By Guest Contributor 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. (Also a lot of work, I won’t lie, 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. There’s enough book advice in there to fill a book or two, so I dug through and pulled out my three favorite tips for revising a novel.
1. Create an Edit Map
Also called a book map or a story map, this is a hugely useful tool to identify what’s in my novel and where it happens. I simply summarize what happens in each chapter (I like going scene by scene myself). The elements I look for are the 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. I can quickly capture the action, conflict, stakes, and resolution in a few sentences and see the plot elements that will move the story forward.
This is also handy for when I need to reference when something happened or when a character first did or realized something critical to the story. I can also make notes in the edit map on where I need to flesh the story out and easily see how it works with the overall novel (I like to add revision notes in a different color).
If I find a scene where nothing happens, that’s a big red flag that I need to add goals, conflict, or stakes, or even get my protagonist out of her head. It’s also a good way to see if I have a lot of scenes where basically the same thing happens (like five chase scenes, or six almost caught scenes) or where I have repetition. Too many similar scenes will make the novel feel flat and repetitious.
Extra Tip: One neat trick here is to pinpoint the action and see how it causes the next scene 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.2. Do a Problem Word Search
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. Bob was running isn’t nearly as strong as Bob ran. Other words to watch out for are adverbs, filter words (such as looked, heard, thought, saw, etc.), telling red flags (to verb, as, when, before, etc.), and prepositions. Then there are words I personally know I overuse, such as just, only, and the phrase “eyes widened.” While there’s nothing wrong with any of these words on their own, they do frequently equate to lazy writing.
I go through each scene and do a “find” for these words, and then look at the sentence. Then I ask:
- If I cut the word, does the sentence read better?
- If I rewrote the sentence to eliminate the word, does it read better?
- Is there a stronger verb or noun I could use?
- Can I rewrite the sentence in a more active fashion?
- Can I be more descriptive or am I relying on boring words?
- Can I rewrite it so it’s more in the voice of my character?
If editing the word out makers the scene better I edit it. If it’s saying exactly what I want it to say, I leave it in. Just looking at all the to be verbs and adverbs can spot a slew of potential areas to tighten the prose.
Weak prose can make even a great story read flat. Searching for these words individually allows me to focus on the sentence and not get caught up in the larger story. It also forces me to notice any lazy writing that might technically be fine, but could read better with a little effort.
Extra tip: 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.
3. Check the Transitions: Chapters and Scene Breaks
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. I like to go through each chapter and see how my scenes end and how they hand off to the next scene. If they’re not ending with a reason for the reader to keep reading, I know I need to fix them so they do.
Sometimes this means I need to cut some travel description or stage direction, or even end a scene much earlier. I look for moments that would make a reader want to turn the page and I 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 kept the 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.
Extra Tip: 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?
Looking for more tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my newest book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It’s also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.