June 26, 2018

Breaking Down the Steps of Revision to Improve Our Storytelling

Reading glasses with text: The Revision Process: Seeing Our Story's Potential

Before I dig into today’s post, I want to thank Bran L. Ayres again for their fantastic guest posts last week on whether we should include warnings for our stories’ content and on the elements of a healthy romance we can show in our stories. My vacation wasn’t as relaxing as I’d hoped (it was too cloudy to just hang out on a beach all day *grin*), but still a much-appreciated break.

Shortly before my vacation, Lois Simenson emailed me with a question that I’d like to dig into for today’s post:

“As I revise I’m layering in setting and deep POV, and my word count is rising like mad. … Should I worry about word count as I revise?”

Her question brings up several issues about revising, especially how a better understanding of the revision process can help our storytelling. Let’s take a look…

What Is Revision?

Sometimes as writers, we use the words revising and editing interchangeably. However, I like separating the two.

Revision can be considered like re-vision—seeing our story from a different perspective. It encompasses a big scope, while editing doesn’t necessarily do the same.

In other words, revising—to me—refers to the bigger, story-level changes. Editing—in my mind—often focuses on the smaller details.

It’s fine if you don’t usually have that mindset of separating the two. After all, the “professional” name for that big-picture revision task is developmental editing. I’m just letting you know my perspective so we have a common language for this post. *smile*

How Can Separating Revising and Editing Be Helpful?

Sometimes, no matter our usual perspective, it is helpful to think of revising and editing separately. The skills encompassed by the development editing stage of our storytelling are very different from the skills encompassed by line editing or copy editing.

How does revision differ from editing and why does it matter? Click To TweetIn fact, in my Master Lists of Skills posts, I called the developmental editing stage of skills story development, rather than story editing, implying that we’re creating the story itself. In contrast, line editing and copy editing are about fixing what’s already on the page.

Why does this matter? Because in many ways, especially at the first step, revising has more in common with the drafting stage than with the editing stage.

The First Step of Revising: Creating a Rough Draft Version 1.5

Look at the revision steps Lois mentioned: “layering in setting and deep POV.” Later in her email she calls her efforts “layering in missing elements.” Adding in missing elements is still drafting the starting point of our storytelling before we get into fixing anything.

Or look at some of the categories of skills in my Master List post:

  • Develop Premise and Story Arc
  • Develop Characters and Character Arcs
  • Develop Plot and Subplot
  • Develop Story Beats and Turning Points
  • Develop Conflict / Develop Stakes / Develop Goals
  • Develop Character Motivations
  • Develop Themes

That’s a lot of “developing.” That’s a lot of layering missing big-picture elements that are essential for telling a story at all.

In other words, the first step of revision often focuses on discovering the story we’re really trying tell. As I answered to Lois, developing themes and all those other elements are really about finding the core essence of our story.

Rough Draft 1.5: Often a Critical Step for Pantsers

Especially if we’re pantsers (writing by the seat of our pants rather than plotting out our story in advance), we might not know all the aspects of our story until we reach “The End.”

We might discover our theme only after writing the story and seeing which aspects resonate with us. Or we might understand our characters’ motivations and wounds or backstory only after letting them develop organically. Etc., etc.

Or even if we’re plotters, the emphasis and development of our story or characters can change over the course of drafting. Either way, we might need a second drafting pass that captures the starting point of our storytelling before we dig into any type of editing or fixing.

Story Discovery Has to Happen Before Editing

We can’t fix our story until we know the story we want to tell. That’s why, no matter our usual perspective, it can be helpful to separate this first step of revising from the rest of the editing process.

So in my answer to Lois, I told her not to worry yet about word count. She’s still at the stage of trying to get a rough draft version 1.5 completed.

Maybe—maybe—after we’re an experienced writer, we can combine the steps of story discovery and revising/editing. But especially if we’re still in our learning curve, we’re usually going to find it easier to treat this step of revision separately (and maybe several other of the revising/editing steps too).

The Later Revision Steps: Fixing the Storytelling

Once we know the core essence of our story, then we can move on to the later steps of revising and editing. As I said above though, we still might find it helpful to consider revision separately from editing—especially if the word editing brings to mind the nitpicky stuff like grammar or typos.

We need to make sure we’re not skipping the steps of questioning and fixing our storytelling. Are we telling the story we want to tell the best way we can?

  • Are we missing elements or scenes for the story we want to tell?
  • Are any elements or scenes not telling the story as well as they should?
  • Are any elements or scenes a distraction or unnecessary tangent for the story we want to tell?

How can understanding the steps of the revision process help our storytelling? Click To TweetAnother way of looking at those questions is to label the other steps of revision: building, rewriting, and cutting. While those labels can apply to the nitpicky stuff too, at the revision stage we’re looking at the big picture of what works or doesn’t work for the overall story we want to tell, not just what needs fixing in a paragraph or sentence.

Depending on our experience and how our brains work, we might be able to combine these steps into a single revision pass. But if we’re still deep in the learning curve, or if we simply do better when focusing on one aspect at a time, we might find revisions easier if we do a revision pass for each of these approaches.

Revision Step: Building Our Story

This step tracks closely with the idea we talked about above with our rough draft version 1.5. However, while that step focused on discovering our story, we’re assuming for this step that we already know the story we want to tell and that we’re just trying to flesh it out.

So during this revision step, we’re making sure we’ve fully developed all the elements of our story. We might know in our head what our character’s motivation is, but we might not have yet added it on the page.

For example, we want to check that our storytelling includes:

  • all the major beats/plot points
  • our character’s full arc (any change, backstory wound, false belief, epiphanies, identity vs. essence, etc.)
  • theme (story level and character level, what changes or what they learn, etc.)
  • conflict, stakes, goals, motivations, etc.

Revision Step: Rewriting Our Story

Once we know the story we want to tell, we might come across pieces that don’t quite fit anymore. It’s not that they’re extraneous, but they’re just not contributing to the storytelling the way they should.

Rewriting is about making sure the major pieces and parts of our story play together nicely for the story we want to tell.

At this step we might:

  • rewrite scenes to use another character’s point of view because we’ve figured out they have more at stake in scene or their POV would simply be more effective
  • rewrite a scene to change the conflict (widening the gap between reality and their goals) and/or add more stakes to increase our story’s tension
  • rewrite a scene to change the mood or tone to better fit our story’s theme or genre
  • rewrite a scene (or a section of a scene) to strengthen our character’s arc, such as tweaking a subplot to better expose a character’s weaknesses or fears
  • rewrite an element of a story to improve the overall storytelling, such as changing a secondary character to a different gender/job/personality, changing a subplot, changing a turning point, etc.
  • rewrite sections of a scene to improve the story flow with a smoother cause-and-effect chain
  • rewrite scenes to ensure every scene includes a character goal (with stakes), conflict, etc. to improve our story’s tension and narrative drive
  • Etc., etc.

Revision Step: Cutting to the Core of Our Story

This step is where we’d start paying attention to our word count. Here’s where we’d question what we should cut to better focus on the core story we want to tell.

By the time we’re done with discovery and have a better handle on our story, we’ll know the distractions and tangents and extraneous elements we can cut. Or we might see places where we circled the drain as we tried to figure out where we were going. Or we might identify a better way to express an idea (maybe even including it in a different scene so we can cut the scene where the idea is now).

Cutting is about improving pacing and eliminating distractions, especially those that take readers’ focus away from the story we’re trying to tell.

At this step we might cut:

  • unneeded and/or goal-less scenes or sections of scenes
  • unnecessary characters (or we could combine characters)
  • subplots or tangents that distract or interfere with the core story we want to tell
  • aspects of character development that no longer fit (such as if we changed our mind about their false belief, weaknesses, flaws, or fears)
  • conflicts that add pointless obstacles with no effect on the story or that don’t change the story through consequences
  • unnecessary scene-filler where we tried to figure out the point of what we wanted to say (most often found in rambling dialogue, wishy-washy emotional descriptions, information dumps, and the beginnings and endings of scenes)
  • Etc., etc.

(Note: We shouldn’t worry if our word count is still too high at the end of this revision step. Here, we’re just looking for the big chunks we can get rid of from a storytelling perspective. The editing step of line editing is where we tighten our paragraphs and sentences.)

Improving Our Storytelling Isn’t the Same as Editing

As I said at the outset, while we don’t need to think of revising and editing separately in our mind, that separation might help us ensure that we’re not skipping revision steps.

Editing typically focuses on making our words better. However, revising is all about making our storytelling better.

For revision, we often don’t want to pay attention to what’s already on the page. We might not even look at what we’ve already drafted at all.

Instead, we want to think about the potential of our story and how we could change our storytelling to better reach that potential:

  • What could we say with our story that we’re not saying yet?
  • How could we get across our premise or theme better?
  • What changes could we make that would strengthen the core story we want to tell?

If we don’t think of revision as separate from editing, we might skip the steps involved in revision and go straight to paying attention only to what we’ve already drafted. If we do that, we’ll miss out on developing some of the potential of our story—and that would be a shame, as I want us all to write the best stories we can imagine. *smile*

P.S. For another perspective on revision vs. editing, check out Janice Hardy’s post on the topic.

In your mind, is the definition of revising different from the definition of editing? If so, how do they differ in your understanding? Do you agree that it’s important not to skip these steps? Or do you have a different methodology? Do you have any other revision insights to share?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Bran Ayres

This came at the perfect time since my publisher just sent me my developmental edits. I absolutely love the idea of re-visioning the story. This really helps me understand better what I should be focusing on while taking their advice. I especially like your advice to think about the potential of the story and to focus on that.

Currently, my manuscript is sitting at 128K words. That is a lot and I’m certain I spent words rehashing things that don’t need it. You are spot on about revising helping to improve pacing and eliminate distractions. This helped me realize that there are a couple of chapters I could probably easily cut without losing anything. ^_^

And thank you again for having me guest post. I’m thrilled so many people enjoyed the posts. Though I’m sorry to hear your vacation wasn’t as relaxing as it could have been.

Thank you so much for a wonderful and timely post!

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks, great post! I am just on the writing stage now but this helps to remind me to keep focused on where my story is heading. If I work on the major aspects above while I draft, less editing!
In the past during an editing pass I have strengthened a conversation by showing it occurring rather than the narrator reporting that it had occurred. There is always something to improve.

Sieran Lane

Hey Jami,

I saw it as “big picture edits” versus “smaller detail edits”. 😀 But it’s good to clarify definitions so we understand what we’re talking about!

Some writers I met seem to see “editing” as something you hire professionals to do, and “revising” as something the author themselves would do.

Ooh, I like how goal-oriented and focused your approach is. I don’t have much editing/ revising experience, but thus far, I didn’t have any clear goals beyond “make this much better”, lol! So I liked your focus on the story you want to tell, the themes, character arcs, motivations, conflicts, stakes, etc. One way to make cutting things easier, is to remind yourself that you can always keep the original manuscript for yourself. You may remove your favorite scenes for the book you show the public, but you can still keep these beloved scenes for yourself to read in private.

When I saw your example revision of changing the character’s gender, I immediately thought: let’s change this straight romance to a gay romance! 😀 Jokes aside, I did have some characters who I initially assumed were straight (because heteronormativity), but then I thought they might actually be gay or bi. I had some story couples who seemed cishet, yet I later realized through re-reading the stories that one of the partners were transgender, so they are actually trans gay couples! 😀


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