Skip to main content

3 Questions to Ask When Revising

When I reached the end of my first draft of ASSASSIN'S HEART, the story was in place, but I knew I had to bring out and uncover other elements, like themes, setting, and especially character arcs.

Assassins-Heart-book-cover
Sarah-Ahiers-author-writer

Column by Sarah Ahiers, author of ASSASSIN'S HEART (Feb. 2, 2016,
HarperTeen). Sarah has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults
from Hamline University and lives in Minnesota with three dogs and a
house full of critters. She has a collection of steampunk hats and when
she’s not writing she fills her time with good games, good food, good
friends and good family. Follow her on Twitter

Revisions are some of the hardest things to tackle as a writer. Many times we know something needs to be fixed, but we don’t know how to fix it. Or we might not even know what it is. But revision is where our novels really take off. Where we massage and mold them into something grander, deeper. Something whole.

Here are three questions to ask when tackling revisions:

1. Are my themes developed enough?

The first thing to do is cut. Look at each scene and ask: Does this scene forward the plot, the character arcs, or the theme? If it doesn’t, it has to go.

(Before you send out your query, look over a submission checklist.)

If it does forward one of those things, can it do double duty? Can it forward the plot and the theme? Or what about all three? Now that could be a killer scene.

And what are the themes that developed while you were drafting? Sometimes, they’re different than what we expected. Are the themes hinted at in the beginning, and more apparent by the end? Can you touch on them more, throughout? We don’t want to hammer the reader over the head with the theme, but a sprinkle here, a whisper there can make all the difference.

2. Does my setting feel grounded and encompassing?

With fantasy, world building is key, including clarifying spots where the reader might get confused. There’s also research—like when were indoor toilets first used? Or what were renaissance kitchens like? For world building, often times it’s the small details that really bring the entire world into focus, to make it feel vast and whole.

But setting isn’t just for fantasy. Even your contemporary novel is set somewhere. Again, small details carry a lot of weight—where does your character eat ice cream? What kind of movies show at the local theater? Are the roads freshly paved or riddled with potholes? These details can help a reader grasp a full picture of the world your character inhabits.

Image placeholder title

Need help crafting an awesome plot for your
story? Check out the new acclaimed resource
by Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots.

3. Are my characters’ emotional arcs where they need to be?

In ASSASSIN'S HEART, two characters had to go because they didn’t further the plot or themes in any way.

Once the fat is trimmed, it’s time to build upon things that need growth. Look at your characters and where they start at the beginning of the novel, and where they wind up at the end. Have your characters changed? Are their arcs believable? Surprising, yet inevitable? Are your characters’ motivations and goals clear throughout the whole novel? And though this is super important for your main character, don’t forget your side characters as well. Just remember, everyone is the hero of their own story.

Revision can be time consuming work, but when it’s done, your novel may have a resonance it was missing before. And those novels are the ones that tend to linger with readers the most.

And taking your time will pay off! The manuscript will be tighter. Every scene will be clean and scrubbed. Your characters will grow and change and the themes will be delicate when they need to be and robust when you want. And you won’t miss those cut characters—even if one was pretty cool—or any of the cut scenes—you may not even remember some of them.

Don’t be afraid to make drastic changes. Cut those major characters and scenes, even the ones you think the story can’t live without. Cut them, and see how you will rewrite the story with them gone. If it doesn’t work, you can always go back to the old version. Nothing has to be permanent.

(16 things to do prior to sending your work out to agents & editors.)

Writing a draft is hard, but revision is a different kind of hard, and while the results are worthwhile, in the midst of revisions that can seem far away. Still, it is worth it. You spend all that time and energy writing the book, don’t sell yourself short by not revising as much as your book needs. You can do it.

------------------

Check Out These Great Upcoming Writers' Conferences:

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 3.39.23 PM

Your new complete and updated instructional guide
to finding an agent is finally here: The 2015 book
GET A LITERARY AGENT shares advice from more 
than 110 literary agents who share advice on querying, 
craft, the submission process, researching agents, and
much more. Filled with all the advice you'll ever need to
find an agent, this resource makes a great partner book to
the agent database, Guide to Literary Agents.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

What Is Fan Fiction in Writing?

What Is Fan Fiction in Writing?

You might have heard the term, especially if you’re in online fandoms, but what exactly is fan fiction? Managing Editor Moriah Richard explains.

5 Ways To Use Short Stories To Grow as a Writer

5 Ways To Use Short Stories To Grow as a Writer

Short story writing can be a gateway to writing your novel—but they’re also fun and worthy stories in their own right. Here, author Dallas Woodburn shares 5 ways to use short stories to grow as a writer.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Having an Online Presence

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Having an Online Presence

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not having an online presence.

Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

Physician, cartoonist, and author Shirlene Obuobi discusses the writerly advice that led to writing her new coming-of-age novel, On Rotation.

WD Poetic Form Challenge

WD Poetic Form Challenge: Kimo Winner

Learn the winner and Top 10 list for the Writer’s Digest Poetic Form Challenge for the kimo.

8 Things Writers Should Know About Tattoos

8 Things Writers Should Know About Tattoos

Tattoos and their artists can reveal interesting details about your characters and offer historical context. Here, author June Gervais shares 8 things writers should know about tattoos.

Tyler Moss | Reporting Through Lens of Social Justice

Writing Through the Lens of Social Justice

WD Editor-at-Large Tyler Moss makes the case for reporting on issues of social justice in freelance writing—no matter the topic in this article from the July/August 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character leave clues for people to find them.

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Author Sharon Maas discusses the 20-year process of writing and publishing her new historical fiction novel, The Girl from Jonestown.