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Revise Wise - How to Revise Fiction

Updated: Sep 28, 2023

Revising isn’t for the fainthearted.

Editing is not simply fixing grammar, spelling, and punctuation; it requires pulling your story apart.

You’re ensuring your character motivations make sense, your plot holds from beginning to end, if your story progresses in the correct order, and much more. This takes multiple revisions.

As an author, it’s not easy to pick out the holes in your story when you created the fictional world and the characters within.

It may even take you twice as long as writing the first draft—it does for most authors—so prepare yourself and take your time. And try not to place quick deadlines or turnaround-times for yourself or your editor, as a rush job won’t give you the results you need.

Give yourself a break.

When you finish your first draft, take a break from your novel. Leave it sit for a few weeks. This will help you assess it logically.

Check the big-ticket items first.

Before you get into crafting beautiful sentences and clever metaphors, check your plot, character development, worldbuilding, pacing, and other structural elements.

If you don’t have the best structure, believable character motivations and growth, or solid worldbuilding, you’ll spend too much time revising things that may need cut from the manuscript.

Know your why.

Know it for everything in your fiction novel.

From character’s backstories and clothing to plot points and twists, there should be a reason these things are in your novel.

Always ask yourself why.

If there is no ‘why’ behind a scene, a character, or dialogue, then it shouldn’t be included.

While readers may not ever get why a character wears only flowered tops, it adds to their characterization. You know they choose this pattern based on their love of gardening, and the reader can get the impression through what they wear without being told.

A strong story depends on character motivation and conflict. Every scene and or chapter in your book should answer or relate to the following questions.

What do your characters want?

Why do they want it?

What is standing in their way?

As your story progresses, your characters’ motivations will change with the new information they get, and the obstacles in their path will impact the choices they make, but make sure the why behind their choices makes sense.

Even fiction needs to be believable, especially characters, their motivations, and their choices.

So, find the why behind what’s in your novel.

Get emotional.

One thing I notice that’s missing from many manuscripts is emotion.

We react to everything that's said or done with an emotional response. It’s important for the fictional characters in your book to do the same.

When emotions are shown, through thought, body language, and dialogue, the reader shares the experiences with the character. They sympathize and, more importantly, understand why the character makes the choices they do.

Emotion adds layers to your story. It makes things personal and creates more tension. So, make sure your characters feel and respond to what's going on around them.

Clarify the narrative.

You want everything to be as clear as possible, without pointing out everything, and as smooth to read as possible.

Readers can be pushed out of the story if it becomes bogged down with details, shifts POVs, or excessive side commentary.

If you find places where you get bored or your mind wanders, you get confused or frustrated, it’s time to evaluate for clarity.

Too many details make it hard to keep reading, while too little may lead to confusion. Watch for places where there are paragraphs of details explaining the backstory of a character or the descriptions of the setting or world the character lives in.

Over-description is what I see most, but there is a risk of not giving the reader enough information. In fiction, this mostly happens with worldbuilding and setting.

If you don’t detail enough background or the rules of the world you’ve created, the reader won’t understand why something is the way it is or be able to picture where the characters are.

Abrupt POV shifts and perspective shifts frustrate the reader. If the narrator has been following one character and suddenly the narrator knows what another character is feeling, thinking, or their motivations, this can push the reader out of the story. You want to keep them in it for as long as possible, so watch for places where the narrator shifts perspectives.

There is a tremendous benefit to going through your manuscript several times.

The first revisions are to deal with the big issues, fixing plot problems and strengthening characters, but the following revisions should focus on ways to improve the use of language.

One way to hone your focus is to read your manuscript out loud.

Read aloud.

You can stare at a sentence for hours and know something isn’t right, but the moment you read it aloud, you know you’re missing a word or the structure could be changed for clarity. You will find repetitions of sounds. Awkward phrasings. Missing punctuation. Voice inflictions and accents that are misrepresented.

There is something about vocalizing that forces our brains to work differently so we can pick up on things easier than when reading silently.

While listening, create a list of repetitive words, filler words, and filter words to remove, replace, or rewrite.

Search your novel.

Search your fiction novel for the words you listed when reading aloud and for words like feel or felt, saw, heard, smelled, thought, wondered….

When you find them, take a moment, and reread the sentence or paragraph. Ask yourself if you are telling your readers how a character feels or if you are letting them experience it. Chances are, you are telling them.

Find alternative ways to express what the character is feeling or hearing or thinking.

If a character feels scared, their heart may beat faster, their muscles tense, their body shake. The descriptions of what we physically feel will help the reader feel with the character.

If your character thinks or wonders something, just let them do it. Use italics sparingly, though, as they can be intrusive. Sometimes it works well to have the narrator simply say what the character thinks. Instead of, ‘Bob wondered how that was going to help,’ it could read, ‘How was that going to help?’

Don’t feel like you need to fix everything all at once. A good revision doesn’t have to make your manuscript perfect; it just has to make it better.

Give yourself permission to do as many revisions as you want, so don’t rush it.

If you are stuck on how to revise or have done all you can, hire a professional editor.

We are here to help you realize your vision for your fiction novel, help you reach your readers, and help you craft an immersive story.

Happy Writing!

Kristin Noland – Speculative fiction and crime fiction editor

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