So you’ve finished your draft. Congratulations! Now take a deep breath—here’s where the fun begins.
Before you send your story out into the world, make sure it’s as polished as it can be. To help you, various authors from different genres have shared their insight and wisdom gained over the years. Read below to learn what not to do during revisions, as well as what you absolutely should do, and you may even come across a few tips you never thought to consider.
Fifteen Tips to Help You Revise
1. Read your work aloud.
“You may sound full of yourself, but this is the best way to listen for rhythm—or lack of it, to zone in on klutzy spots and to hear words you may overuse: all, always, just, so, usually, very, perhaps, really… If you repeat words, be intentional about it.” – Sally Koslow
2. Keep a running list of words you overuse.
“When you’ve finished a chapter or draft, use your writing program’s find/replace feature to see what you can cut or change. Make it a head game. Who needs Candy Crush?” – Sally Koslow
3. Your computer is your friend (thank you, search engines and spell-check) but only up to a point.
“Don’t reread your work exclusively on a screen—it will look too finished. Print it out, more than once. The longer you work on something, the greater the fatigue-factor. It’s normal to get sick of your writing after a while. Every time you print, switch fonts to trick your eyes into seeing your work in a fresh way.” – Sally Koslow
4. Editing? Cut the parts you find yourself skipping.
“When I’m finished writing something, and it doesn’t matter what it is, a chapter in a book, a new essay, a blog post, whatever… I like reading and re-reading it, often times, reading out loud. And almost always the same thing happens. I find myself skipping over parts because I’m a.) way too excited to get to the next paragraph or b.) find that I’m tired of that particular section. Usually, that means it’s time to make some cuts. If you can’t even get excited about a bit of writing you’re working on, if you’re tired of that passage already… there’s a solid chance your reader will be too. You should be excited about everything you’re hammering down on the page. Leave no room for skipping. Unless, of course, it’s a victory skip in your backyard. Then, by all means, go forth and frolic. You earned it.” – Eric Smith
5. Save your darlings.
“I say this a lot, but when you’re busy editing and cutting, whether you’re making cuts on your own, with your peers, with your editor… save those darlings. Avoid that “kill your darlings” cliché, and open up a Word .doc, and stash those little gems off to the side. Look, you might never use them. They might be the bits you cut out because they were boring you. Those couple of pages you sliced out of that manuscript, you probably cut them out for a good reason. Your agent, your editor, your writer friends… they’re a smart bunch, otherwise you wouldn’t be working with them, right? But down the line, when you’re working on a new story or idea, click on over. See what’s in the scraps. You might find something that sparks an idea, which you might have otherwise deleted. And if not, whatever. How much space does a Word document take up? Like, a gig? Maybe? Who cares how many gigs? You have lots of gigs.” – Eric Smith
6. Worry about sentences first and last.
“Some things make good sentences in your voice and style; others don’t. I have a lot of great ideas that I will never write because I can’t make them conform to the sentences that I write best. There’s a story that takes place entirely inside computer hard drives that I would absolutely love to tell, but that sort of abstract, high-concept setting just doesn’t work in the simple, declarative sentences I do best. (Believe me, I’ve tried.) Once you’ve found a way to write your story in your best sentences, trust that: in my experience, if you attend to the sentences, the macro-level issues (structure, character, tone) will attend to themselves. If a section isn’t working for what you suspect are macro reasons, fix the sentences until that section works.” – Mike Meginnis
7. Send it out.
“This one applies to all kinds of fiction. Get yourself a few beta readers who are familiar with the subgenres that you’re writing. Have them check your story for things like world-building consistency, overuse of tropes, and suspension of disbelief, in addition to the usual building blocks of fiction. Use their comments for judicious editing, and then submit your story.” – S.B. Divya
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8. Try to work with people you trust and then trust them.
“Getting feedback on your work, whether from friends, agents or editors, is incredibly frightening but it’s essential. The only way to get over that fear and that doubt is to work with people you trust. Getting criticism from someone you trust doesn’t make it easier to take but it does make it easier to accept. Once you’ve accepted it, you can use that criticism to make your work better.” – Trevor Shane
9. How to Recognize Helpful Feedback.
“How do you know when to take the feedback from your writing instructor, editor, or spouse to heart? What about the oodles of (often contradictory) feedback from a writing workshop? I’ve found that I need to pay heed if the feedback does one of two things: if it makes my heart sink because, yeah, I already knew that was a problem and was hoping I was wrong; or if it punches me with its truth, making me wonder, “Of course! How did I miss that?” Once in a while I’ll mull over other feedback, but mostly I let the rest go.” – Jessamyn Hope
10. Critique groups are irreplaceable.
“No one else knows what you’re going through in quite the same way, and without them, our writing can become pretentious, or worse yet, stagnant. They yank us off our high horses, and expect us to do the same for them, as well as forcing us to go one step further to make the words do things we never knew they could. And sometimes, if we’re really lucky, these people become our friends, too.” – Lisa Lawmaster Hess
11. Never submit anything without sleeping on it.
“Unless you will miss a deadline, always let your final draft simmer overnight. It’s easy to become enamored of the words we have placed so lovingly on the page—so much so that little details like punctuation and dropped words slip right by us. Both a clear head and a sharp eye are necessary for complete editing, and those tools rarely appear in the afterglow of a writing triumph.” – Lisa Lawmaster Hess
12. If you see a problem, a gap, or a leap in logic, everyone else will too.
“There are no magic tricks in writing. Stubbornness never wins.” – Jane Borden
13. Read outside your comfort zone.
“There’s a joke in the writing world that genre writers are great at plot and not characterization and that literary writers are great at characterization but not plot. We’ve clung to our battle stations over the years championing one or the other, but I never understood why they had to be mutually exclusive. If there’s something about writing in which you struggle—characterization, scene, dialogue, plot—sometimes you need to go out of your comfort zone to see what others are doing. You may find answers in the most unlikely places.” – Jen Michalski
14. Don’t judge yourself.
“One minute, we think that our novel-in-progress is a bestseller and that it’s only a matter of time before our greatness is recognized by the world. The next hour, of course, we spend berating ourselves—how pedestrian our writing is, how clichéd, the story we have to tell non-compelling. It’s easy to get caught up in these thoughts, and they’re damaging because we either 1) become overconfident and don’t give our work the critical, honest assessment it needs or 2) we second guess everything we write, removing ourselves from our own voice, not trusting our instincts. They’re also damaging because the time we spend in our heads with our internal critic or cheerleader is time spent not writing.” – Jen Michalski
15. Revise again.
“Know that even after you have revised, it’s probably still not done. Be kind and ruthless at the same time. Hear in your head a children’s book you read to your kids about a bear hunt: can’t go over, it can’t go under it, have to go through it. Recite this to yourself when you want to flee. Gird yourself as if for battle. Go back in, find those scenes where you fled before it got messy. Think of the earlier drafts as layers of dead skin. Peel them back, press in closer to the truth, until you can feel its warm beating heart.” – Tova Mirvis
Now it’s time to apply these tips to your own revision process, but remember—always do what works for you. You know your writing best. Happy editing!
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