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Revising: Back Where We Started

You’ve taken your story idea and developed the characters and plot. You used that to figure out which scenes you needed, and then wrote those scenes. You kept doing that until you had an entire draft of your story. Congratulations! You officially have A Manuscript. Now what?

Step 1: Celebrate. However you reward yourself when you’ve accomplished something, do that now. Really let yourself enjoy the “I did it!” vibe. Focus on how it feels to have accomplished this massive undertaking, and tuck it away in every available space in your mind, because you’re going to need it when you do Step 2.

Step 2: Read your Manuscript. Be prepared for the emotional whiplash when you realize . . . IT’S A HOT MESS. Things are out of order. Character names changed half way through. Most of what’s in your head about the characters or story never made it on to the page. There’s any number of problems you’ll find, and . . . wait for it . . . that means you’re exactly on track. Why? Because it wasn’t supposed to be perfect. It’s supposed to be a starting place. So...

Step 3: Embrace the Mess that is Your First Draft. Truly. You may be tempted to give up on this project when you think about how much work it will take to fix it, but if you do your characters won’t ever get the story they deserve. And you like those characters you created, don’t you? You want them to have their story, and you want it to be the best it can be. So once you’ve picked yourself up off the floor and decided that you’ll devote a little more effort to these imaginary friends, it’s time to revise the heck out of that disaster of a first draft.

Here is your basic Revision Plan:

1) Forest (overall structure)

2) Trees (scenework)

3) Leaves (the small stuff, think “copyediting”)

The Forest - Overall Structure

Start by going back to the beginning, and asking yourself those same big picture questions again. Stuff like, “Do I have a beginning, middle and end?” and, “Does my protagonist have a powerful enough want, need, flaw, strength and problem?” Look at your characters again now that you know so much more about them. Do the things you thought you knew about them still apply? How have those initial concepts changed over the course of writing the first draft?

Then, turn to plot. Look at what you thought was going to happen at the beginning, middle and end of your story. Is that the way it ended up happening, or did something surprising show up halfway through writing? If so, how might you need to change the beginning in light of that? Be on the lookout for plots that don’t track, or threads that vanished halfway though.

Reflect on each stage of the planning process, and let yourself reimagine it now that you have completed an entire draft. You know more about how things might end, who the characters really are, what they want, and what truly stands in their way. Embrace this new understanding, even if it takes you to places that were never in your original concept. Let the story evolve as it must - it’s in the driver’s seat now, you’re along for the ride.

Beware the Crystal Ball - Some of you will have spent so much time crafting the plot, checking it against charts and handouts and plot maps, that you may have inadvertently stumbled into an entirely predicable plot. The breadcrumbs and clues might be too overt, the twists too foreshadowed. Is it obvious what’s going to happen? If so, go back and look for places where plot could twist, something unpredictable could happen, or something surprising (but supported by the character journey and what’s gone before in the action) could spring up. Beta readers are great at helping you tell if your story is predictable. (For a quick read on beta readers, go to, and see “Do’s & Don’ts of Beta Reading.”)

The Trees - Scenework, Openings, Hooks & The Perfect Ending

Once you’ve adjusted the big picture concepts like character and plot arcs, you can focus in on the next level - the scenes that create those arcs. Here you are double checking that each scene contributes to escalating conflict that leads to a climax, and resolution. Each scene should include tension, a plot point and an element of your character’s journey. Your subplots should advance and enhance the story. The settings should ground the reader in time and place, augment the story, and support the theme. Your language should be sensory, and unique to the character’s point of view. I’ve found it’s most helpful to do separate reads of the manuscript for each of these aspects (scenes, setting, language, POV, etc), but find the way that works best for you.

Quick Tips:

Scene Placement - Try making an index card for each scene, so you can move them around, or even remove one or two, and see if things fit better in other places.

Passive Protagonists - If your story lacks tension it could be that you’ve got a passive protagonist. Double check that your protagonist is doing things, making choices, and taking action. Isolate every event, and ask, “Would this still happen if my protagonist wasn’t in the room?” If so, look for ways to recenter the action around your protagonist.

Dialogue - Highlight each character’s lines in a different color. Read each character’s lines. Do they each have a distinctive voice? Is that voice consistent?

Openings - Re-read your first chapter and ask: Is this the right place to start the story? If so, is it the right point of view? The opening chapters need to do a lot of heavy lifting. They set an expectation in the mind of the reader that they’ll apply to the entire story. There should be an inciting incident, but don’t forget you’ve also got to set up the ordinary world, and introduce your main character - and their flaws - sufficiently for the reader to connect with them. Balance is the key. Expect that you will re-write the opening more than any other section of your manuscript as you cast about, trying to find the exact right moment to open with, and the exact right circumstances to include.

Try writing the first chapter from every different point of view you can. Who else has knowledge of the events? How did they see them? Use every different narrator you can. See what new stuff comes up, what you learn about how the different characters feel about what’s going on, and what it means to each of them.

Hooks - The very first sentence of your story is your hook - it’s what catches your reader’s attention, and makes them immediately want to know more about what’s going on. Like your

opening in general, you’ll re-write your first sentence over and over, until it contains that magic balance of key features. Realize you may not hit on the perfect hook until you’ve hit upon the perfect ending, because how the story ends tells you everything you need to include in how it begins.

Endings - Great story endings are “surprising and inevitable,” meaning the reader doesn’t see them coming, but once it happens it makes perfect sense. In your first draft, the ending may be too predictable (see “Beware the Crystal Ball” above). You will likely need to look for places you could introduce surprise or an unexpected turn of events into the plot (the middle of your story could be the perfect place for these twists). Let yourself explore those options fully, and that “surprising but inevitable” ending will eventually make itself known to you. Once you’ve got a good understanding of how your story will end, you can go back to the beginning and add essential details to your opening and your hook.

The Leaves - Tap Into Your Inner Grammar Guru, & Get Your Spell Check On

Once you’ve done the hard work of doctoring the big picture, reimagining everything from the hook to the final scene, your manuscript is finally ready for its close up.

Your Close-Up Checklist:

• Spelling & Grammar - Including easily confused usages (peek, peak) and incorrect forms (their, there, they’re).

• No Cliches.

• Adverb check - Descriptors can quickly mark your work as that of an amateur. Avoid that pitfall by scanning for any words ending in “ly” and removing them where you can (and you almost always can).

• Check for exposition - See earlier posts in this series for more on how and when to use exposition. During revision is when you want to remove expository signposts you may have left for yourself.

• Active Verbs & Passive Voice - “She started to run” versus “She ran.” “She was invited by her friend to come to the party” versus “Her friend invited her to a party.”

• Along those same lines, check for “there was” - “There was a new girl in my class” versus “A new girl came to class.”

• Adjective & General Noun Redundancies - A “large house” is just a “mansion.”

Think you’re done? Print the entire manuscript and read it aloud. As you do, assess whether each sentence has a dramatic purpose. Ask: Why is it here? What job is it doing? What would I lose if I took it out?

The biggest rule for revision: Stick with it. Take it piece by piece, and just keep going.

If you need ideas on how to stay motivated, or want more detail on any of the general categories mentioned above, you can email Good luck, and happy writing!


About The Author: Andrea Custer has been working with teens and tweens for the last several years - first as an Odyssey of the Mind coach, then teaching creative writing to middle graders and young adults at the local community center. She mainly writes YA in both the contemporary and historical fiction veins.  Andrea divides her time between writing, exploring Los Angeles in search of odd happenings she can use in her novels, and getting lost in the aisles of her local bookstore. Find out more at, WriteTogether.Today, and You can also follow her on Twitter @ACwritesinMB, Instagram at andreamcuster or tips4teenauthors, and Facebook at Andrea Custer, Author.


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