often (misspelling certain words, etc.)

3) Final continuity check

  • Final check that all subplots or mysteries are resolved.
  • Write down anything that might be relevant to a later sequel.

A detailed description of each pass

Stage 1: The plot pass (Revising story structure)

The first major pass is geared towards completing the events of your plot. In it you will be identifying any issues with your existing story as well as any scenes that need to be added or deleted.

Complexity

One way of losing focus and your reader’s interest is to create an unnecessarily complex plot. This might involve too many split timelines and plotlines, too many subplots, or an unclear jumble of dream sequences, flashbacks, and plot twists. On the other hand, if your plot lacks sufficient depth and breadth, you run the risk of weakening the impact and meaning of your story. In essence, you are going to need to strike a balance between these two extremes.

To do so, you should ask yourself for every subplot and plot twist:

  • Do I need this layer to the story for events to be sufficiently impactful?
  • Would my story be weakened by removing it altogether?
  • Are the events and their meanings easy for the reader to follow and understand?
  • Are these events true to my novel’s theme, conflict, and atmosphere?

Completeness (A powerful beginning and ending)

The first and last events of your story (and the impressions they impart) are going to define your tale within the hearts and minds of your readers, so it is vital that you make both of these bookends as powerful and impactful as you possibly can.

Some questions to ask yourself include:

  • Does the first scene grab the reader’s attention and plant a hook to make them curious about the rest of the story?
  • Does the story maintain a sufficient level of focus from scene to scene?
  • Is it easy for the reader to care about the characters and conflict?
  • Does each subplot and chapter have a solid entry and exit hook?
  • Does the novel sufficiently set up the climax?
  • Does the ending of the story satisfy the promise of the novel?
  • Does the ending make sense in context of the rest of the story?
  • Did the characters earn their ending?
  • Have you met the overall objectives of your story?
  • Have you resolved your novel’s central conflict fully and to satisfaction?
  • Does the resolution provide something for the reader to take with them?
  • Have you identified any additional scenes that need to be added?

Subplots and character arcs

Although they are subservient to your main conflict, each subplot in your novel needs to be crafted with care.

For each subplot and character arc ask:

  • Does this story add depth and breadth to my main conflict?
  • Would the book be lessened by removing it altogether?
  • Does the subplot have an intro hook, a climax, and a resolution?

Continuity

Another key element of creating a satisfying read is making sure that the continuity of your narrative is complete, without any pieces that fell off the table or lingering questions unaddressed or unresolved. When you have a lot of characters it can be easy to have one or two slip through the cracks. This might wind up in someone not being mentioned for a hundred pages, even when they were along for the ride. Even worse, you might have someone show up somewhere they aren’t (or in two places at once.) Using the plotline tools I laid out in the planning process chapter can help to prevent these type of errors.

Things that will weaken or break continuity include:

  • Characters or key elements that disappear or show up where they shouldn’t.
  • Unresolved subplots.
  • Changes to names and descriptions of settings and characters.
  • Major plot twists that occur without any prior setup.

Character balance

Another key consideration is character balance. Or phrased as a question: “Is each character presented in balance in each scene (neither standing too far in the back nor dominating the spotlight)? Now, achieving balance is not a science, but taking a close look at which scenes your various characters appear in and to what extent can often inform you of places where their presence could use some tweaking.

Stage 2: The prose pass (Revising characters, settings, description, and action)

The second pass focuses on your text itself, refining and improving various aspects of your presentation.

Big picture items

  • Overall balance of action/dialogue/description.
  • Vary the length and structure of prose.
  • Chapter titles consistent and to your liking.
  • Transitions should be smooth and clean.

Characters and settings

All of your characters, (with the exception of extras) need to be relevant to the core plot and conflict in at least some manner. They should not be included in your story unless they help to drive the plot forwards. For minor characters, this impact might be limited to a single scene, but all of your major characters should in some way be involved with the novel’s central conflict, climax, and resolution.

Your characters should have clear goals, those wants and needs we discussed back in the planning and drafting sections. They should be easy to empathize with, so the reader can vicariously share in the emotions arising from their journeys. They also need to be armed with significant motivations, as well as communicate a unique voice.

Description and dialogue: Editing your words and sentences

After you have completed your big picture edits, it’s time to peel things back and look at another layer of your narrative, your words, sentences, and paragraphs. This pass is all about ensuring pacing, flow, tension, and atmosphere first. Then it’s time to move on to sentence structure, spelling, grammar, punctuation, and paragraph lengths. Finally you will spend some time strengthening your word choice as well as cutting out weak and redundant descriptions.

Some self-editing rules to live by

I covered many of these in greater detail back in the chapter on the drafting process, but here are some self-editing guidelines to keep in mind while revising your prose:

Cut out unnecessary and filler words

This is perhaps the most important self-editing rule for any author. Learn to live by it and your prose will be immeasurably enhanced.

Eliminate throat-clearing

Throat-clearing refers to when an author includes too much background information and laying out the setting before any action begins.

Never choose a complex word when a simple one will do

As we discussed in the drafting section of this guide, you should never include a fancy word just to show off your vocabulary. In fact, you should never toss in a highly complex or specific term unless it adds a new meaning to a phrase. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pick a strong noun or verb, but you need to choose words that are easy for your audience to digest and follow.

Don’t tell the reader what isn’t happening.

There is no need to inform the reader of things that are not happening, as this is filler that doesn’t tell us anything we need to know. Note this is different from saying that something did not happen. “Jane was not asleep,” is filler. “Jane had not slept,” is information that might potentially be useful to the story.

Remove redundancy in descriptions and exposition

““Bob, I’m scared,” Jane said to Bob.” “Bob nodded his head.” In each case the last two words are redundant and should be cut.

Don’t repeat information to your reader (especially at length)

Once you have presented a fact or event, there is no need to go over it again. Your reader will usually remember and the repetition will bore them. If you feel they could use a brief reminder, place it in a short bit of exposition or summary rather than going through the entire thing play by play for a second time.

Shave off unnecessary adjectives and adverbs

Powerful writing is achieved through the use of strong nouns and verbs, not by flinging around piles of adjectives. Modifying words are a potent spice, so use them sparingly.

Don’t hedge with your verbs

“He was almost tall.” “She was a little bit beautiful.”

Don’t include unnecessary stage direction

You only need to include enough detail to frame the scene and highlight important action. Avoid attempting to inform the reader of every tiny movement or action the characters take. You want to imply that these things are happening without actually relaying them in detail.

Don’t change the point of view mid-scene

This is perhaps the most common mistake novice writers make. Having a weak grasp on point of view is one of the fastest ways to damage immersion, ruin your first impression, and have potential agents and publishers take a hard pass on your novel.

Don’t try use punctuation or font changes for dramatic effect

Using all caps and lots of exclamation points, as this will only serve to make your prose appear amateur. Rely on the power of your words themselves to convey important emphasis.

Words to cut out of your prose

Refining prose often necessitates cutting out words, sentences, and phrasing that clutters, dilutes, or obfuscates the meaning and impact of your text. While learning to prune your prose is a skill that requires practice to develop, there are some words that have a tendency to weaken or muddle otherwise fine sentences.

Let’s take a look at several now:

Really and very

Although we use them all the time in daily speech for emphasis, the words very and really don’t actually help the reader to picture the events detailed in your prose. “Fast” vs. “really fast.” “Fun” vs. “very fun.” Neither of these add anything the reader can sink their imaginations into. If you want to convey stronger emphasis, chose a more powerful verb or noun instead.

Suddenly

The word suddenly means a rapid action without prior warning. However, when you use it in a sentence it both slows down the action and gives your reader a warning that something is about to happen. Usually, just relaying the action is more powerful than including a “suddenly” beforehand. It also reveals nothing as to the nature of the action it describes, no sensations or information the reader can use to paint a picture in their mind.

In order to

This phrase simply not needed in most sentences. “She took the pill to help her sleep at night” vs. “She took the pill in order to sleep at night.” The “in order to” is both totally unnecessary and clutters up the sentence.

Then

Usually the word then is used to imply that something happens after the last event that was mentioned. However, in most cases, simply listing events sequentially already implies this ordering. The only time that you should use “then” is when it might otherwise be unclear as to the sequence of events.

Up and down (when they aren’t indicating direction)

“Bob sat down on the stool.” “Sarah cleaned up the mess.”

Literally

Don’t use the term literally, especially when you mean figuratively.

That

The word “that” is both useful and necessary, but is also easy to overuse. Sometimes you can just remove it altogether by moving a description to before the noun. “The dog that is brown is near my house.” vs. “The brown dog is near my house.” Sometimes it is included in places it doesn’t need to be. “I’m not that stupid.” vs. “I’m not stupid.”

You need “that” in a sentence to attach dependent clauses to independent ones and if a clause begins with a number of subordinating conjunctions. “That” is also used before clauses to clarify a noun. Some sentences just sound incomplete or awkward without it as well. When in doubt, try removing the “that from a sentence and see if it still reads well. If it’s a borderline case, leave it in.

Action and impact

It is important that the action of your novel is clear. But more than just being easy to follow, your action needs to grip your audience. To create a feeling of tension within them that can only be resolved by reading on to the end of the scene. This isn’t just about what happens (story structure and plot) but also about how the big event is revealed to the reader.

Tension

Tension refers to the amount of excitement or drama that the scene is carrying. It is created when there is a sense of urgency to what is happening, encouraging the reader to find out what happens next. It is a key part of any successful scene, and becomes critical when things start to ramp up before the climax. Sometimes the source of tension is less urgent, such as scenes in of falling tension (e.g. slice of life). But even in these cases, there should still be a sense that something is happening and that something important has yet to be resolved.

Pacing

One powerful way of controlling the tension of your story is through the clever use of pacing. Pacing refers to the ordering and manipulation of time inside of a tale. A single page might only cover a few minutes of a story in one place, while in another it might mark the passing of days or even years. In general, you will want to slow the pace down in scenes of high tension, especially before major moments of action or a big reveals.

It is important to match the pacing of a scene to its need. If it is set too fast, the impact and meaning of events can be diluted or even lost. But if the pacing is too slow in the wrong place, the reader will become bored waiting to find out what happens next.

Stage 3: The proof pass (Typos, formatting, and polish)

Now it’s time for the third and final pass of your novel, the proof pass.

Proofreading

  • Do I tend to make any common spelling or grammatical mistakes? (Document search can help.)
  • Have I read this section out loud?

Formatting

Make sure your formatting is consistent. If some of your chapters use subheadings, they all should. If some begin with quotes, they all should. If you write out the word Chapter at the start, all of your chapters should follow the same convention and not switch to numbers later.

  • Consistent chapter titles and subscript.
  • Manuscript all in same font and format style.

Final continuity check

  • Is every subplot and mystery resolved by the end of the story?
  • Did I cross off everything from the continuity list I made in the first pass?

Self-editing filter sheet

We already covered each of these topics in detail in prior sections, but here they are again in summary form in a consolidated list for you to use during revision. I encourage you to add to and customize these lists as you become more familiar with revising your story to get the most out of them. For more detail on each topic, refer back to the earlier chapters of this guide.

Plot

  • Does the first scene grab the reader’s attention and plant a hook to make them curious about the rest of the story?
  • Does the story maintain a sufficient level of tension and focus?
  • Does the ending of the story satisfy the promise of the novel?
  • Is it easy for the reader to care about the characters and conflict?
  • Does the novel sufficiently set up the climax?
  • Does the resolution provide something to leave the reader with?
  • Does the ending make sense in context of the rest of the story?
  • Did the characters earn their ending?
  • Does each subplot and chapter have a solid entry and exit hook?
  • Have you met the overall objectives of your story?
  • Have you resolved your novel’s central conflict fully and to satisfaction?
  • Did you bring the story to a logical conclusion and give the reader time to bask in a thrilling read?
  • Did you tie up all of your various subplots and character arcs?
  • Have you identified any additional scenes that need to be added?

Characters

  • Do I need to remove any characters?
  • Do I need to add any?
  • Do my characters choices line up with their goals and values?
  • Does each character possess a unique voice?
  • Does every scene matter?
  • This goes beyond whether or not your
  • Does every scene matter to the reader and plot?
  • Do they serve to move the story forwards?
  • Does it contain the proper tension, pacing, and atmosphere?
  • Are your scenes engaging and well-polished?

Description

  • Don’t go overboard with adjectives and adverbs.
  • Reducing adjectives and adverbs by picking stronger verbs and nouns.
  • Eliminate redundant modifiers.
  • Be especially wary of adding adverbs to your adjectives.
  • Don’t choose unnecessarily complex words in general, but don’t use tepid qualifiers (or nouns and verbs) either.
  • Picking strong nouns and vivid verbs.
  • Don’t include adverbs and adjectives just to make your prose sound “pretty.”
  • Avoid writing in the passive voice.
  • Don’t overuse metaphors and similes.
  • Avoid cliché.
  • Use metaphors and similes sparingly.
  • Avoid repetition.
  • Vary the length and structure of your prose in order to keep it fresh.
  • Remember to engage the senses, the emotions, and the imagination.
  • Avoid repetition.

Dialogue

  • Don’t try to make your dialogue sound like real conversations.
  • Every conversation should possess a clear purpose.
  • Each character and group should possess their own mannerisms, voice, and speech patterns.
  • Include tone, body language, and facial expression.
  • Use dialogue to establish the personalities and mindsets of your characters.
  • Dialogue is also a powerful tool for revealing the relationship dynamics between your characters.
  • People can say one thing, but mean another.
  • Dialogue should provide your reader with information that is important to your world, plot, and conflict.
  • Use dialogue to progress your core plot and various subplots.
  • Grant each character who is speaking a clear agenda.
  • Keep your dialogue tight, focused, and lean. Less is more.
  • Make sure to balance the speakers in conversations with more than two characters.
  • Intersperse longer conversations with snippets of action. Don’t let your characters ramble on while standing still.
  • You can also use dialogue to break up blocks of description and exposition.
  • Remember to use dialogue to modify the level of tension and establish atmosphere in a scene.

Dialogue tags

  • Try to use as few dialogue tags as you possibly can without making your conversations ambiguous.
  • When a tag is required, using “said” is best (most of the time).
  • Swap them out with action tags instead.
  • When using dialogue tags other than said, choose evocative tags that don’t sound overwritten.
  • Remove redundant text and tags.
  • Avoid adding adverbs to your dialogue tags.

Settings

  • Increasing immersion by describing settings in motion.
  • Using setting to establish atmosphere.
  • Using settings as obstacles and sources of conflict.
  • Choose details with the scene’s mood/atmosphere and purpose in mind.
  • Increasing immersion by describing settings in motion.

Action

  • Make the action easy to follow, visceral and vibrant.
  • Make the significance of the events clear to the reader.
  • Make sure that big events properly set up beforehand.

Proofreading and Formatting

  • Are my chapter titles and introductions formatted consistently?

Continuity

  • Is every subplot and mystery resolved?
  • Did anything disappear between the pages (characters, key objects/outcomes)?
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