Revision Strategies for Your Novel

redpenI am deep in the process of revising a project right now, and it has me thinking about the most effect strategies for tackling heavy revisions. The truth is, my method has been slightly different each time, depending on the needs of the book. But I also tend to favor certain strategies that work well for me. Over time, I’ve tried out a number of different revision techniques, and while some of them didn’t work for me or for that particular book, others have been tremendously helpful. So I’d like to take a look at various revision techniques that have proven useful for me at one point or another.

Of course, there are many different strategies out there, and these might not work for you or your book. But if you’re struggling with the revision process or aren’t sure how to get started, trying some of these techniques might help you get unstuck and conquer the revision process.

So, here are several revision strategies I recommend:

  1. Print it out

Personally, I always like to read the manuscript start to finish before tackling any major revisions to re-familiarize myself with the text, especially if it’s been awhile since I last read it. I find that the best way to do this is to print the whole thing out and make notes and highlights on the page as I go along. I love being able to scribble my thoughts all over the page as I read, use color-coded highlighting for tracking particular issues, etc. While you can make notes and highlights in various electronic programs, I find it easier and more freeing to write on a physical copy. Also, something about looking at it in a new format helps me to notice things that I didn’t see before. Granted, this does take a lot of paper, and may not be possible for everyone. But there are ways to minimize the amount of paper you use—make the font smaller, cut the extra spacing and page breaks, print on both sides of the paper, etc. For me, the benefits of a physical copy are worth it.

  1. Reverse outline

I do this with every single book I write, even if I’ve already written an outline ahead of time. By “reverse outline,” I mean going through the book and making an outline of what’s already there. So for example, you might write “Chapter 1: They arrive at the hideout; Chapter 2: The bomb goes off, Character A is kidnapped, and Character B escapes…” and so on. This is the best way to assess the actual structure of your book and get a sense for what’s really on the page. Then you can add notes to your outline about what needs to be changed or restructured. Index cards are really great for this, whether physical or in a program like Scrivener, as you can use one card per chapter or scene and reorder them as needed, but even writing it out in list form can be helpful.

  1. Read it out loud

This is especially helpful if you’re struggling with voice, rhythm, syntax, or language issues. Reading the manuscript to yourself out loud allows you to really hear all of the places where the phrasing is awkward, or the lines don’t flow, or the voice is off. You might even choose to do this as you’re reading a physical copy of the manuscript, so that you can both see and hear the manuscript in different formats as you read and jot down notes as you go.

  1. Make a spreadsheet

This isn’t a method that always works for me, but it did help for one particular book, and several other writers I know prefer this technique. You can use a simple spreadsheet program like Excel to make lists of story elements. You can choose to group them in whatever order makes sense to you—for example, make a page for worldbuilding, plot, characterization, etc. The use each cell to list different elements in that category and describe what needs to change. You can colorcode cells by priority, or by what still needs to be changed. This can be a helpful way of grouping and listing your needed revisions, which makes them less daunting and allows you to tackle them systematically.

  1. Edit in passes

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the number of changes you need to make, try breaking them down into categories and tackling them one at a time. Rather than being overwhelmed by all of the things that need to change, focus on only one thing for each pass and really hone in on that issue. For each pass, have one goal in mind. So, for example, your first pass might be for characterization, the second for plot and pacing, the third for worldbuilding, and the fourth for a final polish and miscellaneous issues. You can do as many passes as you need—with the novel I’m working on now, I have it broken up into seven passes, each addressing different issues. For me, this makes the revisions feel much easier to handle, because I can focus on each element individually. And while it might seem like this will take longer than just revising chronologically, I find that I revise faster this way, because I spend less time feeling overwhelmed or getting distracted by other issues.


Revisions can be frustrating, but by finding the methods that work best for you, you’ll be able conquer those revisions in no time—and maybe even enjoy the process.

How do you handle your revisions? What strategies do you use? Have any tips? Let me know in the comments!

Interested in professional editorial services for your manuscript? Check out my Services page for more information about what I offer.

This post is part of my Writing Craft series. For more info about planning, writing, and revising your work, check out the other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts!

Related Links:

Setting Basics: Writing Through the Eyes of Your Narrator

6 Tips for Writing a Satisfying Ending

Showing vs. Telling: Character Emotion

10 Tips for Trimming a Lengthy Manuscript


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