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by Matthew and Lauren Voeltz
Artwork by Matthew Voeltz
For newer writers, the revision process might seem elusive. A writer might shift a line, or change one word for a better word, but not address the real issues hindering the story. Often, writers miss both developmental flaws and grammar errors in early drafts, and revision is a way to combat this weakness. Revision is difficult because it involves objective evaluation. This guide will give you checkpoints, moving from the foundational story elements to the miniscule ones, so you can systematically revise your stories and make them shine.
Let’s Make a Cake!
Let’s think of your story as a multi-tiered cake. Each layer builds upon the next to create a satisfying dessert.
LAYER ONE: Prepare Your Perspective
- Take a Break from Your Work
Revision means “re-see.” The only way to re-see something is to step away from it. Doing so will make the work feel less permanent. (I advise taking at least a day off per written page.) After a break, you will see the work differently; you will become more objective, noticing problems you missed before.
- Reread the Story
- Make a New Revision Document
Open a new document or get a blank sheet of paper. We’ll call this your “Fix It” list. As you go through these next questions, add any issues to the list. I’ve added footnotes for further explanation. I’ve written the questions in a way, so that each answer should be yes. If it’s no, then add the item to your “Fix It” list.
LAYER TWO: Characters
- Your Main Character…. To evaluate, answer these questions:
- Does your character have a clear goal?
- Does your character have something to gain or lose if they do not meet their goal? If there are no stakes, it is difficult to make the reader care about your character.
- Is your character relatable? Does the reader understand why the character is acting the way they are?
- Is your character distinctive? Do they have memorable traits?
- Does your character change throughout the story? This can be as small as a realization, or it could be a decision. If not, does something change for them that is out of their control?
- Supporting Characters
(Note: If you don’t have a secondary character in your story, skip to layer three)
- Does your secondary character add to the story either by increasing conflict or contrasting with the main character? Contrast is a way to solidify your main character in the reader’s mind. It’s the nature of contrast, really; orange looks more orange against blue.
- Does your secondary character feel real? Secondary characters must have their own traits, and their own goals to avoid them feeling like cardboard cutouts.
LAYER THREE: Conflict
- Compelling Conflict
- Does your character have strong obstacles in the way of their goals? (It might help to list them.) Sources of conflict include intrapersonal, interpersonal, environmental, and societal.
- Has your character worked hard to overcome their obstacles? Don’t make their lives too easy or their accomplishments handed to them. It eliminates a reader’s tension, and tension is what compels them to keep reading.
- Does your character have agency? Your protagonist should be proactive, not standing around and waiting for their goals to be met with no effort. Can you list what they are doing to achieve their goals?
LAYER FOUR: Scenes
- Scene Construction
- Have you established where and when your character is at the beginning of each scene? It might help to list the scenes and evaluate each.
- Do the scenes progress over time? (Day, rainy to afternoon to evening, etc.)
- Does your plot come from your character’s decisions and their obstacles? The character’s behavior should be consistent, and the plot should be causally linked and not random or a result of author convenience.
- Are the important scenes fleshed out with dialog, action, and setting? In early drafts, writers sometimes summarize the most interesting parts of a story. This is a mistake. The best way to immerse the reader and slow the pace is to add sensory details to your most important scenes. (Scene summaries are best used for fast transitions or when nothing happened in a certain time frame, and the writer just needs to convey information quickly. This could indicate the passing of time when nothing substantial occurs).
- Does your scene center around the conflict? Avoid telling the reader things they don’t need to know. Backstory pulls a reader out of the story and slows the pace. Often, backstory can be slipped into the present story seamlessly. Trust your reader.
- Missing or Unneeded Scenes
- Do you have all the scenes you need for a solid and logical character arc?
- Do you have only necessary scenes?
LAYER FIVE: Dialog & Description
- Have you avoided dialog that’s too on the nose? In real life, people don’t usually say exactly what they are feeling. Your characters should not either. If your character is hiding something, have their actions differ from their words. Readers will read between the lines. This is called subtext and is particularly important for literary fiction, if not all writing.
- Does your character’s voice seem apropos to who they are?
- Is your dialog precise? (Avoid extra wordiness, dialog in fiction should have snap, not drone on, with extra words such as like or just.)
- Do your characters tell each other unknown things? Don’t use dialog to tell the characters things that they already know, so that your readers do. This reads as awkward and can be cheesy.
- Is it easy to tell who is speaking?
- Have you used “said” for dialog tags? Said is preferred by editors for its invisibility in the prose. Use your characters actions and dialog to portray emotion instead of unique dialog tags.
- Do you describe things with purpose?
- Are you using all five senses? (Tip: color code your text, one color for each sense, to see this more visually.)
- Is there enough description for readers to get a sense of the world?
CONCLUSION & NEXT STEPS
On a final note, as you go through your stories, creating your revision list, you might notice personal patterns/tendencies. Over time, you will probably find some of these things aren’t issues for you. This is a normal part of the process. The revision process itself is revised and improved, based on our own skill sets and personal habits. The writer’s ultimate goal should be to incorporate these steps into their storytelling, so they become a subconscious part of the process. In time, this will happen if a writer keeps working to improve their craft, keeping these questions in mind.
Learn what works the best for you. After you’ve worked through these steps, your items should be arranged from biggest task to smallest, and you can begin working on fixing the issues in your story. (If they aren’t quite large to small, order-wise, feel free to tweak your list). After, you will be ready to approach beta readers or critique partners. If the feedback you receive is positive, feel free to move to the top tiers—digging in with some line editing and polishing.
Now, you can have your cake and edit, too! -Matt
To learn more here’s a few recommended books:
- Revision: A Creative Approach to Writing and Rewriting Fiction by Kaplan
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King
- A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
 Often, writers have movement and repeated ideas in each scene, but a good writer will vary them, at least slightly. In A Swim in The Pond in The Rain by George Saunders, he breaks down the story “The Darling”, written by Anton Chekov. Saunders calls this a pattern story. In each section, the main character, Olenka, falls in love. However, each time she falls in love, it’s not the same. Little details change. Chekov changes how long Olenka mourns, who she marries, how long they were together, and what kind of relationship she has. It’s important for the story to keep moving. If two scenes take a character from semi-sadness to semi-happiness, and their status is changing in the same way, consider intensifying your conflict, altering it, or only keeping the best scene.
 A writer submerges the readers in a character’s reality by first showing the character’s sensory experiences, and by showing the character’s interiority—what they think and how they feel through the way they describe things and what they pay attention to. Say the writer wants to convey the character’s sadness. What would a dejected person focus on? Showing their interiority can be done through body language and action as well as description. What does a sad person do? What does your specific character do when they are sad?