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Sunday, January 16

Edits vs. Revisions: One on One Death Match

Which is which?
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

You often hear edit and revise used interchangeably, but it's helpful to think of them as two different things. Editing is the nitpicky, line by line tweaks that polish your text. Revision is more macro level, changing parts of the story. But how do you know when to use one over the other? I revise first, because that covers the big issues. The things that may take a lot of work. Once the story is unfolding how I want, then I edit, polishing it until it shines.

Macro Issues

Work from the top down, tackling the largest problem first, since odds are that will change other things in the story. There’s no need to polish the text of a paragraph if you might cut that entire scene.

Story and Structure
This is the biggest part of any novel. If these aren’t working, none of the edits you make will do any good. Take a step back and look at your overall story. Is it working? Things may need to be changed, so don’t worry about the smaller “this part is too slow” problems. Does the basic story work and unfold in a way that makes sense? Is the structure working? Do you need more set up and less middle? A longer ending and shorter beginning? Are there too many chapters? Too few? Do you need to break in into parts?

Plot and Stakes
Now look at the plot. Does each plot event advance that story in a logical way? Are there too many subplots? Too few? Check your stakes. Are things going from bad to worse over the course of the novel? Are the stakes worth risking something for?

Characters and Point of View
Do you have the right characters? Is the protagonist the best person to tell this tale? Is the antagonist the right bad guy? Are the secondary characters pulling their weight or are they just hanging around? Are there too many characters? Not enough? Is it told through the right point of view? Are there too many or too few of them?

Medium Issues

Once you’ve revised the major pieces, you can get closer and start tweaking the gears of the story. The guts that make it work.

How does your story unfold? Look for those slow spots, the too-fast spots, the jerky spots where the flow feels off. Is there a rise and fall? Does the story feel like it’s moving forward or running around in circles? Are revelations and set pieces happening in the right spots or are they all clumped together?

Scenes and Goals
Check each scene for the POV’s goal, how they plan to get that goal, and what’s at risk if they fail. Do they have a solid goal? (remember, goals can crossover scenes, so they can have the same goal if it takes them a while to resolve it) Is the risk big enough to make the reader worry if they fail? Is the obstacle in their way tough enough so it doesn’t feel like “stuff” just to fill up the story? Does each scene lead logically to the next? Does every scene need to be there? Do you need to add any scenes?

Look at your chapter and scene transitions. The right pieces can be in the right places, but how you move from one to the other determines how much the reader wants to follow you. Do you end a scene or chapter with a carrot to lure the reader to the next scene? Do you start the next scene with a new problem without resolving (even if that means “we need to worry about this later”) the last problem? Exciting enders that don’t lead anywhere get old fast, and stop being exciting once the reader figures out you’re just tricking them.

Character Growth and Story Arcs
Look at the story arcs for each character. Does their tale unfold in a way that allows them to grow as a character (even small growth)? Are they learning the things they need to learn for the story? Is there a good mix of character arc revelations and story arc revelations?

Micro Issues
By now, the big stuff is done, the story is in good shape structurally, and you’re ready to start the detail work. It’s time to actually edit vs revise.

This is one of the first places I look when I start polishing, because a lot of the other editing issues can be found here. Characters talking usually pinpoints the story’s “action” (as in, things happening) so they’re also good spots to weave in all the stuff that can slow a story down (but in a way that doesn’t slow it down). Bits of description, backstory, stage direction. These things slip in easier when combined with something interesting going on. Is there any unnecessary dialog? Do you have too many tags? Not enough? Can those tags be changed to show action, internalization, setting, etc?

Is there too much? Too little? Is it in the right place? Look for large blocks of paragraphs on the page. Often those blocks are red flags that there’s too much of something going on.

Word Usage
Set off on that adverb hunt, check your prepositions and your classic telling flags, like to, with, saw, looked, etc. Also check for commonly misused words. It is that or who? Effect or affect? Are you using the best word for what you’re trying to say? Often isn’t the same as usually, red isn’t the same as scarlet. What about favorite words? I always have to do a search for just, only, and still. 

Rhythm and Flow
How your sentences run together goes a long way to pulling your reader through a story. Are your sentences varied and working with your pacing? Are there too many short choppy sentences in a row? Too many long ones? Does it read awkwardly anywhere? Do you stumble over words or passages? Reading your work out loud can really show you where the stumbling blocks are.

How you choose to work on your novel is up to you, but I’ve found putting myself in the right mindset helps keep me focused on what I’m trying to do. If I’m “revising,” I’m more open to hacking out parts or moving things around, because the text isn’t finished yet. But when I’m “editing,” I’m looking at the individual sentences and not the bigger picture as much. I’m trying to make what’s there the best it can be, not deciding if it should be there at all.

A subtle shift in thought, but sometimes that’s all you need to get the job done.

Do you treat edits and revisions differently? 

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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Originally posted during the Blue Fire blog tour at Addicted to Books.


  1. Thanks Janice. I found this really helpful as I'm just finishing my novel revisions and then I'll be moving on to edits and polishing. The revision process is where I did all the things you mentioned (deleting, rearranging, etc.) The manuscript is so much stronger now and I'm really looking forward to the editing stage since I know the big changes are behind me. Now I just need to make it shine.


  2. I just posted the other day about doing the final polishing on a short story. I haven't got to that stage on a novel manuscript yet, but when I do I'll certainly be referring back to your tips on the larger kind of revisions first. Your posts on passive voice were a huge help when working on that short story!

  3. Thanks for posting this. I always get caught up in the little things when I should be focusing on the bigger issues. I'll definitely be looking back at this post (and some of your others, as well) to keep myself on track.

  4. I'm glad you're re-posting some of your blog tour posts. I thought I'd read them all, but apparently I missed this one.

  5. I hadn't thought of defining revision versus editing quite that way, but it makes sense. It is valuable to start with the big picture first. Sometimes it seems almost impossible to keep your whole story in mind at once, though, while you figure out what's working and what's missing!

    I find it helps to start by making an outline of what I have, and analyzing that for the different elements you mention. That way you have a "map" laid out across a few pages, and you don't have to flip through hundreds of pages trying to remember where exactly the characters did something.

    I'm starting a series on my blog about using this for the novel revision process.

  6. Tracey: Good luck on that! It sounds like you're on the right path :)

    Elisabeth: I'm glad the passive post helped ;) I'll have some guest posters in a few weeks to do more on shorts.

    Melissa: Most welcome! That's not an uncommon problem ;)

    Tessa: I'll be posting them on the weekends. I figured it would be good to have them all n this site as well so I can refer back when needed.

    Chris: I'm a huge fan of the outline as a revision tool. I'm sure there's a post or two on that here somewhere :)

  7. Thanks, Janice! I read this in exactly the right point in my revision/editing story. Great post!

  8. Janice, you always come through when I need you the most. I was thinking about the difference between the two when preparing an email for my wrimos. Then I gave up and did something else because I just didn't have the time.

    Next week, I'm sending them to this post. Thanks!

  9. Awesome post. I did both already on my first project that is in the query stage now, but I am printing this to use when I get to this point with my current one. Thanks :-)

  10. I am currently in a state of perpetual first drafting (for further explanation see here, but will be book marking this for future reference... thank you!

  11. Charity: Happy to help ;)

    Rachel: Good luck on your submissions!

    Ali: Wow, what an interesting task you're doing. I can't even imagine tackling that, but part of me loves the idea of trying it. I have tons of ideas I wish I had time to write, and it would be great to get a bunch of them banged out in a first draft form. You've inspired me to do a mini version and do synopses of the ideas so at least I'll be that much closer to a first draft when I get to them :)

  12. Wow, this was really helpful. I did think editing and revising were the same thing, but I've seen the light. Thanks.

  13. Like Julie, I'd lumped together editing and revising but thanks for pointing out their differences. I liked what you said about scenes and goals.

  14. Julie & Jennifer: It's a silly little mental shift, but I've found it really helps keep me focused on whatever aspect I need to work on. It's easy to ignore the piddly stuff if I'm revising, knowing the polish will come later.

  15. Obvious. Get it out there first. Find the skeleton, then put on its flesh. But, I forget and get stuck in commas long before it's time, then wonder why I forget where I am with a story. Thanks for the reminder.

  16. I am currently stuck in the revision process. I've made it to a point in my story that I'm not very fond of, and I'm completely lost on how to fix it.

    I tend to focus on the editing, when I should be revising. It's probably just another form of procrastination for me!

    Thanks for the tips!

  17. Happy to help! Good luck on that revision.

  18. Great stuff. I have been revising my 142,000 word novel down to 90,000 words. I love the things you've offered. Most of my revising was finished by the time I found this. I believe I did the things you said. But in my next book I will surely reread this information. Thank You much...

  19. Robert: Grats! That's quite an accomplishment to trim that much.

  20. This a bit off topic, but I like the pic used in this post. For some reason I keep thinking this is how Nya from your books looks.

    Detached and feisty outside. Torn inside.

    Back on topic: Until I read this I didn't realize that revising and editing had such distinct differences.

    They always seemed hand-in-hand to me.

  21. Overall, they're used interchangeably, but if you look at how you revise and the steps that go into editing a book, you do realize there are separate issues at separate times. Thinking about them as separate things really helps put the focus where it needs to be depending on what stage you're at.

    And yeah, she does kinda look like Nya :)

  22. In relation to a recent blog entry of my own ( I've taken editing to address the writing and revising to address the storytelling.

  23. Duane, good post. I've written on that topic here as well. There's a difference between telling a story and just being technically well written, and that can be the hardest thing to teach because it's so instinctual.

  24. Not since I read "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lemott have I been so educated about what this thing we call writing is. You are dead on correct about keeping the soul in and letting the technical work around it. It is the spirit mountain in the prose I choose to climb until my bleeding fingers become numb from the cold. Then I coffee up and write some more. My sincere thanks Janice for this blog.

  25. Harry, thanks so much, that's high praise. I'm so glad this post resonated so well with you. Love climbing spirit mountain. Great image.

  26. Hi Janice,

    I have two quick, mailbag-y questions and didn't want to hijack any of your homepage threads to pose them. In searching your site, I thought the questions may fit here. I understand if this thread is no longer active and/or you are too busy to answer. Here goes:

    (1) When finalizing a draft, is it still tradition to put a character's name in all-caps the first time they appear in the book, or has that gone away?

    (2) Do you think most agents and editors are still using readers that may not sense italics, such that we should underline words meant to be italicized, or is the "modern" way to go ahead and use italics?

    Thanks for all of your fab advice! Good luck with your seminar on August 23rd.😊

    1. Happy to answer questions, and you can always email as well.

      1. That's only for a synopsis, and folks still do it. Folks also don't do it, so it's up to you these days.

      2. I think most readers can see italics now, so you'd be fine using them. I have an old Nook and it can read them, and I'd suspect agents and editors have probably upgraded to nicer readers by now. Plus, unless the italics significantly change how the words are read, even if they don't show up it shouldn't hurt you. Agents can figure it out when a format goes wonky :) They know tech has its shortcomings from time to time.


    2. Thanks, Janice! I'm thrilled about the italics. The underlining was bugging me! 😊 And the all-caps posed a couple of style problems I'll be happy to ditch.