Revision Steps

Today, the Revision-o-Rama series of posts draws to a gentle close with some revision steps for your writer’s toolbox. I hope you’ve gotten some new ideas and the food for thought has been fruitful for you. Of course, I will keep posting about revision steps on the blog and, of course, you will keep revising into the new year (right?). Now it’s time for me to take a breather, reset back to my “regular programming” and give you all a few ideas for how to proceed from here, as well as recommend some books on revision that I’ve read and found helpful in my study on the subject.

revision steps
A critique group can help you take your writing to the next level.

One of the First Revision Steps Is…

…Other readers. It’s that simple. Writing is most definitely not a solitary pursuit, at least it shouldn’t be. With writing, the following thing tends to happen: the more we write, the more we get stuck on the same revision steps, the more we muck around in the same material over and over, the more blind we grow to it. The most obvious example is missing typos. Our eyes just tend to gloss over the words if we read them too much. Or we know our manuscript has problems but we leave them in because a) we love that part, b) we’re too lazy to really fix it, c) we’re waiting for someone to call us on it, d) we figure that’s what an editor is for.

No, no. As editors tighten their belts and only take on the most polished projects, it has become even more important to develop your own toolkit of revision techniques so that your work is agent-ready. (Who will then tell you to — you guessed it! — revise yet again, if they’re the kind of agent who places a  lot of emphasis on editorial work, which I do.) So, since you’re effectively blind to your own work, you have to bring in qualified readers as soon as you’re feeling strong enough to hear their feedback.

Revision Resource: Join a Critique Group

Join a critique group if you’re not in one already… there are plenty of writers on message boards and various websites who are just dying to get together and are maybe too shy to ask. Whether you do one online and email manuscripts back and forth or whether you find a group in your area through a writing or arts center, the Internet, Craigslist, etc., make sure the group you’ve got is quality. If they don’t write kidlit, they should at least respect it and want to learn more about it from you. If they’re not published, their work should at least be damn close. The best groups have at least one published or agented writer in the mix. Strive to join those that feel slightly more advanced than your level, so that you can really trust and enjoy their expert advice.

The Value of Critique Groups

The other great thing about critique partners is that you learn a whole lot about writing just by looking at someone else’s work. If you see a mistake or something that jumps out at you in another manuscript, and you get good about analyzing what works and what doesn’t — guess what? — soon you’ll be turning the same revision techniques on your own work. (It usually takes a while to translate… anyone can be a critic but actually implementing the same revision steps toward oneself is the real challenge.)

Even if it’s not a traditional critique group with regular meetings, you should at least hook up with one or two writing friends or take a writing class. Maybe you can make some bonds that’ll extend past the last day. Or go to local or national conferences. There are plenty of writers there that you can befriend and keep in touch with. But the key is getting eyes on your manuscript, and getting eyes that know what they’re talking about (now that, my friends, is a mixed metaphor). Teach yourself to hear their wisdom but take it with a grain of salt. You’ll learn a lot, you’ll also discard a lot, but I can tell you one thing for sure: the more feedback you get on a manuscript, the more it’ll inspire you, the more it’ll spark your own imagination and the stronger it will be (check out some constructive feedback examples).

Writing and Revision Resources

If you want to do more independent study on writing and revision steps, I can recommend the following books on revision, specifically, and the writing process in general:

Story by Robert McKee
Dialogue by Robert McKee
The Anatomy of Story by John Truby
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Rules for the Dance by Mary Oliver (with a focus on poetry)
On Writing by Stephen King
Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
The Bestseller Code by Jodi Archer
Writer to Writer: From Think to Ink by Gail Carson Levine
Spilling Ink by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter (aimed at younger writers, read my review)
Story Genius by Lisa Cohn
Writing Great Books for Young Adults by Regina Brooks (read my review)
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass
Writing the Intimate Character by Jordan Rosenfeld
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody
The Magic Words by Cheryl Klein
Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul
Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine

Books on grammar and punctuation:

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE ILLUSTRATED by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (stylish!)

Books on writing for children:

DEAR GENIUS: THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM ed. by Leonard S. Marcus (highly recommended!)
THE SPYING HEART by Katherine Paterson

Books on reading:


Finally, Maggie Stiefvater did this on her blog with great success, so I just wanted to open it up to you all in case anyone is looking for a critique buddy. You can use the comments for this post as a personal ad to find fellow writers who might be looking for the same. Maybe talk briefly about what you write (What age group is it for? What genre is it? Is it complete?) and what you’re looking for, and we’ll see if we can’t match anybody up so you guys can go off and work together.

Ready to invest in an expert set of eyes? My book editing services will help you build on the revision steps you’ve already taken.

37 Replies to “Revision Steps”

  1. Mary, I just wanted to thank you for Revision-o-Rama. Between your 30 page critque from the contest and these posts, I’ve learned so much.

    I do have a critique group, but we’re slowing down more than I would like. I could use another more consistent group! I write MG and YA fiction. Some finished things are historical, some fantasy but ALL focus on an adventure. Anyone interested? Would anyone like me to read theirs? Please stop by my blog and we’ll meet up!

    See you next year, Mary, thanks a million times over!

  2. Great post, Mary! Also love:

    Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by King and Browne
    Stein on Writing

    And I totally concur–it’s a *must* to either belong to a crit group or have trustworthy betas read your work (or, ideally–both). There’s a world of difference between having your mom love your story and having another writer give it a thumbs up. 🙂

    Cheers, and thanks again for the great articles!

  3. Mary, thanks for taking the time to explain so clearly and give examples. I have one book to add to the list.

    How To Read Like a Writer by Francine Prose is full of great examples on pacing, structure and writing. Plus, you’ll want to read all the books she uses as examples.

  4. Debra — I’ll add those to the list after today, just in case more people give suggestions.

    Susan — Thanks! Also, the Prose book is called READING LIKE A WRITER and already listed above. 🙂

  5. Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyons is another great book.

    Hah! My mom won’t even read my ms. But unless it’s a quilting magazine, she’s not interested. Same deal with my husband. So unless I write a story about Warren Buffet as a teen–and there’s no romance–he’s not going to read it. And with both of them, that’s probably a good thing. YA content these days would give my mom a heart attack. And my husband hasn’t read a novel in over ten years. Fortunately, the members of my writer’s group are a complete opposite to these two. 😀

    Thanks Mary for the Revision-o-Rama. I’ve been telling all my writer friends about your blog. And I can’t wait to read more of your book reviews. I love your writer perspectives.

    Have a great and safe New Year’s Eve.

  6. This is a wonderful list! I know what I”ll be doing the first part of 2010…reading!

    Happy New Year!

  7. Mary, thanks for all the great info. Love Strunk and White (short, sweet, and to the point. Omit needless words — best advice eva, besides yours of course ;).

  8. On Writing is such an inspiring read – I wrote my current ms in 6 weeks due in part to Mr. King’s wonderful advice (obviously just the 1st draft). I’m currently in revision hell – er, heaven, thanks to Mary’s timely advice 🙂

    Also, I recently blogged about “Why Critique Groups Rock.” Some advice is to look at the SCBWI message boards — I found both of my awesome critique groups through there. I can’t even express how much better my book is after a few suggestions from my amazing critique partners!

  9. Reading Like a Writer shamed me into changing the way I read. Before reading it, I skimmed a lot. Now when I feel the urge to skim, I stop to find out why I want to skim. Sometimes it’s because the author has created such great tension i can’t wait to find out what happens, other times it’s because they use too much description. Either way, I learn a lot!

    I have to shout out about Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul. I think it should be required reading for PB writers! Nancy Lamb’s book is also wonderful, but Whitford Paul’s book trumps it.

    Another you could add to the general books on writing list is Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress.

    I’m happy to say I have a wonderful critique group but in case others don’t, there are plenty of folks looking on the SCBWI boards as well as on Verla Kay’s.

  10. Bird by Bird rocked my world when I read it a year ago. I recently re-read and it was just as funny and helpful the 2nd time round.

    Thanks for yet another great post!

  11. And don’t forget Absolute Write for finding crit partners. One of my best crit partners came from a friendship I developed through the site.

  12. I found my manuscript exchange partner through SCBWI, but she doesn’t have as much time these days. I’ve had family members and friends look at my most recent manuscript, but I’ll take you advice and work with other writers again.

    Reading Like a Writer was a helpful read, and I borrowed the title for one of my blog posts. I also enjoyed Les Edgerton’s other book, Hooked. Eats, Shoots & Leaves is on my to read pile. When You Catch an Adjective Kill It by Ben Yagoda has also been a book I’ve used to improve my writing.

    Thank you for more recommendations, Mary.

  13. Great series. This is a nice way to bring it to an end. I love my crit groups. RWA and ACFW both. Gosh, the things they find and point out are so very helpful.

    Have a happy and safe New Year’s Eve, everyone!!

  14. I found an excellent critique group on the SCBWI website. I also wanted to offer some encouragement. I have been revising for a year and a half and I got really depressed over Christmas, from the combination of your revision advice and from a recent critique from my group. I started to think that only people who really suck as writers have to revise this much and maybe it would be best to stop deluding myself and take up another hobby like wood carving or making Sushi rolls or something. But then I unwrapped a Christmas present–a book called Jane Austen An Illustrated Treasury with removable memorabilia. Well a piece of this removable memorabilia was two pages of a hand written draft of one of her novels. Let me tell you it was impossible to read–one entire paragraph was scratched out and there wasn’t a sentence on it that she hadn’t altered in some way. When I looked closely, I realized it was from her last book Persuasion. And I was so jacked. I mean if the best novelist who ever lived had to revise so much and it wasn’t even her first book but her last, when she was at the top of her game–well anyway, I’m going to keep revising like you suggested, into the new year and into the next new year if I have to.

  15. Shari Maser says:

    Hi, Mary. Thanks for the reading list. Books about crafting “great books” are informative and useful. But I find that I need to read them in small doses, interspersed with larger doses of actual “great books.” I read them aloud, I read them to my kids, I deconstruct them, I retype them, I ask my kids and husband to read them aloud to me, and I read them to more kids.

    I’m always looking for more kidlit books (especially picture books) to add to my must-read list. Any recommendations?

    Thanks, and happy New Year,


  16. I love ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’. I almost burst out crying when I found it, quite by accident, in a book shop — that’s how happy I was to find someone else who really cared about punctuation. The only thing I don’t like about the book is that I didn’t write it myself.

  17. I find it helps to move on to something else and then return to revise. The fresh eyes (and reading it aloud) help to eliminate the awkward phrase and to realize where the story lags. With my novel, I actually turned a class into a focus group. They read the book (without knowing it was mine) and gave feedback. Between this and my SCBWI critique group, I have learned a lot and improved the story more than I could have on my own.

  18. Aside from my critique group, I have three readers that I trust and the feedback I’ve gotten is unbelievably helpful.

  19. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed your Revision-o-rama series! It will help me with both revising my novel and in drafting out my new one. I also agree that having a critique group is what makes a good book a great one! There is nothing like having readers who will give you encouraging as well as constructive comments on your manuscript. 🙂

  20. Thanks for the great tips. I loved your example under “ambiguous words.” Your example made me laugh out loud and made me think harder about my own query letter. I am so glad I found this site!

  21. I haven’t seen this mentioned yet, but Authonomy is a good site to get critiques on your work. There are some pretty talented and knowledgeable people there.

  22. So glad I found your blog! I’m going through the revision process with two mg novels (just finished revising one, and am starting the other), so this information is very timely for me. I’m in an online critique group that I found through SCBWI, and it has been so valuable. Sometimes you know something isn’t working, but it’s hard to identify the problem when you’re so close to the work. Another set of eyes can often pinpoint exactly where things are going off course.

  23. Mary,

    I love to revise!

    And i just got Reading Like a Writer for Christmas. Can’t wait to start reading it.


  24. I joined a critique group for the first time late last year and have learned so much from it just by reading others’ writing (and it’s been a pleasure to do so). I’ve heard so much about the Anne Lamott book “Bird by Bird” — would love to check it out.

    Thanks so much for all your revision posts! Jeni

  25. Love your reading list. I’ve got a few in my collection already and look forward to exploring the others. Thanks for the great advice on revision. I’ll be returning to these blogs in the future as revisions begin.

  26. I highly recommend Bird by Bird – it changed my writing approach. It’s an amazing read as well!

  27. Hello all, I would absolutely love for someone to give a pass through my MS, and I’d certainly be willing to return the favor. My book is a goofy MG mystery that weighs in around 27,000 words. I promise it won’t take more than a couple hours to read. If you’re interested, give a holler at ddegreeff at gmail dot com. Thanks!

  28. Great advice as usual! The one book I love is WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maas. I was lucky to go to one of his workshops.

    **I’m also learning that revising is a big part of writing. Sometimes you have to chip away to finally find that diamond!

  29. This is the first article I have read and the advice it amazing. I find the editing process tedious so this kind of advice gets me remotivated. Thanks

  30. Thanks for the list of helpful books. I already have a few and agree that utilizing these resources is more than helpful for whipping our MSS into shape!

  31. Hi Mary,

    I just wanted to say I enjoyed reading all the Revision-o-Rama posts. Lots of helpful tips and advice. Your site is a great resource for writers, and I’m so glad I found it.

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