An Author’s Checklist: 9 Techniques For Crisp, Powerful Revisions

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Great writing comes from revising.

I’ve heard that phrase, or some version of it, countless times. I completely accept the fact draft one is just the first stage in a multi-level project. I understand that a first draft is all about getting the ideas onto the page. And all writers must go back and make adjustments to improve their work.

But I’ve always had a problem with revising.

It’s not that I don’t want to do it. It’s just that I find it difficult to know what to do, specifically, to improve my writing. I mean, if I could have made my novel any better, I would have done it in the first place, right?

After pondering this issue after every novel I’ve completed, I finally came up this handy checklist. It’s a guide for ensuring that the second draft will be an improvement over the first.

This checklist focuses on objective elements of good writing. This checklist does not go into character development, or voice. It doesn’t help make the plot more dramatic. This checklist is simply a way to approach a first-draft revision by allowing you to look at your manuscript with fresh, almost impartial, eyes. This method of revision isn’t the be-all- end-all revision. You’ll still have to go over your writing and with an eye to pacing, characters, and tone. What this checklist does, however, is takes you through a set of established craft techniques, and invite you to improve your writing on the level of sentence, structure and theme.

On the level of each sentence

First, go back over your manuscript and review it on the level of the sentence. Don’t worry about plot or characters. Just make the language clean. Review your wording for the following elements:

1: Even Out Your Tenses

Check to see if the verb tenses are consistent. Some writers, myself included, inadvertently bring in past or future tenses when the book is in the present. If the book is in the past, sometimes writers accidentally write in the present.

2: Simplify Your Clauses

Are your sentences full of complicated clauses? Do you include conditional predictions, such as “I later would have known…” Unless you’re writing a gothic- style novel, those kinds of clauses tend to confuse the reader.

3: Remove Clichés

Do you use clichés such as “snow-capped peaks” or “as quiet as a mouse” when you write? It’s okay to use verbal crutches when you’re banging out a first draft. Just review your writing again and replace worn phrases with fresh, thematically appropriate descriptions. Otherwise, your text will lead to a “general gnashing of teeth” among readers, causing them to stop reading your work “in a blink of an eye.”

On the level of structure

Now, think about the timeframe you cover in your story. Are some key elements missing? Are other actions repeated? Do you have chapters where nothing really happens? To look at this systematically, go through your manuscript and answer the following questions:

4: Document The Chronological Timeline

What happens, chronologically, in the story? Write a timeline now, if you haven’t already. This is the “objective” timeline, not necessarily the timeline of the events as they’re told in your manuscript.

5: Document The Manuscript Timeline

Now we get to the timeline as it’s told by the narrator or narrators if you have a multiple perspective story. What happens in each scene? Make sure you understand exactly how and when your readers will be introduced to the events in your novel.

6: Understand The Time Passage Techniques

Look at the ways you express the passage of time. Do you use flashbacks? Do you use non-consecutive storytelling? Do you use vignettes, in which readers put together story in their minds or is it more of a traditional narrative? If several techniques are used, are they used in service of a theme, or do they distract from the experience?

On the level of craft and theme

Finally, take a fresh look at your writing and ask yourself how you use well-established craft techniques to bring reader into your scenes. Here are a couple of examples:

7: Do You Use The Five Senses?

Do you engulf readers in your story’s world with sensory detail? Do your scene offer smells, tastes, and sensory feelings?

8: Document Your Thematic Elements

Do you recognize thematic elements in your writing, and if so, are they consistently and intentionally used? For example, one writer I’m working with noticed that many scenes take place on the apartment’s balcony. That balcony is a thematic element. It is a physical representation of the way the main character is above and away from the action, observing but not exactly part of it. At first, this author set some scenes on balcony unconsciously. But now that she’s recognized its thematic value, upon revision, she’s now adding more balcony scenes. Consciously adding this symbolic theme enhances the richness of her writing and provides a more satisfying experience for the audience, whether or not they consciously identify it as they read.

9: Meaningful Objects and Elements

Make note of the objects (such as articles of clothing or jewelry) and other atmospheric elements (such as colors, weather, and mentions of light and darkness) that are repeated in your writing. What do they reveal? Would it enhance the reading experience by adding more of these objects and elements, by intentionally modifying them, or by making them more consistent? Do you need to remove some of them because they are distracting or because they don’t really hold any meaning?

Feel free to change a scene that’s bright with sunshine to one that’s cloudy because you recognize that every time the two lovers meet, the weather’s inclement. Or, you can keep the weather way you wrote it — what’s important is to be aware of it. The symbolic objects and elements that you intuitively wrote into your first draft should now all be intentional components of your text.

Take your time, have an objective eye

To complete this checklist, you may have to review your writing more than once. It may seem tedious. This checklist, however, allows you to be confident your writing is crisp and devoid of distractions that take the reader away from experiencing the power of your book.

These exercises require an objective attitude toward your own writing. If you intend to write for publication, an unemotional editorial eye is necessary. Once you offer your book publicly to readers, you won’t be there to explain what you intended. Your words on the page must carry your intention so make sure they’re clear, precise and thoughtfully chosen.