Rules of Revision
There are at least two levels of revision. I will refer to them in this discussion
as macro and micro, but they could also be referred to as storytelling versus writing
or big concept versus script, anything that makes sense to you. I know that in
reality, micro writing effects macro writing and that it is sometimes impossible to
distinguish between the two, nonetheless, I am going to try.
Most writers spend far too much time on the micro writing level of their
manuscripts and far too little on the macro level, but there are plenty of exceptions
to this rule. If you find yourself being tempted to edit that chapter "just one last
time" before you send it in to anyone, you are probably a natural micro editor. If
people tell you that your writing is "very clean," then you are a natural micro editor.
If, on the other hand, people tell you that your ideas are great, but they can't
understand what is going on, you are most likely a natural macro editor. If you
write quickly, without outlining or planning things out in your head, you will
probably need help with macro editing and micro editing.
I am a natural micro editor. I write first drafts very quickly, but after all my
years in academia, my writing tends to be fluid and easy to read. (Not to say there
aren't some embarrassing exceptions to this.) I try not to focus too much on
making my prose perfect, checking for punctuation and agreement, for example,
until I am in the copyediting portion of the process. Hopefully, this doesn't drive
my editors crazy. The problem for me is that if I start focusing on that micro
editing process too soon, then I lose sight of the bigger picture, and that is a
dangerous thing. I also become too attached to my words on a sentence by
sentence level, and that makes it almost impossible for me to scythe through them
with the viciousness that is sometimes necessary when it comes to the macro
editing stage. Those of you who outline may do all of your editing there without
actually writing scenes.
Macro Rules of Revision
1. Does your main character have a want or a need clearly defined from the first
chapter? This need or want generally leads to the further action of the story, but it
doesn't necessarily. A character can want to get a date with someone and end up
on all sorts of adventures, but that need or want remains the same throughout,
driving the character's actions.
2. Is your main character sympathetic? See next month's column on how to write a
sympathetic main character, but in general, you want someone who is good or
misused in some way, so that the audience will read on. Think about newspaper
headlines. It may feel mechanical at first, and it is fairly simple. It will get
complicated as the novel goes on.
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3. Do people have reasonable (not stupid) reactions to events so that the plot
moves forward in a way that makes sense rather than a way that works for your
outline? Even though I do not outline my books--on purpose to avoid this--I still
occasionally struggle with my characters acting like stick figures because it will
make the plot come out nicely. I am often absolutely wrong about this, and it turns
out that the secret I wanted kept is actually better revealed to the audience and the
characters, and then watch the consequences of it playing out.
4. Is the time frame reasonable? Do things happen too quickly, so that there is not
enough time for characters to learn and grow? Do things happen too slowly, so
that the events do not feel as urgent as they should? You are in charge of the time
frame. You can change chapters around as necessary to compress time frame.
5. What are the rules of your world? If you have a fantasy, you should be able to
explain them in a few sentences. Absolute power must have deterrents. I would
recommend more limits rather than fewer, simply for the ease of writing characters
who make sense to the average human. That is, we are not all-powerful. We come
up against limits all the time. Rules of the world also exist for realistic fiction.
6. How many viewpoint characters do you have? Are each one of them absolutely
necessary? I would cut back to as few as possible to tell the story outlined, and
make sure that each has some balance of the story to tell, not just appearing at the
end, for example.
7. Are you telling your story in the proper person? Generally, I am choosing
between third person and first person. First person can feel too intimate at times,
but third person needs to convey emotions. Sometimes I switch back and forth
with a chapter, just to see which is working better, or to borrow some of the effect
from the other.
8. How big is your cast? I cannot tell you how many times I have had an editor ask
me to cut out or combine a character with another one. As writers we become
attached to all of our characters, but our readers have not been working on the
book for eight years. They have limited capacity to attach, so use it well.
9. Do you have conflict between your characters? I know that there are frequently
quest stories where people band together to find a magical artifact that will save the
world. But if the characters are always happy with each other, this makes for a
very boring read. There need to be smaller conflicts as well as the large conflict
that will set up the climax. Simple tension between characters can add this.
10. Are your characters three dimensional people? I am not talking about writing a
complete history of every character. I know some writers have little charts for
doing this kind of thing. The danger in filling those out is that I think you may have
a tendency to write the story around a chance to make sure every detail about a
character is revealed, since you have gone to such pains to figure them out. But
you do want a few details about their past, a few details about who they might be
outside of the story action.
11. Is the ending a satisfying one? One of my problems is ending too suddenly,
and allowing the climactic moment to feel too easy. If they could have done that
from the first, why didn't they just do it early on and save us all this trouble?
Equally problematic is an ending that isn't an ending at all, but just a teaser for the
next book. You know what I mean. There is a line between a book cut into three
parts and a true trilogy. Please write books that have an ending. Your readers will
12. Does something heroic happen? If you have ordinary characters, you must still
force them to do extraordinary things. The audience is reading to get adventure
vicariously, and even in realistic fiction, readers want the characters to do
something heroic by the end of the book, something they didn't know they could
do, or something they wanted not to have to do. I am not saying you have to write
comic book super heroes, but people who step up for even just one moment to do
something that changes their part of the world.
Micro Rules of Revision
1. Cut anything that you've already said before once. Readers do not need to be
hit over the head with things. I know, I know. There are a lot of writers who do
this, and it makes for an easier read because you can skip every second paragraph,
since the writer will only tell you again. But my standards of good writing decry
2. Make sure everything you say is absolutely clear. Sometimes we get this idea as
writers that if we take a long time to say something, use lots of metaphors, and have
characters talk about it, it is clear. Not true. Clear is simple. It is also not
confused later on by second or third revisions of the text that mix things up. If
your characters are confused, make it clear that this is so. Also make it clear when
they are no longer confused.
3. He said/she said. "Said" is a great word because it's invisible. Use it as much
as possible in dialog.
4. Tell details that are interesting and unique. One little detail is sometimes all that is
necessary. Anything that is not interesting and unique as a detail should be cut out,
or changed for one that is unique.
5. Cut out all the boring parts. If you as the writer are tempted to glaze over a
section, this is a big warning sign.
6. Write in English. Especially a temptation in genre writing, but it bleeds into other
writing, as well. Psychological explanations that go into jargon--don't do it.
Courtroom jargon--cut. You are not writing an article in a magazine for experts.
You are writing for the layperson.
7. Watch for dangling participles and noun/verb agreement. There are phrases in
English that work colloquially in speech that don't work in a novel. You sometimes
have to write around them. Someone doesn't want their coat, for example. Yuck.
8. Check for repetitions. Repetitious sentence structure and word choice are
examples of this.
9. Read aloud. I do this sometimes at the computer, sometimes on paper. But the
point is, sometimes things sound differently read aloud, and it will give you another
angle to check your prose.
10. Check and double check spelling. Just because it is a word according to your
word processor, that doesn't mean it's the right word. It's/its, theirs/there's, and
so on. The editor in me comes out fiercely when I read manuscripts that make
what seem to me to be simple mistakes. You want to look like a professional when
presenting a manuscript to an editor or agent.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison