5 Key Questions Writers Should Ask When Revising Writing

As a longtime nonfiction book and magazine editor, Debbie Harmsen has given notes on revising numerous manuscripts and articles. Here's what all writers should know.
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Many of us don't think about revising as we should.

You’ve labored long and hard on your article or book, and you’re excited to turn it in to your editor. But not so fast. You’ve let your creative juices flow and put all your great points down on paper—but have you stepped back from it and viewed it the way your editor will?

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As a longtime nonfiction book and magazine editor, I’ve given notes on revising numerous manuscripts and articles—and as a writer, I’ve also been on the receiving end of that sort of feedback. From both sides, I’ve seen that when it comes to nonfiction, there are five key questions editors ask themselves when reviewing a manuscript or article. Ask these of yourself before you submit, and you’ll reduce your odds of being asked to revise or rewrite after the fact—and increase your odds of nailing the assignment so well that your editor gives you another.

5 Key Questions Writers Should Ask When Revising Writing

1. When Revising, Ask: Is this tailored to the right audience or should I do some revising?

Often when we write, we can get so caught up in what we want to say that it’s easy to forget to think about specifically who is going to be reading it. But consider this: If you were asked to speak about a certain topic, wouldn’t you tailor your speech one way if your audience was a group of first-grade boys and an entirely different way for a gathering of female civil engineers? Although you can’t see it in front of you, the audience for your article or book is just as real and just as specific.

How do you know who those readers are? If you’re writing for a magazine or website, that publication or site is targeting a known demographic (if the audience isn’t obvious to you, ask your editor what you should know about his readership). Reread your article and ask yourself if what you’ve written fits with the publication’s tone, taking special care if the audience is not one you’re accustomed to addressing—it can be easier said than done to strike the right note. For example, I once wrote a piece for a website geared toward hip millennials, and I was challenged by the editor to make my “lovely” piece more “playful, jokey, and a little sassy.” I thought lovely would work for this audience; the editor knew better.

Maybe you’re writing a nonfiction book and therefore don’t have to conform to a particular publication’s demographic. You may even be thinking, I want my book to be for everyone! I hate to be the one to burst your bubble, but burst it I will. Book publishers want you to narrow down the field to a target market based on your topic and your platform. These things are typically discussed at the book proposal stage, and if you don’t keep them in mind when you draft the manuscript, back to the keyboard you will go.

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2. When Revising, Ask: Have I chosen the strongest possible structure?

Structure is critical to every piece of writing. It’s the framework that holds your content together. It guides the readers along and, in doing so, subtly lets them know they can trust you. If your structure is weak, your writing will come across as being all over the place, and, worse, the readers will probably not put much stock in what you have to say. In contrast, consider the subheads throughout this article and others in this magazine. If your structure helps readers know where they’re going and feel confident about the types of information and entertainment they’ll get along the way, they’re more likely to trust you and what you have to say.

Of course, it’s best to have a structure in mind before you write (though if you didn’t, better late than never). When it comes time to revise, look at it more closely. Keep an eye out for inconsistencies. If you are writing a call-to-action book, have you placed action steps at the end of all of your chapters? If you’re writing an article and four out of its five sections begin with anecdotes, can you retool the fifth to fit the mold? The result will be a more cohesive piece that is harder for an editor to poke holes in.

3. When Revising, Ask: Am I offering overall takeaways?

Unless you’re writing a memoir or personal essay, your nonfiction work is probably trying to convey information, be it historical, self-improvement, business-oriented, etc. Does your piece do this, or have you gotten so carried away in making your points that you didn’t tell the readers why this matters, or how to apply the information in their own lives? If you’re writing an article about how to land your dream job, when the readers finish your piece, do they walk away with new insights and practical applications to pursue their own career goals? (It’s probably not enough for them to see only how you did it.) If you’re writing about the history of a country, does the reader leave with a new appreciation for or understanding of that culture?

If you’re writing a memoir or personal essay, your piece may be more about inspiration or intrigue than information, but there should still be a takeaway—perhaps what can be learned from the experience, or a poignant glimpse into human nature.

In most cases, your book or article’s title or subtitle is at the heart of the takeaway. A good gut check when you’re revising your piece is to see if you executed your story in such a way that it lives up to your title/subtitle’s promise.

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4. When Revising, Ask: Does each section or chapter have a clear purpose?

While there needs to be a main takeaway for your work overall, unless you’ve written a very short piece, you likely have structured your work in sections or chapters. Each of those, too, needs a takeaway or main point.

For example, in this article, we’re looking overall at how to revise the way an editor would (the big takeaway), but each of these five questions gives a specific way to do that—those are the minor takeaways. When you’re revising, look at each section of your article or each chapter of your book and note what purpose it serves to the overall piece. If it doesn’t have one, it likely needs to be either revised or cut. Look for places where you’re rambling or haven’t said something as succinctly as you could have.

Finally, ensure also that the sections appear in an order that flows logically and easily from one to the next, without the content getting ahead of itself or becoming redundant.

5. When Revising, Ask: Is my voice authoritative without being overbearing?

Now it’s time to get brutally honest with yourself. Where is your ego in all of this? Are you like the guy who is trying too hard to impress his date? You want your nonfiction to shine because of its content, not because you are so remarkable. This is true even if you’re writing your life story. If the reader leaves your essay or book with the thought, Wow, she is such a fascinating person but doesn’t also think, and what a fascinating story she has, you haven’t done your job. When I edited Brad Willis’ memoir Warrior Pose, I was intrigued by the astonishing things the author did when he was a foreign correspondent for NBC, traipsing around the world, covering war zones and areas torn apart by poverty or the drug trade. The author was interesting and immediately likable, but it was the story that was so captivating.

A successful piece of writing at its core is about the content, not about you. And believe me, as with the other points above, it’s better if you spot this and fix it before you submit; if you don’t, your editor most certainly will.

Revision and Self Editing

Every writer knows that the journey to publication is a long and hard road. Once you finish your first draft, it’s time to start the arduous process of self-editing and revision. When you take this online writing workshop, you will learn methods of self-editing for fiction writers to ensure your writing is free of grammatical errors.

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