How to Revise a Manuscript in Three Steps

Definition of REVISE from Merriam-Webster online:

Transitive verb

  1.  a :  to look over again in order to correct or improve <revise a manuscript>

     b British :  to study again : review

  1. a :  to make a new, amended, improved, or up-to-date version of <revise a dictionary>


There are as many approaches to revision as there are writers with manuscripts to revise, but the goal is universal: to review a draft with the goal of making it stronger, tighter, and clean. The approach below is a task oriented system of reviewing a manuscript to achieve that goal. It requires three steps: Revise, Edit, Polish.

Why three steps? Can’t you revise in one intense, comprehensive manuscript review?

Of course you can, if that works for you and if you are able to juggle multiple mental tasks at the same time. There is no one correct way to revise.

However, measuring a manuscript’s story power, language use, and effectiveness while simultaneously checking for grammar and correcting typos can be overtaxing. And overwhelming. If you are trying to evaluate too many things at once, it’s easy to become frustrated and to miss problems. You can get mired in the same spot of your manuscript.  By the time you move on to the next section, you’ve forgotten the details of what you’ve read before.

What’s the quote about doing one thing well, or a lot of things halfway?

Doing multiple intense passes on your manuscript will require time and focus. This is not a quick-fix approach. You will need to draw upon patience and dedication, but your manuscript is worth it, right?

Revise, Edit, Polish

The following approach employs three steps: Revise, Edit, Polish. If you like acronyms, you can call it the REP system.  Ideally, you have a completed draft that needs to be reviewed. To get it into shape for submission or publication, you will read and rework it three times, from beginning to end.

Today’s post will discuss Step #1: REVISE

The first pass is to examine the manuscript as a story. Some writers call this a global review. Others call it reading like a reader. The point of this first pass is, foremost, to make sure the story works. You will read with the goal of finding weaknesses and/or omissions, and make notes on how to repair them.

For the Revision pass, you’ll need to view it as your Internal Storyteller and read without stopping to edit. Turning off your Internal Editor may be difficult, but  it is temporary. You can indulge the itch to delete, fix, correct, in Step 2. Your Editor is waiting in the wings, but this is your Storyteller’s crack at the manuscript.

 How to do a Revision pass:

A Revision pass will take on the big picture questions:

~ Does the MS have all the necessary parts to insure the plot makes sense?

~ Is there conflict-climax-resolution?

~ Do characters act consistently?

~ Is every scene grounded in a specific place?

~ Does the reader have all necessary background info on place, character, events?

~ Does the plot move forward in a logical way?

~ Do all subplots and secondary storylines support the primary plot?

~ Does every scene have a purpose pertinent to the plot?

~ Does the story make sense?

~ Is the story saying something?

Reviewing for the big picture items means you ignore smaller issues (typos) and mechanics (grammar and style.) Every time you stop to correct a typo or rewrite a sentence, you pull yourself out of the story. Your focus moves out of the world you have created back into the real world. So, ignore the writing. Those typos won’t dissolve on their own. Those sentences will still be poorly constructed or dull tomorrow. That’s the next task. You may have to grit your teeth and sit on your hands at first but, with practice, turning off the Internal Editor is a useful skill.

To Revise, stay in the world of your story. Pretend you are hearing the story and can’t see the errors. Be a Storyteller.

For the Revision pass,  first I recommend you read through without making any changes to the manuscript. You can do this on a screen or paper. Keep a notebook or document and record concerns as you go along; use Track Changes to record your questions/concerns in comment bubbles; color highlight parts that clearly need to be reworked.

Read through from beginning to end, noting what you need to note as you go along. Don’t stop to make changes. Read it as a story.

Some questions will be small scale: Do I clear up why she asks about the motel receipt (page 4)? Do I explain how he got this fear of heights (chapter 11)?

Some will be bigger: Is what happened to her when she was 7 traumatic enough to affect her adult decisions? Does his abruptness to his sister make him look like a jerk? Do I need to explain the history of the mill? Does my killer have a valid revenge motivation? Is this detective incompetent because I’ve developed him as hostile and close-minded, or is he bumbling around foolishly because I need to give my amateur sleuth time to sneak around? Are clues glaringly obvious?

Some will be about structure: Is the inciting incident big enough to set up the climax? Is there a constant increase of tension? Does my plot flat line in Act 2? Is the plot too linear? Does this need some umph or humor or a second focus? Do all events happen in a sensible order, or are my scenes bouncing around in time?

After a read-only pass with notes and highlights, go back and make the necessary changes. That question about the motel receipt on page 6? Maybe you resolved it after all on page 229. Your character’s surprising ability to use a welding torch reads like a Hail Mary skill because, oops, you forgot to show earlier that he worked repairing hulls when he was in the Navy.

This making changes part is hefty work. Your Revision read-through may take a couple of days. Your Revision work may take weeks. Nobody said it was fast or easy.

As an independent editor, I read dozens of manuscripts a year. I depend on that first story-only read to let me see what the author is trying to achieve, and how well he/she achieves it. As an editor, I read once for story, viewing it from the Storyteller’s perspective. I focus on the story and only the story. I make notes as I describe above. After that, i go into the manuscript and make revision notes. With my own writing, I use this same process.

To reiterate, Step 1 – Revise is the Storyteller’s turn at the story. Immersing yourself in the story and the story world – without the distraction of technique or technical errors – will help you to see the full landscape of the tale you’ve written. Was it enjoyable to read? Did you get bored? Did it meander? Did it end too quickly? Did it end twice? Did the beginning and the end mirror, contradict, or have nothing to do with one another?

After you’ve read through, made notes, and gone back in to revise, your manuscript is ready for review on the next level: Editing. The Editing pass reviews the manuscript for language—how it is written. That means grammar, style, syntax, and finally, typos. Your Internal Editor will get to come out and do his/her happy dance.

Tune in tomorrow for Step #2  – Editing.

9 thoughts on “How to Revise a Manuscript in Three Steps

  1. E. B. Davis says:

    Like–it’s really easy! I’ve read my manuscript so many times. All it takes is one good beta reader who will turn off steps two and three and give you their “take” on it. That’s worth so much. I think the writer is so entrenched–really hard to see–what others see. I can do such a better job on someone else’s work than on my own. Ahhhh-Thanks Ramona.


    • Ramona DeFelice Long says:

      Actually, Elaine, I think a writer should do all three of these steps – Revise, Edit, Polish -on their own before sending to a beta reader or editor. There is definitely a point where you’ve read it so many times, you can’t see it anymore. This is why I’m suggesting you read it with a specific purpose each time.

      Fresh eyes are going to see things your fatigued mind can’t focus on anymore, absolutely. First you have to get to a point where your manuscript is ready for those second eyes.


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