Revision Toolbox- Revision Checklist

The Muses had the great pleasure of giving a panel on revision tools at the Northern California Central SCBWI Spring Spirit Conference over the weekend.  I presented my revision checklist, which continues to evolve as a method of revising.  This process is not set in stone, and I have been known to change the order of things, combine steps or throw in some new ideas. 

This post originally aired on December 10, 2010, but I've revised it somewhat to include some additional thoughts on each of the steps.

   1.The Outline:  I don’t always use an outline when writing the first draft, but I always do one immediately after the first draft is written.  Instead of reading through the entire first draft, I do a skim-through, creating a separate document that will become my map for big picture plotting revisions.  I create a table, with a row for each scene, a column describing (in 1-2 short sentences) the major plot points in the chapter, and a column for notes of things that I already know are problematic from a plot standpoint, such as missing scenes or details that need to be included in order for later scenes to make sense.

Chapter 1
Short description of action/scenes in chapter in 2-3 short sentences
Notes for revisions
Chapter 2
Short description of action/scenes in chapter in 2-3 short sentences
Notes for revisions

2.            2.  The Big Picture Plotting Revision:  Now that the outline is done, I read through the scene descriptions in order, to see how the story flows from a plotting standpoint.  Does the story build to a climax?  Are the major plot points resolved?  What about subplots?  Do they carry through the entire novel?  Do major characters disappear for long stretches?  Are there chapters or scenes that aren’t moving the story forward?  The outline takes up less than two pages and it’s much less intimidating than a 300 page book.  I’m also a visual learner, and the outline really helps me visualize the plot trajectory of the book.  At this stage I look for scenes that need to be cut or rewritten, and also look for scenes that are missing or need to be added.  I then add rows for new chapters or scenes and describe them in bold, so I know I still need to write them.  I cut scenes that aren’t working with strike throughs and add new suggested scenes within the outline, until I have a plot that I’m happy with.  This is all done is broad strokes, within the two page outline, and saves me having to actually cut or revise scenes until I’m satisfied with the big picture.  There is no point revising every line of a scene that isn't going to be in the final book.
I also look at where the plot is at the 1/4, 1/2 and 3/4 of the way points, to see if I am hitting turning points and act climaxes.  At the 1/4 point, I should be through the first act, and the character should embark on the journey that will take them to the climactic scenes at the end.  At 1/2, the main character should have an emotional turning point of some kind, or make a discovery that is unexpected.  At 3/4, the character faces the darkest hour, and must regroup for the climactic scenes in the last 1/4 of the book.  These are rough points that don't necessarily have to hit exactly, but they should be close. 

At this stage, I may also create a separate chart for each major character, which includes only the scenes those characters appear in.  This helps me evaluate the relationship arc with the main character, and know if I have a good balance of scenes based on the character's role in the story.  For example, I want the main love interest to have more scenes than the secondary love interest or a more minor character, and the relationship arc should move forward, with some setbacks along the way, as opposed to repeating the same kinds of scenes over and over.

3.              3.  Plot Revision-Back to the Manuscript:  Now that I’ve decided what needs to happen with the plot, I go back into the manuscript and make the revisions I’ve noted in the outline.  I add scenes in the places noted , and take out any scenes slated for cutting.  It's not as painful to cut, when you have a clear path for your plot already laid out.

4.             4.   Pacing/Conflict Revision:  Now that I’ve done a big picture plotting revision and gotten the plot/scenes that I want in the book, I scale back to a scene by scene revision for conflict and pacing.  I’ve described the process as revising for suspense here.   I use the outline again, but this time, I create a new column next to each chapter where I identify the conflicts for each scene.  Now I revise the chapter with those conflicts in mind and make sure that there are some setbacks and tension builds in each individual scene. 
      A great way to increase pacing is to start the scene later or end it earlier.  Look for long speeches or long descriptive paragraphs, and see if you can shorten them. 

5.              5.  Setting Revision:  Now that the scenes are working from an overall plot and tension standpoint I go through the entire book to add sensory details in each scene.  My rough drafts are usually dialogue heavy and sparse on descriptions.  If you write a lot of descriptive passages, you might want to take out some setting details. Focus on two or three details that are important to the scene, character or plot.  Let the reader fill in the rest. This is a great time to look for ways to use setting to emphasize themes or add tension to the scene, but using images that mirror or contrast the emotions and conflict in the scene.

6.             6.   What the MC is thinking Revision:  I write in first person, but that doesn’t mean that the reader knows what the main character is thinking in every scene.  I go through each scene and look for ways to give clues to the main character’s reaction, whether it’s through emotions, actions or physical reactions.  A little telling is sometimes beneficial here, if used sparingly.  This is one of the last revisions I do, and I always love the book so much more after this one.  It will add depth to the characters and story.

7.                7.  Line edits:  Now we’re getting into minutia.  I try to do line edits as I go through each scene in the prior revisions, but now is the time to use the find function on your word processor to look for overused words and descriptions, eliminate passive voice (not all-just what doesn’t need to be there) and cut back on gratuitous adverbs and adjectives.  This a great time to think about first lines, dialogue and dialogue tags.  This also the place for the big read through.  I read the entire manuscript through from beginning to end, on paper, making edits with a pencil.  Reading aloud is a great way to catch awkward phrasing or unnatural sounding dialogue.

8.             8.   Send to trusted readers:  This part of the process can’t be skipped.  A reader who you trust to be honest and give constructive feedback is priceless.  This could be a critique partner, an agent, a family member or friend.  I rely on other writers (hi Muses) because I know I will get more than a vague I liked or didn’t like something, and they will point out plot holes, pacing and voice issues that I am too close to see (or have been avoiding).  Some writers only want the criticism; they want to know what needs to be fixed.  I need readers who will point out what is working as well.  And I know I can trust my readers to encourage me as well as help me improve the story.  Listen to the feedback, but keep it in perspective.  You can't please everyone all the time.  Trust your gut and your vision, but accept what rings true.

9.              9.  Repeat:   With valuable feedback in hand, the process starts again.  The only exception is that I think it’s important to have a new set of trusted readers when you get back to step 8.  This is especially true if you had plotting or pacing issues the first time around.  You need fresh eyes who won’t be influenced by what they’ve read before.

That’s my process.  Of course it’s all subject to revision.


Thanks for posting this!

I got so much out of your presentation on Saturday. My only problem was that I wasn't able to take notes as fast as I would have liked!

I really appreciate seeing this all laid out. And thanks again for Saturday. I'm now seeing the revision process in a whole new light.

This is why I love the Muses--not just tips, but in-depth tips and information. Thanks so much!

Thank you so much for posting this (and Katherine's and Donna's below). I attended your panel at the Spring Spirit conference and found it VERY helpful, being in the middle of a big revision. We all have to find our own strategies, but trying what works for others (especially when it's so well articulated and communicated) can give us that many more tools to discover and address the weaker parts of our mss.!

I absolutely love all the posts you and the other Muses have done about editing revision. It's like seeing the process of the book through the eyes of a literary genius, because I wasn't bored at all! Even though revisions can be very tedious and stressful, it means a world of difference to the story. I especially liked how you mentioned to read aloud during line edits. I did that constantly with academic papers and it is one of the easiest things to do.

Every post you write gets me more and more excited to read Silver... because if you can make revisions about writing a book interesting, I'm sure I'll be blown away when I read Silver!

Thanks for sharing your checklist!

I am really impressed By presentation.
I really appreciate seeing this. And thanks again for posting. I'm now seeing the revision process in a whole new light.
Essay Editing Checklist

Thanks so much for sharing this! I'm printing it out for future reference.

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