3 Tips For a Better First Revision

The first revision is probably the most important factor in sculpting your novel. One of my favorite quotes to express this idea is by Shannon Hale who wrote: “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” The first revision is the building of those sand castles. There are numerous tips to a successful rewrite, but I’ve found three that I’ve put at the top of my list to make my novel better.

Conflict check.

On my rewrite, I first do a conflict check. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that every character in a scene should want something, even if it’s only a drink of water. On my first draft, I will usually focus on the main plot point of the scene. In doing so, I miss opportunities to add tension, great and small, to a chapter. On the rewrite, I ask myself: what does every character in that scene want, and what obstacles are standing in his or her way.

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                        — Screen shot 2014-10-10 at 10.50.45 PM      Screen shot 2014-10-10 at 10.56.57 PM

Column by Allen Eskens, author of THE LIFE WE BURY (Seventh Street Books Oct.
2014), a debut thriller that Publishers Weekly called a “masterful debut” in a starred
review. Allen has been a criminal defense attorney for twenty years. He honed his
creative writing skills through the MFA program at Minnesota State University as well
as classes at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and the Loft Literary Center in
Minneapolis. He is a member of the Twin Cities Sisters in Crime. Find him on Twitter.



I have an equation taped to my computer; it reads: “The greater the want + the greater the obstacle = greater conflict. Conflict = suspense.”

Suspense is a state of mental uncertainty. Readers have a need to resolve that uncertainty and will forge ahead to find resolution. Adding more tension and conflict creates page-turning prose. Rarely does my first draft take advantage of all of the opportunities for tension and conflict.


Another aspect of a first draft that I skimp on is my transition from one scene to another. In the haste to get the first draft on paper, I tend to jump abruptly from one plot point to the next. During the rewrite, I remind myself that transition paragraphs need to do more than move the reader from plot point to plot point. They should be eloquent and have a weight of their own.

Reading a novel is like kayaking down a river. Sometimes you shoot through rapids, bound up in the excitement of the action. Other times you float along admiring the beauty of the hills and wildlife. The pace of a novel is the balance between those two competing forces (between plot and scene). As I revise, I ask myself, do I want this paragraph to float through the valley or dive over rapids? If I am floating, I spend time on it, maybe go off on a tangent that deepens the character or enriches the scene. If I am heading for rapids, my focus should be on a shorter transition.

This is an opportunity to show your writing skill. The transition doesn’t have to be long, but it should be fresh. Take for example, the opening line from chapter four of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. She writes, “At seven the next morning the telephone rang. Slowly I swam up from the bottom of a black sleep.” A simple transition, beautifully written. In a first draft she might have written: “the phone woke me up at seven the next morning.” The small addition of “I swam up from the bottom of a black sleep” turns it from a standard transition to something enjoyable to read.

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The “was” edit.

The third thing I include in my first revision is what I call my “was” edit. I use my word-find function to locate every time I used the word “was.” On my first draft, I tend to be lazy and describe things using “was.” “He was taller than me.” “She was standing on the porch, waiting for him.” These are passive voice, and they violate the “show, don’t tell” rule. But in the haste of the first draft, I will type “was” and move on.

In the rewrite, I revisit each time I use the word “was” and ask myself if there’s a better way to write the sentence. It could be as simple as changing “he was taller than me” to “he stood three inches taller than me.” Or it could be more elaborate, like changing “She was standing on the porch, waiting for him” to “She found herself pacing back and forth across the same porch planks that her mother walked thirty years earlier, waiting for a man to return from the war.” I could go even further and write a tangent about the mother that gives the reader insight into the daughter’s character. But, then again, sometimes “was” fits just right and no change is needed. At least by doing a “was” edit, I’ve forced myself to examine my choice.

There are so many other considerations to a first revision, and every writer should have their own method, but these three tips have helped me in my writing.

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4 thoughts on “3 Tips For a Better First Revision

  1. ktomsovic

    Love the river analogy. I write patchy first drafts, and this advice will help me with transitions between the beats of a scene. And the “was” edit. So true that even if it’s not technically passive voice, it can still be weak writing. I find automated editing tools helpful for weeding out my “was’s!”

  2. dymphna st james

    I agree with your conflict advice. A good book on this method is Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream that explains how every story should have a yearning and how to satisfy the yearning through your narrative. Good luck with your book!

  3. HughB

    I love the three suggestions. And the “was” edit is particularly helpful. But whether it’s a “was” edit or an “is” edit, it’s not about the passive voice. The examples “he was taller” and “she was standing” are both in the active voice, PAST TENSE. Still, I agree your suggestion works. The passive voice thing is something else–and, of course, it’s something to watch out for in writing and editing as well. This comment just goes to show that some people are writers, and others are just English majors wishing we were writers.

  4. JanelleFila

    These are excellent tips. I struggle with transitions, so the kayaking example really helped me understand that it doesn’t always have to read: go go go! I also do an “is” edit (since I write in first person). Unfortunately, every draft I find another example of passive voice I missed! I think that one is a constant struggle! Thanks again for the excellent advice. Janelle http://www.janellefila.com


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