Wednesday, September 05, 2012

How to Revise a Novel

By Alex Hughes, @ahugheswriter

Part of the How They Do It Series   

JH: I'd like to welcome fellow Georgia gal and science fiction author Alex Hughes to the blog today to chat with us about revisions. I just finished up some of my own, and I can say she's right on with her suggestions. I especially liked #3. That's a new one for me. Her debut novel, Clean, releases this week, and I got to hear her read an excerpt from it a few months ago. It's worth checking out.

Alex was born in Savannah, GA and moved to the south Atlanta area when she was eight years old. Shortly thereafter, her grandfather handed her a copy of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider series, and a lifelong obsession with sci-fi was born.

She's a graduate of the prestigious Odyssey Writing Workshop and a Semi-Finalist in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. Her short pieces are published in several markets including EveryDay Fiction and White Cat Magazine. She blogs about writing craft, revision, and editing at

Alex loves swing dancing, tetris, music of all kinds, and has been known to get into long conversations with total strangers at restaurants about the Food Network, much to the embarrassment of her sister. She can also balance a spoon on her nose while crossing her eyes, and talk for hours about absolutely nothing.

Take it away Alex...

“It is perfectly okay to write garbage--as long as you edit [revise] brilliantly.”
― C.J. Cherryh

The number one most important thing I’ve learned in my time as a writer is how to revise a story. And yet it’s not something I ever see taught in college writing classes. Even books on the subject can be hard to find–which is odd. Maybe revision just isn’t sexy. I can say it’s a lot of work. But revision is the best, strongest, most useful tool in your arsenal, and is more than worth whatever time it takes to get it right.

Here’s a quick guide to what I’ve learned about revision in the last few years.

1. Big picture first, small stuff later. 

A lot of beginning writers start revising with the first sentence and sweat over every word. A lot of times, all this gets you is wasted effort. Even assuming you get the sentence and the paragraph perfect–what if you need to rewrite the scene? Then all your hard work is for nothing. Instead, it makes more sense to start with the big-picture ideas: character, plot, world building, and theme–and fine-tune those first. Is your world coming across as fully as you want? When you read this character in the story, does he/she seem as funny/happy/diabolical as you intended? Does the plot or subplot seem complete, twisty and interesting? Does the theme resonate?

Then, go through every scene and every chapter and look at issues on that level. Is this character funny enough in this scene? Do I miss the subplot here? Does the chapter seem to contradict my theme? Is this necessary? Is something missing? Only then should you work on the sentence-level details.

Bonus idea: Often people hate revision because it seems like an overwhelmingly large, single task. But it’s not something you have to do all at once. Try doing your revision as an iterative process, where every time you go through you fix one problem. You can make many passes to get to your goal (no one is counting), and having one problem to fix every time is manageable and focusing.

2. Cut out the fat–even if it hurts. 

Everything in the story needs to have a purpose and add something to the whole. If not, cut it. Save it to another document in your computer if you want, then re-read the story without it. Is the story stronger? Does it make more sense without that bit? If so, leave the bit out, even if you love it. (If you really love it, give the bit its own story later.) But if the story isn’t stronger or doesn’t make more sense, weave the bit back in–and see if you can make it play into your theme or ending. This idea applies as much to characters and subplots as it does to paragraphs and scenes–nothing on the page is sacred. If it doesn’t add, take it out. Period.

Bonus idea: Once you’re through the big-picture stuff, look for freeloader words like that, very, quite, such, maybe, a little, and all uses of long verb phrases when short ones will do. Also, whenever possible, substitute strong, specific nouns and verbs in place of weaker adjectives and adverbs. What do I mean? Compare “I was walking very indirectly towards the store” to the much stronger “I ambled to the deli.” Fewer words with more meaning.

3. Add cool stuff–your stuff. 

Once you’ve cut the fat, go back through and ask yourself if there’s anything missing, or any details you could add to make the story more particular and original to you. For example, a friend of mine works on a chicken farm. And I’m obsessed with neuroscience and the brain and read about them whenever I can. You know cool things like that too, things not many people know, whether you’ve learned them by experience or through reading. Figure out what those things are. Then use them!

Add the right details–the you details–to fit the story in front of you. Make the details as specific and vivid as possible. You can also pull from things you run across in the real world–for example, I read an article about an experiment they did with cooling something with a magnetic field, and added that to a book as a magnetic air conditioner. If you can add the right kinds of specific details–the things that you know and that interest you–the details will make your story feel interesting and original. It will make the story yours.

4. Get beta readers. Listen to them. 

The truth is, in writing, the only thing that counts is what’s on the page. The trouble is, you and I often don’t know what’s on the page. We know what we intended to put on the page. The most brilliant monologues, the greatest action scenes in the world, that movie you had in your head–none of that matters if you didn’t manage to communicate it to the reader. This is a sad but true fact.

This is why we also need readers. Other writers are great, particularly in early stages of a project, but eventually you need readers. Ordinary people who love books. Get several of these to read your book and then talk about it. Ask them specific questions. When you don’t understand what they mean, you ask, “can you say that a different way please?” When they hate your precious story and you want to throw knives at them, smile instead and ask, “why do you say that?” Then take notes.

You can learn something from every reader, if you bother to listen, something that will make your story stronger. You don’t have to make the changes they ask for (unless you want to) but you do have to pay attention to where your ideas are not getting on the page. Getting good readers will teach you very quickly what is and what isn’t communicating–and what you need to fix.

Bonus idea: Volunteer as a beta reader for other people’s projects, especially those in the early stages. Helping them identify the flaws in their stories–and helping them figure out how to fix them–will teach you a lot about writing and how to fix your own stories. This is the fastest and best way to learn how to revise.

These are some initial ideas, but, as the classic saying goes, “writing is rewriting.” Learning how to revise is a life-long process just like writing, and just like writing, it takes practice–and commitment–to get right.

Good luck!

About Clean



I used to work for the Telepath’s Guild before they kicked me out for a drug habit that wasn’t entirely my fault. Now I work for the cops, helping Homicide Detective Isabella Cherabino put killers behind bars.

My ability to get inside the twisted minds of suspects makes me the best interrogator in the department. But the normals keep me on a short leash. When the Tech Wars ripped the world apart, the Guild stepped up to save it. But they had to get scary to do it—real scary.

Now the cops don’t trust the telepaths, the Guild doesn’t trust me, a serial killer is stalking the city—and I’m aching for a fix. But I need to solve this case. Fast. I’ve just had a vision of the future: I’m the next to die.


  1. AWESOME advice, and I absolutely concur with every single point you made, Alex. Thank you!

  2. Much needed advice at the perfect time!


  3. Excellent post, Alex: thank you! Really good advice.I've just finished my own rewrite of my second book and have discovered most of these things the hard way; but I was surprised to find that by the end I'd finally turned my attitude around and learned to enjoy the process.

    All your points are important, but I'd say implementing #2--breaking a large task into small ones, starting with the high-level stuff and working down--is the most critical.

    Would you please go back in time and write this post a few years ago? You'll save me a lot of trouble. Thanks so much! :)


  4. Working on the time machine now... If only those pesky time cops didn't keep showing up and taking my prototype! :)

    Anyway, I'm glad you found this helpful - revision is one of those things we need to talk about more!

  5. Wow, exactly what I needed to hear. I think #1 is the hardest -but also the best advice.

  6. I'm in the process of revising my novel, so this post could not have come at a better time!!!

  7. These are brilliant suggestions. They're especially welcome, as I'm struggling through a revision. Thanks!

  8. Great advice and I love your blurb!

  9. Great advice and congratulations on making i09's list of great upcoming sci fi books.

    Sometimes I find that I'm better at revising other people's stuff as a beta, than I am at my own!

  10. Awesome post, Alex! Thank you for sharing some editing tips with us today. I especially liked #3 as I've started creating a file especially for interesting things that I'm hoping to include in some of my writing. :)

  11. Oh, I SO needed this advice since I'm about to begin editing my current first draft. Thanks!!

  12. Great Article :)

    I have found, in my revision process, that I need to do the small things first. I think I'm very left-brained, so if there are spelling or grammar mistakes, a word/phrase repeated too often of the flow is wrong, this just yanks me out of the big picture of the story. So I fix the little details first, then the big, then add descriptive detail (I tend to write very lean)and then go back again to enrich and add extra layers of theme and meaning and character.

    But absolutely agree that doing it in bits if key, even if we order the bits differently.

  13. Jo, that's actually pretty cool, and if that's your process, totally do what works. I bet you're not the only one who works this way. :)

  14. Love this post, very motivational for the edit I have to tackle right now. Also interesting thoughts about being a beta reader.

  15. I especially like #1 "Bonus Idea" of fixing only one thing at a time, and #3 "Add cool stuff". I'm currently trying to revise but constantly getting stuck. Hoping the "one thing at a time" approach will help. Thank you for the tips!