Revising 101: My Top Tips

I have a confession to make. I find writing painful. Birthing words is hard labor. 

But I LOVE revising. Am I weird, or do others of you feel the same way?
There are different levels of revisions, of course. The hardest ones are where you blow your entire manuscript apart and re-plot. I’ve been doing that recently. Still enjoyable in a BDSM kind of way (just tie me up and beat me, why doncha?) but intense.
Then there are the really fun revisions, where you get to go back and polish and elaborate and dig deeper. Here are a few of the tips and techniques I’ve found useful, in no particular order.

1) BACKLOAD YOUR SENTENCES. This is an interesting exercise, and it simply means to look at your sentences and put the most impactful words at the end. Look at this sentence: “Mud sucked at his shoes as he stepped back to view the car’s position.” What are the strongest words in the sentence? I’d say “mud sucked at his shoes.” So how about flipping it: “He stepped back to gauge the car’s position, the thick red mud sucking at his shoes.” That’s not the strongest example in the world, but you get the idea.

2) TEST YOUR MAN’S MANLINESS. Many of us are women trying to write in a male POV; a man writing in a woman’s POV would have the same issues. Does your hero really sound like a guy, or is he a girl with a few extra appendages? Copy and paste one of your chapters into the Gender Genie and see which gender it thinks your POV character is. It’s not a perfect test, but it’s a nice little gauge to use (and free). Also works if you have a kickass heroine you want to test as masculine.

3) MAKE YOUR CHARACTERS CONSISTENT. I actually blogged about this yesterday at my–using Enneagrams, a personality typing system, to test against your character to see if he or she is behaving in a consistent manner. The theory is that there are nine core personalities (and infinite variables within the nine, of course). By typing your character’s core personality, you can see what might be most likely to push his buttons or turn him on–-or win his heart. It’s a fascinating system.

4) EXPLODE YOUR PARAGRAPHS. This is a great way to force yourself to take another look at your writing from a different viewpoint. To see if it works for you, take a paragraph from an emotionally charged section of your manuscript, and copy and paste it onto a blank screen. Now, blow it apart. Separate the sentences with a few lines between them so you’re reading each sentence in isolation. Can it be tweaked to increase the emotional intensity? Does it say anything about your character or scene–could it be added to? If it doesn’t say anything, could it be cut? Between that sentence and the next , could some emotional intensity be added with just a word, or a detail, or a new sentence?
 5) FIND YOUR WORD ECHOES. Run your chapters through the AutoCrit wizard. I actually bought a year’s membership in this site so I could get a bigger variety of “critiques,” but there are three free ones. Copy and paste a couple of chapters (up to 7k at a time, I think) and you can get reports on overused words, repeated phrases and sentence length variation. 
 6) READ IT ALOUD. The ear catches a lot of things the eye misses: repeated words and phrases, sentence pacing, etc. And by forcing the eye to slow down as you read, you can catch more typos. 

7) READ THE LAST SENTENCE OF EACH CHAPTER. If it ends with the POV character going to bed or falling asleep, change it–unless you want the reader to fall asleep too. Nothing screams “you can put this book down now” like a sleeping hero.
So those are my favorite revising tips. Tell me some of yours!

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man's Curse; Black Diamond).

22 thoughts on “Revising 101: My Top Tips

  1. I must be as weird as you because I think revising is a treat. For me, opening up edits is like Christmas. I love the opportunity to look at my work through new eyes – I can stare at the words all I want during my several run-throughs before submission and still not see what I need to see.
    I do some of the same things, flip my sentences and isolate my paragraphs. Great advice!

  2. I almost didn’t read your post because I’ve read so much about revising…but you offer some great new ideas here! Thanks!

  3. I’m in the process of “blowing up my manuscript” as well, and you’re right — it is enjoyable. Like revisiting old friends. These are some terrific, original suggestions. I especially like the online tools you recommend. Thanks!

  4. *slowly raises hand* I’m one of those that enjoys revising much more than the first draft. I think it’s because I can focus on all the things you mentioned.

    Thanks for a couple of those links they’re great.

  5. I write a really rough, really fast first draft, so really I create a book in the revisions. I’ve never thought of some of these techniques, even though I’m doing them as I go. Thanks for the post and reminding all of us participating in Nano what a huge chore we have ahead of us. *SMILES*

  6. Julia–I enjoy revision letters too…as long as they’re not too intense. And I always end up with a better book!

    Thanks, Kellye–Yeah, I’m always on the lookout for something to jolt me out of my revision stupor and help me look at my words from a new angle. These are some of my favorites.

    Wolf–I love the “blowup” technique! I’m doing that with a manuscript now.

    Nina–glad to see I’m not alone with Painful First Draft syndrome. We need to get Rachel to write our first drafts so we can just revise!

    Good luck with NaNo, Rachel! I’m a NaNo rebel this year, revising instead of writing from scratch. But shhh…don’t tell them.

  7. Great tips! One of the revision tips I’ve found most helpful is to layer in more emotion between the hero and heroine. I’ve heard it said that there should be at least a hint or glimmer of awareness between the hero and heroine every time they are on the page together. After I heard this, I examined my characters with fresh eyes and discovered there were a lot of times they were just going through the motions for plotting purposes. Once I layered in more awareness, my writing became much stronger.

  8. This post was so wonderful, I’ve never heard of Gender Genie, I can’t wait to try it.
    I like revisions, at best they feel like a new lease on life for a story that may have lost its way. With a revision I can slow down and give an ms the loving attention it needs that a quick and dirty first draft can never provide.
    Thank you Suzanne.
    XXOO Kat

  9. Love these tips! And I can’t wait to try some of those sites out.

    I found 2 programs that help me. One is called Natural Reader, it reads your words back to you out loud. There is a free version and one you can purchase. I also bought a CD that catches all my verb’s. I’m terrible with those. You can run different macro’s for different things. It is amazing. I’m at work so I don’t know the name of it, but I believe the author is Dawn Smith?


  10. Great tip, Rosalie–I’ll have to look at that. Love the idea of layering between the h/h.

    Thanks for stopping by, Kat and Paul! Glad to see you here.

    Dawn, I haven’t heard of Natural Reader–I’ll have to check it out.

    Nicole–Gender Genie is cool. Only it told me my hero was a girl (ack!), so I had to go in and toughen him up. Amazing what a difference word choice can make!

  11. Very interesting suggestions, Suzanne. I’ll add one:

    8) Was this trip really necessary? Rarely are scenes that exist to get characters from point A to point B necessary. In most cases a precise accounting for exactly how characters move around in a scene is too much information.

    On “manliness”, beware of overdoing it. I don’t think that women and men are *so* different psychologically, certainly not that they cannot understand each other. The biggest difference is in how men support other men. Men nurture other men by teaching them what it means to be a man. Imagine if you told one of your friends your troubles and she punched you on the arm and told you to “suck it up.” If the pair of you were men and (this is important) close friends, this would be as close as you’d come (in our culture at least) to getting a hug. Your friend is reminding you that you are strong. Think Gandalf curing Theoden in Lord of the Rings; Theoden had been emasculated by Wormtongue’s sympathy. Gandalf cures Theoden by telling him to man up. Would you write that scene the same way for female characters? You possibly might, but you couldn’t write it different for male ones.

    I’m actually impressed by how well Gender Genie works, but it doesn’t quite work well enough, and in any case focuses on word choice, not attitude. If you have doubts, find a man you trust and run your scene by him.

    The sleeping thing is an interesting point. I think the problem isn’t sleeping per se, but focusing too much on concluding one unit of action and not enough on linking it to the next bit. If a character goes to sleep with a security the reader knows is *unfounded*, that’s actually more dramatic than him staying up at night bighting his fingers. Example:

    “Maximilian lay down again and pulled the covers up. His mind was uncertain as to whether Hector was terrifying or reassuring or some peculiar mixture of each. But his feelings were certain. They liked Hector. He decided to go with his feelings, since they seemed to know what was going on.”

  12. I just discovered your blog and I love it! Rachel, did you tweet a link to here? Maybe that’s how I found it.

    Anyway, I’m excited to check out some of those tools. Thank you so much for sharing them!

  13. Hello.
    What a great article!
    I love your tips and the sites you suggest are going under “Favorites” in my computer.
    Backload (Margie Lawson grad, are you? :)) is a great technique to power up writing.
    On edits, I try to watch for overused rhetoric devices, dialogue that is “Circular” (I’m right.No, your’re wrong. Your’re wrong) ie, no one wins, reader sleeps.
    I am a word repeater, and watch for that, but the site you suggest will help– my poor crit partners are always watching for that!
    Again, terrific article.
    Also adding you to favs.

  14. Yeah, Matt–the Gender Genie has flaws and I’d never use it to make wholesale changes (or any online tool, for that matter), but it’s worthwhile just to get a head’s up to look and see if you have some problems.

    Welcome, Jami! Glad you’re here!

    Kelly–glad you found some of the tips useful. LOL, yep, I’m a big Margie Lawson fan. I wish I had a year just to bury myself in her Deep Edits system. I have to dig out tips a little at a time.

  15. Certainly. I actually think that even *human* feedback ought to be taken with a grain of salt.

    Writers sometimes rebel at critique because the person giving feedback doesn’t understand what the author is trying to do. The answer isn’t to ignore the feedback because it’s uninformed. Nor is it to make the criticisms go away by taking them at face value. I think you ought to do what you set out to do, only do it more effectively.

    I’ve done some research on Gender Genie. It turns out that it looks for certain keywords which it thinks are feminine and other keywords which it thinks are masculine. Feminine keywords identify persons and their connections; masculine keywords describe quantity, spatial orientation and action (“said” as an action is masculine!).

    Gender Genie really identifies differences in what men and women tend to write about. It tells you somewhat less about differences in their communication styles, and nothing at all about differences in the way they think. A female POV character who is trying to figure out how to escape the scorpion pit will surely be misidentified as male, because she is contemplating actions and spatial relationships. A male POV character who is trying to figure out how to convince somebody to cooperate with him will be computed as female, because he is thinking about people and their relationships. You can’t “fix” these things except by forcing your heroine to wait in the scorpion pit, wondering if someone will rescue her.

    Still, within its limitations, the Gender Genie is impressive. I wouldn’t worry about getting the wrong score, though. What would be interesting is to strip out just the *dialog* for a character an run it through the Genie.

  16. I feel the same way about first drafts — they are painful! I envy the people who actually enjoy writing. Revision is much easier for me (but not wholesale rewriting — that’s too much like a first draft — and I outline so extensively I never have to do it).

  17. Wow, great perspective and suggestions! I see another reason you are not NaNo-ing, if you hate the first draft business. I am trying to view my very rough first draft as an extended outline, including dialogue and action, so that when December comes along (as I am NaNo-ing), I can start revising without feeling like I need to pack it all in and go back to knitting (that’s what January is for).

  18. I agree wholeheartedly with points 1, 4, 6, and 7, but I’m more than a little nervous about running writing through any sort of internet app, let alone trusting anything that might come out the other end. Really think about this: Is it informing your writing or sucking the life out of it? A computer can not possibly appreciate the subtle nuances that breathe life into fiction.