No book is perfect. It’s more common than you think to find a typo or a misspelled word, those proverbial book Easter eggs, on a page or two. Unfortunately, things like that get missed in books before they go to production all the time, even when they’re edited by the best editing team on the planet. But I’m not talking about that when I say that no book is perfect. I’m referring to the story part of the book itself.
Authors often wish they could go back to their early books and change something. Is that because what they wrote was bad? No, not usually. Usually it’s because time and distance from the project have given them a different perspective. But even if they went back and changed a scene or a conversation, would that make their book now suddenly perfect? Of course not. Because books can never be perfect. Revising until your book is perfect is like chasing the Easter Bunny. It’s a task that will never end. That bunny is pretty elusive!
So if you’re writing a book, and perfection is not possible, how do you ever know when to stop revising?
Well, you revise until your book is perfect-ish.
You do all the things you can to make your book as strong and sparkly as you can. And once you do, you declare it perfect-ish, and send it out into the world… or to agents. Because at some point you have to decide that you’re happy with the story you’ve written. If you’ve put in the revision work, worked with critique partners and beta readers, and feel in your heart that the story is good and polished, then it’s time to give it wings and see how far it can fly.
Not quite there yet? Here is a list of revision steps I take. Hopefully they can help you too because I want your book to fly one day. It’s the best feeling in the world!
Before you begin though, set your manuscript aside for a week or two. This step is ultra important because otherwise when you read it through, you’re seeing what you want to see, not what’s actually on the page. After some time away, you’ll clearly see the difference between what you imagined your story to be and what actually landed on the page. Once you open it back up again, these are the things to look for as you revise. I’ve broken them down into four categories: Characters, Setting, Plot, and Structure.
- Ground the reader: Is it clear in the first few pages who my MC is and what she wants or needs?
- Problem: Is this stated plainly and early on?
- Stakes: Are they high enough? Is it crystal clear to the reader what will happen if your MC doesn’t get what she wants or needs?
- Is the hook strong enough? Can I make it better?
- Inciting Incident: Does it happen early enough? As the springboard to your protagonist’s adventure it needs to be important enough that your MC will leave their present situation once it happens.
- Voice: Are their places that fall out of voice? Are their phrases that sound too cliché or too old/ young? If your mom would say something a certain way, a teenager would probably not say it the same way!
- Consistency: Do the dates and times all line up? If it’s a 95 degreee day in Florida in July, your characters would not be wearing jackets. Even a light one—unless you explain it away.
- Obstacles: Are there enough obstacles for your MC to overcome? Have you made the adventure too easy for her? If you have, fix that. Throw another one at her or make sure she has more trouble getting through it.
- Does the climax work? Whether it’s a big battle scene between good and evil, a difficult conversation your MC must have, or the final mountain that your MC must climb, is it huge? The climax scene is a big deal. Have you made it a big deal? Does it lead to a satisfying ending.
- Character Arcs: Is it clear what my MC wants? Is it clear what she needs? Does she grow throughout the story? I ask this question for my protagonist, the secondary characters, and the antogonist.
- Dialogue: I revise for overal dialogue first. Is it realistic? Do the conversations sound like real people talking? Then I read through the dialogue one character at a time. Did the right character say it? Or is it more likely that a different character would say it based on their personality or voice?
- Controlling Beliefs: What idea informs the way my MC looks at her situation? Is this consistent throughout the story? Does this change in a way that makes sense? Not sure what a controlling belief is? Read my post about that here.
- Character consistencies: Would Mare (the perfectionist) be likely to throw her hair up in a messy bun or would that more like be something that Jillian (the creative, laid-back character) would do?
- Names: Do they fit the story, the setting, and time period? Do they flow? Are they easy to read? Do they have a hidden meaning? If they do is it something that makes sense to the plot? Are there too many that begin with the same letter? If so, they may be hard for the reader to keep track of. Do they fit your characters and bring them to life? Are they memorable?
- World Building: Every writer must build the world their story takes place in…whether that’s a small Cape Cod town where a yahting company governs, or a brand new planet where life most definitly exists. Whatever it is, during revisions, make sure it’s complete and understandable.
- Descriptions: Are they detailed enough or too detailed? You want vivid descriptions but you also want your readers to use their imaginations. Never let your descriptions get so wordy that the reader skims over them.
- Names: Like character names, the setting names should fit the plot, make sense to the world you’ve built, and be memorable!
- Rules: Are there rules that are true in your world? Do magical powers only work at night? Is time different? Is everyone able to read each other’s minds—but only at 3:00pm? Make sure your reader understands what the situation is. If they need to suspend disbelief that’s okay. They just need to understand when they’re doing it.
- Chapter Titles: Do they fit the story? Are they consistent? Do they convey the things you want them to convey in each one?
- Chapter Arcs: Have you grounded the reader in the first paragraph? Does the chapter move the story forward? Is it necessary? If not, fix it or get rid of it! Does it end with a cliffhanger so that the reader will want to read on?
- Pacing: Does the story follow the 3 Act/ 8 Sequence Structure—or something similar? Does it drag at all?
I probably missed something in this list. But these are the basic things I look for as I revise. It’s kind of a lot! All this work just to get our stories in a strong place. Notice I didn’t mention anything about editing. That comes later…after your manuscript is well on its way to perfect-ish!
I hope this list helps you and I also hope you had a Happy Easter weekend. The Easter bunny came to our house again this year… even though our kids are 21 and 23! He left clues for them to solve to find their baskets and everything. I guess the bunny wanted to keep that tradition going for another year!
Have you ever tried writing clues? Yikes. It’s honestly harder than writing a novel.
Thank you so much for reading!