Revise or Die Trying: Tips and Techniques


Revising Your Drafts

As Presented at Comicpalooza 2014, Houston, Texas

Thoughts from Moderator Author Pamela Fagan Hutchins


Draft v. Rewrite v. Revision v. Editing (Pamela’s working definitions)

Draft: Your original work from once upon a time to the end.

Rewrite: Your first draft was so bad that you have to redo major elements of the manuscript.

Revision: Taking a draft and improving it with respect to craft: characters, plot, themes, structure, scenes, tension, point of view, consistenct,

Editing: Perfecting a manuscript, i.e., per the Chicago Manual of Style.


Generally, On Revision:

Set deadlines and goals (word count, chapters, pages).

Eliminate or minimize disruptions and distractions.

Start with a completed manuscript on page one and move forward until the end, making notes as you go.


  • Does this character appear all the way through the book, or disappear with an explanation?
  • Does this character still look and act the way he did at the beginning of the book? If not, have I shown the character development that accounts for the changes?
  • If this scene introduces a new idea or new action, is it something that I remembered to follow through all the way to the end? If you add subplots, introduce new characters, throw in red herrings or real herrings that you intend to make use of at the end of the story, you have to make sure that you pick up on them by the end of the book.
  • Have you met the objectives of your story? Did you resolve your theme and your major and minor character conflicts (excluding those thrown in to give some meat to the next book in a series, if relevant), bring your plot to a logical conclusion, and give the reader something to cheer about at the end?
  • Have you followed your header, chapter, and quote scheme consistently?
  • Does this scene matter? Does it move the story forward, develop a character, flesh out the plot, and create the forward momentum that will keep your reader reading?
  • Have you demonstrated an acceptable level of literacy?

Make changes and additions.

After all changes are made, re-read manuscript to see if your changes worked.


Revision Styles: 

Close-in or as-you-go revision: revising yesterday’s work before beginning new writing each day. Note: can cause you to never finish your manuscript.

On-screen revision: revising on your computer screen.

Hand-revision: printing your manuscript and revising in margins and on extra pages.

Real aloud: revising by reading your work aloud. Reveals your manuscript in new ways.

Read backwards: Moving from last chapter to first, reveals your manuscript in new ways.

Critique circle or partner: Using feedback from peers who are better writers than you.

Targeted revision: highlighting or circling all instances of stylistic, word use, or grammatical issues you tend toward, like passive voice or overuse of a word.

Manuscript consult: hiring a story consultant to provide revision suggestions for your manuscript.


Advanced Revision Methods:

Spreadsheet Plotting: Create a spreadsheet for your manuscript with different columns for elements of the story you want to track.  Elements to consider:

  • Act. This helps track the act to which this scene belongs.
  • Chapter/scenes.
  • Headlines. This isn’t a summary of the scene’s events, but headlines of main events of the scene with emphasis on how it affects the main character(s).
  • Time. Time of year, time of day.
  • POV or Characters present to ensure each character has proper amount of exposure. (Use different colored fonts for different characters)
  • Setting, to track movement.
  • Action. Similar to Headlines, but with a different function. The Headlines puts the event in context of the main character, while the Action can be more specific or give a context.
  • Pulse to highlight emotional tension driving scene.
  • Words count per chapter or scene.

Spreadsheet plotting allows you to check the actual content of scenes/chapters, to scan a column of plot points and see if the narrative arc builds over the course of these actions, or scan the column of emotional points and see how the emotional arc builds. Try sorting columns: as long as you use consistent terminology, you can check, for example, how many times you place scenes in a haunted house.

Shrunken Manuscript: Printing out a shrunken manuscript to visually see how elements of your manuscript flow. Great for seeing proportions in a story, or multiple elements at once (by using different color pens, highlighters, or sticky notes).

Instructions: Take out the chapter breaks. Single space the entire manuscript. Reduce the font and margins. Use columns if it helps. Mark whatever elements you plan to evaluate (i.e., five best chapters, places where two characters interact, the percentage of dialogue, places where you repeat a certain setting, places where the theme is made obvious, etc.).  Lay out the pages on the floor in rows of ten. (Adjust layout to your page count, of course.) Stand back and evaluate.

Consider (using strongest chapter evaluation as an example:

  • Are there large gaps between chapters marked on the Shrunken Mss?
  •  Are the strongest chapters spread out or do you have the dreaded Sagging Middle?
  •  How long are the strongest chapters? Do they include the Obligatory Scene?
  •  Are there several weak chapters in a row?
  •  What does this visualization tell you about the revisions needed

One Pass Manuscript Revision: (very advanced) From Holly Lisle, “One Pass Manuscript Revision”: the following is excerpted from her excellent guidance on the subject. To read her whole article (and you should), visit the link in the Revision Resources Section of this document).


Write down your theme in fifteen words or less.

If you have sub-themes and know what they are, write them 
down too.

Write down what the book is about in twenty-five words or 

Write down a one-line story arc for the book’s main

Write down the main characters, and a paragraph of no more
  than about 250 words describing the story, sort of like the blurb 
on the back of a paperback.



Scene check:  A scene is a cohesive block without which the novel will not stand, 
encompassing everything that a novel has to have, but in miniature.
 A scene has a start and a finish, characters and dialogue, engages 
at least one and sometimes all five senses, and offers conflict 
and change. It takes place in one time and in one place. If the 
time or the place changes, you’re in a new scene. A scene is 
usually written from only one point of view.

Run through your novel scene by scene and
 ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does this scene belong in the book? That is, 
does it address your theme or one of your sub-themes, contain 
action, conflict, and change, develop one or more of your characters,
and move your story forward?
If not, draw a big X through it.
  • Is the scene a story in miniature? Does it contain characters,
conflict, action, change, dialogue, setting, and involvement of
the reader’s senses? Does it have a beginning, a point where
things change, and a clear ending? Is it interesting and entertaining? 
Does it move the story forward? Start writing in changes in the margins. Carry 
them around to the back of the page, and onto additional pages 
if necessary.
  • What is the conflict of the scene? Whatever the conflict 
in the scene, make sure you develop it well. Weed out things that 
don’t relate to it, or that weaken its impact. End the scene 
at the point where the conflict is either made worse, or resolved
in some fashion. Cut any material that goes on after this point
— save it to insert in a later if it’s truly important.
  • Does the scene contain elements that no longer fit the story?
Do you have characters
and story lines at the beginning that just flat vanish by the
 end – and things at the end that you promised you’d
make fit in the beginning?
  • Go over to your spiral-bound notebook, and write in details 
about threads you’ve killed.
  • Make notes to yourself about new directions you took.
  • Make notes about characters you’ve condensed or eliminated.
  • Offer yourself suggestions about the evolution of your story
and theme. It’s entirely possible to discover at the
 end of the book that it isn’t about what you thought it was 
about when you started it. So when you realize this, give yourself 
a couple of notes to remind you of what your early scenes are
 going to need.
  • Is the scene well-written?
  • Does the scene fit logically in time and space?
  • Is your scene full of weak words?
  • Is the word-count right? Currently, the most salable 
length for non-series genre novels for adults is between 90,000
 and 120,000 words.



Start with the first page that bears your scribbles, start with 
the first line of corrections, open up your document, and start
 typing. You aren’t going to look at the clean pages again —
if you’d like to make a bit of space on your desk, you can
 throw them away.

As you type in your corrections, you may have improved wording 
ideas. Go with them. You may think of wittier, more perfect dialogue.
 Swap it out. You may finally hit the perfect description of the 
character, the locale, or some other goodie. Terrific. Use it.

You will probably also have completely new plot ideas, have great
 ideas for new characters who could really shine, and complications 
that could just change everything. Don’t indulge yourself by
 putting them in this book. Write them down on a separate piece of
 paper and save them for the next book. The point of a novel revision 
is to finish this book.

Why? Because the definition of a writing career is: Write a 
book. Write another book. Write another book.

Nowhere in that description is included: Take one story and make 
it a monument to every idea you ever had or ever will.

Revision Materials:

Spiral Notebooks, Legal Pads, Colored Highlighters, Colored Pens, Pencils, Colored Sticky Notes, Scotch Tape, Paper Clips, Printer Paper


Revision Resources:

James Scott Bell, Write Great Fiction: Revision and Self Editing,

Mike Nappa, “How to Edit Your Book in Four Steps,”

Holly Lisle, “How to Revise a Novel,”

Darci Pattison (Author of Novel Metamorphosis), “Spreadsheet Plotting,”

Darci Pattison, “Shrunken Manuscript,”

Rebecca Aberto, “The Three Act Structure: Save Your Story,”

Holly Lisle, “One Pass Manuscript Revision,”

Chuck Wendig, “25 Steps to Eliminate the Unmerciful Suck From Your Story,”


Pamela Fagan HutchinsWriter of overly long e-mails, romantic mysteries, and (possibly) hilarious nonfiction. Resides deep in the heart of Nowheresville, TX and way up in the frozen north of Snowheresville, WY. Passionate about great writing and smart authorpreneurship as well as long hikes with her hunky husband and pack of rescue dogs, her Keurig, and traveling in the Bookmobile.


4 thoughts on “Revise or Die Trying: Tips and Techniques

    1. Eric Post author

      You are welcome. Pamela always uses shrunken MS and she strives for One Pass Revision every time (shrunken MS is how she “checks her work” when she thinks she is done).

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