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May 232012

Novel RevisionNovel Revision is Key Aspect of Writing

Novel Revision is a key process of novel writing, but to the detriment of many an aspiring author, it is often overlooked and/or misunderstood. Having knocked off that first draft of a novel – the one you’ve already spent hours, months, sometimes even years writing – you might think that the really hard work is done. But it is not done. In many ways it’s just beginning. The reason we have a manuscript “first draft” is that there are subsequent drafts.

For some, the second draft means running a final spell check, cleaning up punctuation, and they may go as far as removing some of their overzealous adverbs and adjectives. They then declare their work a finished novel.

But not so fast. There is much more to novel revision than spelling and grammar. Much more. Revising a manuscript is a big job, and one that an aspiring author cannot afford to skip.

Objectivity – the Key to Novel Revision

The new writer tends to be overly attached to their writing and is reluctant to remove any part of it. This is the first thing a novelist must overcome. Novel revision calls for objectivity – it’s not an easy thing. Sometimes we think we’ve written the perfect snappy line of dialogue, the most beautiful scene, and there’s no way you want to edit it out of your novel.

Advice: don’t be too much in love with your own writing. If something isn’t working to either move the story or reveal more about your characters – get rid of it. You don’t have to press the delete button, forever banishing your beloved words into exile. Create a document where you keep just this sort of thing – beloved writing not yet used – just cut it from your manuscript and paste it into that document. You may find another use for that sweet baby in another novel.

Novel Writing Tip: The new writer tends to be overly attached to their writing and is reluctant to remove any part of it. This is the first thing a novelist must overcome.

Novel Revision After the First Draft

Novel revision means starting at the beginning and reading through the manuscript word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph and chapter by chapter looking at a lot of things at once. Revision is a complicated process, but knowing what to look for certainly helps.

To facilitate the revision process, start by making three lists with the following headings:

1.  Characters

2.   Timeline

3.  Plot Tracking

As you go through your manuscript you will pay attention to each of these items and either make instant corrections for easy items or make notes that you’ll use to correct the manuscript at the end of the revision process when you can observe your manuscript as a whole (vs. looking at each word, line, chapter). Let’s look in more detail at how paying attention to these 3 items will help to revise a manuscript.

Novel Revision – Characters

Look at how each character is introduced – as you read it in the manuscript, not as the sketch of character traits you initially defined for the character. Using your Character List, write down how you’ve described the character’s name, appearance, primary traits, etc. Do this for each character as they are introduced. Your Character List might look like this:

Novel Revision Character List 

  • Haley Cavanaugh – born 1988, 5’7”, brown eyes, honey-gold hair, single mother of one child, whose father left without a good-bye, working her way through college with part-time jobs; determined, resourceful, organized. Mistrusts relationships and is afraid of being hurt again.
  • James Burns – born 1979…

As you continue reading, make notes of anything that conflicts with that initial description.

For example:

  •  If a character is initially described as perky but later in the story you’ve written scenes that show him/her feeling depressed on any number of days, that might be inconsistent with what your readers have come to know about your character. This is something you will consider revising.
  •  If you state that your character is 37 years old but you have a 35th birthday party for the character, you will need to figure out how old your character really is and write it accordingly.
  •  Point of view is another element to watch out for – make sure that the character whose Point of View you are using is only relating information that they could know through their history, sight, perceptions or discussion with other characters, etc.

It’s all about keeping track of a character’s identity and ensuring its consistency throughout the manuscript. I once wrote a novel where the character names were so similar to each other (in my mind anyway) that I had attached certain dialogue to the wrong character. Having found the error during revision, I was able to correct it. If I hadn’t done so, I would have had some very confused readers.

Novel Revision – Timeline

novel revision timelineThe second list is a timeline of events that happen in your story. You want the timeline to be clear to the reader throughout the story. I keep track of the timeline as I write but I double-check it in revision.

As your story begins, make note of where/when it begins and keep an eye on it throughout the manuscript. Your Timeline notes might look like this:

Novel Revision Timeline: 

  • Chapter 1: July 1990 in Rum River, Minnesota
  • Chapter 2: First week of August1990
  • Chapter 3: Last week of August 1990

Problems that you might encounter with the timeline, other than the obvious one of having the month and year wrong, include mentioning something in dialogue or a character’s point of view that couldn’t have yet happened or that they couldn’t have known about.

For example:

  •  If in one chapter your character mentions that fun they had on a shopping trip, but the outing doesn’t occur until the following chapter, you have a scene to revise.
  •  If the time of year is August but your mention that the furnace ran all night long, either you have some revising to do or your character must have a reason for running the furnace.

Novel Revision – Plot Tracking

Tracking the plot of your story means reviewing the basic plot line, the subplot(s), motivations, events, etc. I’ve found that the best way to track plot is by using the outline. This is not the outline you prepared while writing the manuscript; this is the outline that you will prepare as you review your manuscript in search of revisions. Your Plot Tracking notes might look like this:

Novel Revision Plot Tracking: 

Chapter 1 – Incident at Glory Heights; Pearl attempts to meet Sonnie.

  • Pearl sends letter to sister Susan informing her of her intent to marry Sonnie.
  • Susan goes ballistic and immediately enlists help from her aide, Nick Ballantine.
  • Nick calls the Warden at Glory Heights to stop Pearl from seeing Sonnie.
  • Sonnie loses his job (where he sees Pearl daily); but quickly finds another as a janitor.

Novel Revision After the Second Draft

Once you’ve gone through the first draft of your manuscript making notes and charting timelines, you will see what needs to be revised and make those changes. But you’re not yet done revising. To have a novel that really shines, you must go through the manuscript again, reading it for the changes that you made, of course, but also ensuring that the novel’s pacing, transitions, clarity and style are still working. You may have many revisions before you are finished with your novel. You will continue to look for things like:

  • Are the promises made to the reader fulfilled?
  • Do the scenes move the story along with correct details?
  • Does the plot come to a satisfactory end?
  • Does the subplot(s) come to a satisfactory end?
  • Have I left any events, incidents, thoughts, unresolved?
  • Would a narrative be better written as a scene?
  • Should a scene be changed to a narrative?

You’ll rework scenes and exposition until you are satisfied that all the promises are filled, no events are left without resolution and the lead character has satisfactorily resolved his problem or attained his goal.

If you found this article on novel revision helpful, please let us know in the comments before, and by all means, please share it with your social media friends, and thank you!

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  19 Responses to “Simplify Novel Revision with These Best-in-Practice Methods”


    Time is also a very useful ingredient — time between drafts gives you more objectivity. And objectivity helps you see the flaws in your baby.

    Sometimes it’s just too easy to fall in love with a character, a bit of dialog, a scene that is useless, etc. A little time away from the manuscript can give you the perspective needed to address those flaws.



      Candy, you are right on with your comments about taking time between drafts – to walk away from it for a while to gain some perspective. Some writers will suggest several months, but I think that even if you walk away from it for a few weeks it helps to gain some perspective. I like to tell aspiring writers not to fall too much in love with their own writing, we have to be willing to take out what is now working in the novel. Thanks for commenting, Candy, and for sharing your great insights.



    Wow. This is UNBELIEVABLY helpful to me right now. I have just finished my second book and I have read it all the way through. Now I can use this checklist to help me even more. Thanks SO much!



      LK, so nice to hear from you again! I love it that this article is “right on time” for you. Must be fate. I think that this is another area of novel writing where writers like to have a roadmap for improving their novel. Many aspects of revision don’t automatically come to mind. Revision is so much more than checking for spelling and punctuation, and hopefully, this article introduces aspiring writers to things they can do to make their novel as “tight” as posible. You are so welcome, and I wish your great success with your second book!



    Great info, even for someone working on their third novel. In my last short story I’d made that mistake with the age, 24 vs 25. There are always little things we miss–can’t see the forest for the trees, sort of thing. Having a concise list to go through keeps me objective and less likely to miss stuff. Thanks for sharing yours. It looks pretty through. :)



    Enjoyed your article. I am a new writer that has been learning the art of showing a story in words which has been difficult for me as I am visual. Objectivity is very important. so much so that I took a year long break so that I could get other things accomplish. Now that I am back to revising and editing, I have found the time away has allowed me to better see the things I was skimming past before because I already knew the story so well. What a difference. Having said that I took a long break, I should mention that I have had to do some of the things you mentioned in your article. I have started a chapter by chapter plot and time line note taking to see how well the story flows… I hadn’t thought about the Characters themselves as descriptions in my notes but have seen some inconsistencies, so will add that as well. Thanks so much for the good advise.



    Great post and very useful as I am editing my second novel at the moment. There is a saying which might help those attached to their words;

    “There is no such thing as good writing, only good editing.”



    Your comments are right on. I am in the midst of revisions on my third novel right now, 3rd of a trilogy. (1st two: SKY WARRIORS; THE GENERAL; [available at AMZ and B&N] and the 3rd, Star Kids Mission. ) You have caught the major elements of the revision process that are so important. I find I go over a MSS many times, checking for continuity, dates, flow, confusions, (does the char know that? Does the reader already know that? Am I showing vs telling? etc) Though it is hard, I often remove up to 30% of material I’ve written. It is so important to not irritate the reader with the kind of errors you mention. We can easily forget that the reader is covering in a few hours what we have spent months (or yrs) creating, and is likely to maintain a continuity consciousness that far exceeds our own. As Kathy mentioned, forest for the trees. Thanks for sharing.



    This was so very helpul, thank you!

    Another annoying thing is that some writers forget to fully investigate the time their book is set in. It’s OK if it’s now but if someone is writing a story say 20 years back, the way the world was then needs to be authentic. Some time ago I read a book by a well known author where she had the heroine driving home listening to a song on the radio that had not even been written. Her story was set in the year 1967 and this song wasn’t around until the 1980′s. Minor I know and some people wouldn’t have even picked this up. But I did. All my books have been set in the past and I am meticulous with detail like that as I feel as well as all the issues you have raised above, this is just as important. Hope you agree!



    It’s not often that I print a blog to keep as a reference, but this is one of those times.

    I use a spreadsheet to keep track of each scene in my novel as I write it. When it comes time to revise it, I reference the spreadsheet. One of the columns contains clues that the main protagonist discovers. If I move a scene around, either earlier or later, this is an easy way for me to keep track of what the protagonist knows and when they know it. That way I avoid having them know something before they actually discover it. I’m going to add the time line to my process.

    Thanks for the comprehensive list above.



    What a great article to learn from. I saw myself in nearly all of the sampling of mistakes you gave throughout the writing of my first book to my fourth. Luckily, I have a no-nonsense reader (editor and story editor) who challenged me when I was too in love with my characters, too stuck in the plot that wasn’t the best flow for the story, or caught errors in scenes, such as having a family sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, but had the maid serve scrambled eggs. Of course, I had read and revised the manuscript several times, but my mind and eyes were in total agreement for having eggs served. In addition, I don’t know how often this happens, but I have actually published my work, and while reading the complimentary copy provided by the publisher, discovered several errors, pulled the book, made the revisions, then resubmitted a clean manuscript for the book. It was costly, but I slept better at night. I often tell first-time authors that in order to succeed, they must “love” to write.

    Again, thank you for such a teachable moment.



    Great post! “Mixed Messages” was published last month and now I’m in the middle of revising the second novel in my Malone mystery series. I’ll be using all of the tips you mentioned as I revise “Unfinished Business.” Although writing a series is a lot of fun, it also means more facts to keep straight!



    One of the best things I do is look for critiques before I get too far into the revision process. I’m a plotter so when my first draft is done, most of the story is there. What’s missing is usually description or emotional reaction. I go through scene by scene and identify the purpose, the conflict and what needs to be fixed.
    When I have the list, I go through and fix what needs it.
    Then I get a critique – from writers – on craft. My critiquers don’t much like the typos, but I need to know what the big things are before I worry about typos and grammar.
    Then when I’m satisfied, I go through the manuscript a couple of times perfecting everything. Occasionally I find I need to do a bit more than just polish.

    It seems daunting even for me, and I’ve done this with 5 novels (in progress with 2 more).
    The biggest tip I can give, is to put the manuscript aside and start on something else for a week or two. That’s how I get distance from the book quickly.



      Thanks for commenting PA and sharing those great writing and revision tips. I use readers to help me fine tune the manuscript, but this is after I’ve done several revisions. I correct spelling and grammar after the first draft (and I try not to bother with it during the first draft) and then I begin the long revision process that I outlined in the article. It is daunting. It’s also hard work. Many aspiring writers don’t realize how much work there is to do after they’ve written that first draft; but, truly, that is when the real work begins. But, anyone who has a love of writing puts their butt on chair (BOC) and gets it done.



    Wonderful, detailed article, which I have passed on to others. I am now revising my memoir, and that is as much work as revising fiction–but of a different sort. I’ve had two novels published and am impressed by your excellent approach to revising.



    I tended to follow your recommendations in developing my only novel. I made multiple mini revisions, some of which were based on feedback from friends who had read some excerpts. One point of potential confusion I intentionally avoided was dates and ages. The closest I came to a timeline was to imply a particular season of the year. Aside from specifying ages of minor children, I implied the ages of my characters based on their activities, attitudes, and relationships.



    Good article. I’m sure I will want to come back to it a few times when I revise my novel.



      Thanks, Robin, do stop by often. You could also sign up for the Writania Newsletter to get the latest and greatest artcles from Writania each week. Good luck revising your novel!



    Thank you so much for this list. Every time I revise, I try to find a new “method” or plan of attack, in the hope that someday, it’ll all seem natural and easy.

    Sadly, I think I’m starting to come to the conclusion that revising a novel will never be easy. But at least I have a plethora of techniques to try.


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