Posted in editing, manuscript revision, Not Tell, Point of View

How to Revise a Manuscript in Three Steps, Part 2

Definition of EDIT from Merriam-Webster  online

Transitive verb

  1.  to prepare (something written) to be published or used : to make changes, correct mistakes, etc., in (something written)
  2.  to prepare (a film, recording, photo, etc.) to be seen or heard : to change, move, or remove parts of (a film, recording, photo, etc.)
  3. to be in charge of the publication of (something)

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgStep 2 – Edit

Once you go through Step 1 – Revise and feel confident your manuscript’s story elements (plot, conflict, characters, etc.) are in place, the next step is to make a pass focusing on technique and style. The Internal Editor you tied to a chair in Step 1 gets to have his day.

If Step 1 – Revise focused on the big picture of the story, the middle step of Revise-Edit-Polish will examine how the story is delivered to the reader: the writing.  By “the writing” I refer to elements that run from artistic choices to basic mechanics:

Style and Voice–the author’s distinct use of words and her selected manner of expression for this story;

Diction and Syntax–the choice of words and how they are arranged in phrases and sentences;

Grammar and Punctuation – the set of rules that explain how words are used in language and the marks used to regulate text;

Errors and Other Considerations – typos, missing words, padding, and other boo-boos.

Editing goes beyond catching typos. A manuscript may contain a series of grammatically correct sentences, but if the sentence structure is the same every time, the MS will be repetitive; if the word choices are unimaginative, the MS will be dull; if the voice is indistinct, the MS will unremarkable; if the words contain no action, the MS will be aimless; if the style is affected, the MS will sound false; if scenes are told instead of shown, the MS will be distant.

You may think of this step as examining the sound of your story—what your words say and how they will sound to a reader.

Separating Style and Technique

Editing the manuscript at this level means you will examine it paragraph by paragraph and then sentence by sentence, for style (the author’s artistic choices) and technique (the mechanics of grammar).

Style asks, Is this sentence pleasing to the literary ear? Does it work best in this spot? Are word choices strong?

Technique asks, Is this sentence grammatically correct? Is it efficient? Is it necessary or redundant?

Every sentence in your manuscript should serve a purpose: to advance the plot, reveal vital information about a character, describe the setting, inform about an important past event, ask a narrative question, introduce a thematic concept. Every single sentence needs to have a function. If a sentence does not do a particular job—meaning, if the scene will fall apart or be less effective without it—that sentence should be cut.

How those sentences are arranged and delivered will create the sound of your story. You want a manuscript that will be pleasing to the literary ear, and entertaining, and technically sound. You can do this by writing a series of strong sentences that perform a particular function to advance the plot.

Editorial Considerations

 Many writing guides have been devoted to self-editing, so distilling a guide into a blog post means hitting the basics. Not all writers are strong grammarians. Not every writer is gifted with a unique literary voice. For an overview such as this one, some self-examination is necessary. Do you recognize good grammar? Can you be brutal and cut out what is not necessary in the narrative?

The first step in good editing is to distance yourself from your writer’s ego. In Step 1 – Revise, you had to fight off the Internal Editor. Here, in Step 2- Edit, you have to push away your Writer’s Pride, pull back, and examine your words with as little bias as possible. Editing is as much mental as it is task-oriented.

Editorial Tasks

 I’m going to focus on what I often see as common editorial problems in manuscripts. These may not be your particular issues, but these are the repeat offenders for me. Check your manuscript for the following:

~ Cutting: Some writers write long, some writers write short, and a few lucky ones write just right. If you write long, you’ll need to trim the bloated parts; if you write short, you’ll need to take care you don’t pad to hit your targeted word count. As written in bold above, if a sentence doesn’t do a job, it should be cut. Bigger than that, however, is when a section or a scene doesn’t perform a vital job in the story. Vital means that the story (plot advancement, character development, background) will fall apart without it. Cutting out the extraneous should have been handled in Revision, but Editing should reaffirm that every sentence in the story is there for a reason. A good reason.

~ Repetition, Overwriting, Over-explaining: Do your pages contain sections like this:

“She entered the basement. It was pitch dark. The dank room was as black as night. She couldn’t see her hand in front of her face. She felt along the clammy wall for the light switch.”

 ^^Here, the writer tells us three times that the room is dark. By the time I get to the hand, I’m ready to yell “I get it!” at the author.

“The door was locked. She needed the key to open it. She scrabbled in the drawer for the key and used it to open the door.”

^^Readers know how a key works. “The door was locked. She scrabbled in the drawer for the key” does the job.

Mickey cursed and charged at Evan. Evan, half a head shorter, realized his best chance was to call in his old wrestling skills.  He crouched and head-butted Mickey in the stomach. Mickey oofed and stepped back. Knowing his upper hand was temporary, Evan crouched again and took Mickey down at the knees, and then used his left arm to bend back Mickey’s right arm….”

^^Is this the most boring takedown ever? In a fight, there is no time to explain (realized, knew, used his arm). In an action scene, stick to the action.

Writers repeat, overwrite, and over-explain for two reasons: They don’t trust themselves, or they don’t trust the reader.  If you have written a good strong sentence with a clear purpose, relax. The reader will get it.

~ Weak Word Choices: Run, look, hurry, walk, turned….these are useful verbs, but for each, a stronger choice can paint a clearer picture for the reader. If you change walk to amble, the impression changes. If you change amble to strode, it changes again. A look is not the same as a glance which is not the same as a stare which is not the same as a stare. Don’t play it safe and stick to the same-old, same-old in word choices, but take care when playing around with the thesaurus.

~ Distinct Dialogue: A person’s speech reveals a great deal about their economic, social, and educational background—plus their self-image. What do your characters spoken lines show about them? Do your characters sound the same, or do they show their distinctions in speech?

~ Balance: Exposition, action, dialogue—these are three types of writing to be balanced in the manuscript. Some things need to be explained. Action scenes need to move the plot. Dialogue is necessary for intimacy. However–too much exposition may make the narrative ponderous. Too much action may leave the reader gasping for subtext. An overload of dialogue can make the setting disappear. Read for balance and give the reader a break by shifting from one type to another. If you find page after page of long paragraphs, add dialogue, and vice versa. A reader will appreciate variety.

~ POV Slips: No matter the editorial choice of 1st Person, 3rd Person, close or omniscient, a manuscript works best when delivered via one Point of View at a time. A character can only report what he sees, feels, and knows. He can interpret or guess at what other characters see, feel, and know, but a slip occurs when he reports from someone else’s head. In Editing, put yourself in the character’s head. If you can’t see it, feel it, or think it, the character can’t report it. Check your narrator’s words to be sure she is only thinking what she is thinking, feeling what she is feeling, seeing what she can see.

~ Show, Not Tell: Are your scenes live—action that is happening in the now of a story? Telling is appropriate in circumstances of the story, but if you choose to tell, make it a choice. Telling about a location or past event, or any type of background pauses the forward motion of the plot and makes it stay into neutral for a while. That may need to happen, but know that you are pulling the reader out of the now of the story. Don’t linger so long in telling that the story stalls.


The following are a mixed bag to consider while you read through your manuscript sentence by sentence:

Is this sentence grammatically correct?

If not, is that a style choice?

Does the construction of this sentence match the author’s style?

Are sentences constructed in various ways?

Is the voice of the sentence active or passive?

Am I using dialogue tags effectively?

If I’m using a semi-colon, is each side an independent clause?

Am I using an ellipsis to show a line fading out, and a dash for an interruption?

Is it clear what I am trying to say?

Is this sentence giving unique information, and not redundant?

If I open a scene with dialogue, do I immediately thereafter ground the setting?

Do my scenes open in a variety of ways?

Do my scenes close time after time with the same punchy type of line?

Are my verbs sharp and distinct?

Do I hold back from using too many adverbs?

Do I show emotion through action (clenched fists) rather than clichés (her heart pounded in rage)?

Do I avoid clichés in general?

Do I use similes sparingly?

Do I disrupt character’s dialogue with non-productive actions?

Do I stick with said in dialogue tags?

Do my characters take deep breaths, roll their eyes, and ears perk up, while their hearts beat faster, their pulses race, and their eyes water?

Do my characters speak or make speeches?


Overwhelmed? If so, let me simplify the Step 2 –Edit step.

Read through your manuscript, sentence by sentence and ask:

  1. Is this sentence grammatically correct?
  2. Does this sentence perform a specific function, in this spot, for the story?
  3. Does it advance the plot?
  4. If read aloud, is it pleasing to the ear?

If yes, move on to the next sentence. And the next. And the next. That’s what editing is, evaluating sentence by sentence.

Tomorrow, Step 3 – Polish.

Posted in editing, manuscript revision, novel writing, story structure, story world, writing advice

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.