Saturday, 19 March 2011

Revising a manuscript

Very sad to say goodbye to my Slush Pile class last week.  The final session was about what to do after that wonderful moment when you type THE END.

First, congratulate yourself!  Getting to the end of a manuscript is a terrific achievement on its own, so crack open a bottle of your favourite tipple and bask in the glow of having made it.

Next - and here it is do as I say and not do as I do, as I’m always in too much of a panic about deadlines – put the manuscript aside for as long as you can. Stephen King recommends 6 weeks, but at least a week would be OK.  This will give you some distance from the story and mean that you can look at your manuscript with fresh eyes. 

Now, reread your story, asking yourself some hard questions as you go.  This is the checklist we drew up in the class:

Am I clear about what kind of story I’m writing?  What is it most like?

What implicit promise am I making the reader?


What are my story’s hooks?

What is the situation in my story?

What is the problem?  Is it primal?

What is at stake for my characters?

Whose story is it?

Am I clear about my lead character’s goals?

Do I understand his/her motivations?  What is his/her greatest fear?

How does my character change in the course of the story?

Why can’t s/he walk away from the problem?

Is my lead character engaging and sympathetic?

Do I know my characters’ backstories and what has made them the people they are and made them behave the way they do?

Have I thought about the structure of my story?

What is my lead character’s “ordinary world”? 

What causes the disturbance that leads to change?*

What is the catalyst that forces my lead character into action to deal with the problem? (the first doorway)*

What happens to make my lead character resolve the problem? (the second doorway)*

Does my first page start at a point of change?  Is it intriguing?  Does it introduce my lead characters or establish tone?

Have I thought about a knockout ending? 

What has my lead character learnt by the end of the story?

Do my characters speak and act in a real and believable world? (using the five senses) 

Is the dialogue appropriate to my characters?

Does the dialogue say something? Does it advance the plot, reveal character, reveal motivation, substitute for narrative or establish the tone?  If not, why haven’t I cut it?

Have I varied ‘he said/she said’ with action tags?

Have I revised my manuscript with a view to checking that every scene has a function?

If you come across a question you can’t tick immediately, this is your chance to change things.  The revision stage is when I actually write.  Everything up to that point has been a draft, but this is when I make sure the emotional conflict is strong enough, my characters clear enough, my dialogue realistic and so on, and I find it's when the words come together too.

We also talked about approaching an agent/publisher on Wednesday – but I’ll cover that in a separate post.  I’ve started writing my next romance at last, and am only on Chapter 2, so had better get back to that for now!

* For the disturbance and two doorways approach to structuring your story, see James Scott Bell, Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure: Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish.


  1. Thanks for sharing this checklist.

  2. Hi Jessica,

    What a great checklist. I'm printing it off for reference. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Lots of important questions here to consider. Thanks!

  4. Thanks for the checklist Jessica! What a coincidence that I'm just starting my first of Bell's books on Revision and Self Editing :)

  5. Elizabeth Lyon's book on revision is excellent too, Lacey. I should have mentioned it in the blog: Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford To Ignore. I found this really helpful when revising my time slip. Lots of useful checklists and advice!