Episode 123: The Real Work of Authors

On November 28, 2020, Kasie and Rex took on the revision process. Every writer does it differently. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Revision Tactics and Techniques


  • Join our community on Patreon
  • When do you revise?
  • How do you revise?
  • What role do critique groups, partners, and beta readers play?
Revision is like organizing a bouquet: Take the best pieces, arrange them, and hide the flaws or cut their stems.
Photo by Amina Filkins on Pexels.com

Link to the Podcast

Segment 1

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So this has been NaNoWriMo. I’m 11,000 words away from winning as I write these notes on Friday evening and I spent this afternoon working on Before Pittsburgh, not NaNoWriMo, but c’est la vie. I realized November 30th is actually Monday, so I’m feeling a little indulgent now. Three days, 11,000 words? I got this.

Anyway, once NaNo is over, we have to revise. Presumably. If we plan to make anything of value out of the NaNoWriMo product. So I thought, “how do we go about shaping up the steamiest pile of draft ever into an actual work of fiction?”

Let’s start with some resources. Writers love to tell you how and when to revise. Here are a few titles to get you started:

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King

Revision and Self Editing by James Scott Bell whose author page is worth visiting for books on nearly every genre

Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Ryan

Let’s assume you’re working on a first draft and see this article about revising your first draft:

Emma Darwin gives these steps: 

  1. Read through the entire draft like a reader — “problem finding” not fixing
  2. Organize your thoughts — try categories like “problems throughout” and “problems in specific places” and “continuity problems”; 
  3. Work from big to small — structural changes, persistent throughout the story problems, then specific scenes, and finally go through the entire thing fixing the small stuff.
  4. Work in layers — locate subplot points, subtext, and other complexities that need to be teased out
  5. Re-read the entire story

Then Vicki Krueger, writing for Poynter.com suggests:

  • Print early drafts so you can review the hard copy, not just what’s on the screen
  • Put it away, take a break, even just a few hours or days
  • Use action categories — “cut” and “rework” and “confusing?” or “boring?”
  • Read the story out loud

Do you read craft books on this skill?

What skills are necessary for revision?

Do you love or hate revision?

Segment 2

This resource from mastersinenglish.org suggests:

  • Let it breathe — take some time away from the work before beginning revision
  • Revise global first, local second — take on the big issues then worry about line-by-line
  • Ask questions to give you a deeper understanding of the scenes and the work as a whole (questions below)
  • Get feedback
  • Expand your sources
  • Work on bite-sized pieces
  • Educate yourself — historical accuracies, language (synonyms, etc)
  • Kill your darlings
  • Tighten the language
  • Choose a good title

Here are those “go deeper” questions:

  1. What’s your point? How would you summarize the storyline or argument of this piece?
  2. Have you cited your sources?
  3. Are your sources credible?
  4. Would additional sources strengthen your evidence?
  5. Who is the intended reader? Is the voice appropriate for the material? Does the voice remain consistent throughout?
  6. How is it organized? Are your ideas cohesively presented and structured? Are there sections? How do they frame the piece?
  7. Do the ideas in each paragraph and sentence flow together? Do they follow the “known-new” contract of cohesion?
  8. Is there resolution?

Segment 3

Writing for LitHub, Charles Johnson offers these phases of writing:

  1. Get everything on the page — create, be messy (NaNo much?)
  2. Second draft — clean up the distracting things like grammar and spelling and continuity (think rules of the magic, exposition inconsistencies, etc)
  3. Third draft — work on your specific weaknesses (are you mostly describing what people see? Try what they smell, feel, and taste; do you have default or crutch phrases? Unpack them.)

Here, he says, you’ll have something worth showing to others. How do we take our workshop comments to the draft?

Do we re-work the scene? The characters? The dialogue?

Johnson talks further about addressing your own tendencies and sculpting the work. I thought of these as progressive takes on the work:

  • Fourth — work on narrowing the scope of the work — get each scene to do exactly what it must and cut out anything that is superfluous or tedious.
  • Fifth — work on the layers (see above) and develop conversations, descriptions, and scenes into their iceberg forms
  • Sixth — copy edits for consistency in numbers (spelled out or numeric?) and punctuation (where is the sentence-ending mark in relation to the closed quote?)

It can feel overwhelming to review a single story six (seven, eight) times. And maybe if it’s got its structure early-on, you won’t need eight full revisions. Or, maybe you’ll work it over such that when your developmental editor reads it, he has very few complaints.

Segment 4

We usually put the tips here, but this whole show has been tips. So let’s get a list of “revision questions” from the world-wide-web:

What are your characters’ arcs? Where does each person start and finish?

What are the stakes? What happens if the characters don’t get what they want?

Is there consistency?

How’s the pacing?

Do you know the rules of your world? Does the reader?

Here’s a list of 57 questions which might keep you busy enough to get through eight revisions. I’ll just add the ones we haven’t discussed yet:

  • Is the plot clear and believable from the beginning of the book?
  • Is the plot resolved at the end?
  • Are there enough locations in the book? Or not enough? Or too many?
  • Are transitions between locations clear and easy to follow?
  • Is the protagonist introduced early and understood to be the focus of the novel?
  • How do you feel about the protagonist? Do you empathize with him?
  • Are there too many characters or not enough?
  • Does each one have a separate but complementary trajectory?
  • Does each character have a unique voice and personality?
  • Can you hear the dialogue?
  • Is the point-of-view established and consistent throughout?
  • Are there scenes that don’t drive the plot forward?
  • Does the overall tone work well for the story?
  • Does the opening of the story hook you?
  • Was there connectivity between the first chapter and the last one?
  • Does the title fit the plot?
  • Are there scenes that need to be expanded or deleted?
  • What do you think the moral of the story is? What is the author trying to say?
  • What is the strongest part of the novel?
  • What is the weakest part of the novel?
  • What is your overall impression of the story?

So how do you revise?

You get to know your book. Very well. You read and re-read. You update and adjust. You respond to feedback and correct errors. You aim for continuity and quality. And then you let it out into the world.

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