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How to Revise Your Work of Fiction

Usually, when writing non-fiction, the writing process is more streamlined. The left side of the brain is at work, so it is not surprising that the writer moves more or less smoothly, first creating an outline, and then fleshing out the details. Revision, in this case, is more a matter of editing for clarity, checking for errors, and so on.

But when it comes to fiction, it is the right side of the brain at work. This is our creative side, a side notoriously difficult to control. Of course, there are authors who make proper outlines, and use them as guidelines. Some others, however, would let the frenzy take them. They would put style, grammar, and even plot by the wayside, concentrating only on their inner voice. Sometimes, writers force the first draft out of them, dragging out words, paragraphs, pages and chapters from within themselves.

Whether a fiction writer is ordered or spontaneous, it is undeniable that the the process of fiction-writing is more organic. The first draft does need revision, sometimes many revisions.

Beside grammatic and stylistic corrections, a writer also has to tweak the text in other ways. And this, more often than not, is the tricky part.

Most authors fear that their writing will lose its freshness through revision. But the truth is, given enough talent and luck, judicious revision could reveal a masterpiece.

While doing revision, Roberta Allen’s advice comes to mind. Her advice to her students in this book is to evaluate a piece for its “energy”: ” What is important here is judging whether your exercise has energy. An exercise that excites or interests you has energy. One that bores you does not.”

While she is essentially talking about flash fiction, the advice holds good for a short story, or the chapter of a novel. This searching for “energy” in writing is the key to revision. If what you have written excites you, moves you, transports you, chances are your writing will move, excite and transport the reader in a similar way.

Here’s a handy checklist you might want to keep beside you while evaluating the energy of your story:

1. Does it feel true?

In other words, do you feel that in the world/setting you have created, the events that occur in your fiction feel completely natural? If they do not, the readers will stop to question, which means they will not be transported anywhere beyond their noses.

2. Does the story have its own logic?

All stories, even fantasies and pieces of magic realism have to have an internal logic, a logic which determines a sequence of events. Does the logic of your story convince you? If you’re not convinced, your readers will laugh. And not always because you meant them to.

3. Are you giving the right amount of information?

Give to little information, and you are leaving your reader grasping, they’ll feel cheated and drop your book. Too much information and undue repitition, the readers will get bored and drop your book. Dropping your book should not be an option, not even for a moment.

4. Does each word, each phrase, each sentence count?

Each word, phrase or sentence needs to either show setting, character or advance the plot. If a phrase is there just because it is beautiful and you can’t bring yourself to cut it out, it is time to cut it out. Kill your darlings, as Stephen King says.

Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggest cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)…I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.”

5. Do you have a slow opening, or a false ending?

If you haven’t grabbed the readers by the seat of their pants and glued their noses to the book with your opening, you need to rethink it. If your ending sounds like it was too sudden, too illogical, too inconclusive, too lacking in impact—time to revisit the ending.

6. Do you have shifting points of view, weak dialog?

While writing the first draft, it is common for one of your characters to see what in fact other characters should be seeing. Always examine if your POVs are correct. If a dialog between much married spouses sounds like they are absolute strangers that just met at a party, you know you have a problem. Readers get confused when there is a shift in the point of view, and they could drop the book. as mentioned before, that is not an option.

7. Are you telling rather than showing?

This is a problem with a lot of first drafts, the bane writing teachers warn against. You have to show the story to the readers as it happens and then leave them to draw their own conclusions, rather than give them your own judgments and ask them to meekly accept it. Sure, you are the boss, because you created the story, but your readers should come to that conclusion on their own once they have turned the final page, and not before.

8. Do you have a captivating voice, and does it suit the theme?

A strong narrative voice can take you places. Always check if your voice is right, whether you are needlessly intruding into the story, if the tone is too high-minded or too casual for your theme. Never preach at your reader.

9. Do you care about what happens to your character/s?

If you don’t have strong feelings for your characters while reading your MS, neither will your reader. If you can’t get your reader to either love or hate the people in your story, these people need a shake-up, you need to make them come alive in the setting of your story.

10. Is your writing unclear?

Sometimes, while writing a first draft, the pictures are so vivid in your mind, that you feel that the words you’ve written invoke those images. But it is usually the other way around. Read your writing aloud and check if the flow is hampered, and whether the images you conjure while reading are close to those you saw while writing. If you are non-visual, here’s a post that would interest you.

11. Have you waited long enough?

Revision needs objectivity, and that comes from waiting for some time before doing your revision. Put some time between your first and second draft, and you will see better results.

If you have more pointers for better revision, jot them down in the comments, and they’ll go up in the post.

Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her next literary crime thriller, The Blue Bar, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency, and was published by Thomas & Mercer on January 1, 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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One Comment

  • Sarah Jensen says:

    This is so true! I know that my MS has grown leaps and bounds through revisions. And if you’re not will to edit, then how do you learn to write better?
    Great post!

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