Revise, Revise… Then Revise Again

by | July 12, 2019 | Editing Corner | 5 comments

Two of the questions I see frequently posted in some Facebook groups for writers run along the lines of:

1 – I’ve written my story, now what?

2 – How will I know when I’ve finished editing?

My answers, which are much the same as those offered by many others, are:

1 – Revise it.

2 – You never do – you get to an “it’ll do” stage.

Questions like these are far more common in the groups for those with less experience of writing, and I phrase my responses in what I hope is an encouraging way. Let’s face it, every writer appreciates motivation to revise a story they’ve just spent weeks, months or even years working on. And are quite possibly a little fed up with…

I like the quote “the first draft is just you telling yourself the story”, attributed to the late Terry Pratchett, a writer notable for producing rather a lot of very popular books. When I’m working on a story, it certainly feels like that to me, as if I’m trying to write out something I already know, but can’t quite remember.

The participants in the ERWA “storytime” workshop have probably got used to my way of working on longer stories, typically writing and posting one chapter a week for comments anyone is willing to offer. I’m more of a pantser than a plotter, and I find it really helpful to have the discipline of a self-imposed target. Yes, sometimes I realise I really needed to have introduced something in one of the earlier chapters. I recently finished the first draft of a 57,000-word story and only realised something important about my two main characters while writing the final chapter. So, something to work on during revision.

Once I’ve finished, I find it useful to wait a few weeks before starting on revisions. It’s always provided me with a slight “detachment” from the story, which seems to help me be rather more objective about it. For me, revision is about trying to tell the story to readers as well as possible. I pay attention to things like the time frame and chronology; consistency of locations, descriptions and characters (“continuity issues”); trying to make action scenes clear; clarifying who “her” and “she” are in scenes involving two or more women, and so on.

For me, character development is important; how do my main characters change as a result of their experiences, and how do I show that in my telling of their story?

My working practice is to work away and frequently save the new versions with different file names. There’s little issue with disc space these days – my current draft of a 49,000 word story is only 3.5 MBytes. And once I reach the end, I’ll review and revise it again, usually three or four times in total. Eventually, I reach a point where I feel I’ve done as much as I can, even though I’m sure it could be better. Or maybe I just reach the point where I’ve simply had enough of the story?

Before I submit a story, I want it to be in a good shape. I’d like the editors to think I’ve adopted a “professional” approach to my writing, as that might help them feel confident I’ll have the same attitude while working with them.

When a story’s been accepted, every editor I’ve worked with has helped me tell it better than I could have done on my own. Yes, of course I feel anxious when I got the first e-mail from an editor with their annotated copy of my story. But every time, the comments and suggestions were helpful and constructive.

Self-editing (or revising) is one thing, but editing someone else’s work is quite another. I’ve offered detailed constructive comments as a beta-reader, but never tried to edit even a short story. I think that anyone willing to invest that much time and effort into helping another writer develop their own story deserves our gratitude and admiration, as well as fair payment.

Even when the editor and I have agreed that it’s “done”, there are still things we could have changed. I don’t suppose many writers are ever completely happy with their published stories. As their experience grows, no doubt they realise they could have written things differently, added a few more scenes to give more depth to the story, and so on.

As my publisher recently gave up the struggle and returned my rights, I’m revising the three novellas involved to submit to another publisher. These were the first three in a planned series of five, and the first draft of the fourth is ready for revision, too. It’s interesting to look back on stories I wrote three or four years ago, now that these characters and their stories have developed in my own mind. It’s a chance for me to think how they and their relationships develop across the series, how things move on from one book to the next, and address anything I think isn’t as good as I can make it.

So, you’ve written your story? Great, that’s an achievement in itself – most people don’t finish books they set out to write.

You’ve told yourself the story.

Now revise it.

And revise the revision.

And maybe revise that revision.

Then you’re ready to let other people read your story.

If they’re beta-readers, you may find it helpful to ask for comments on specific things, like characters, dialogue, or the development of relations, as well as general feedback. Read and think about their comments, and revise the story as you think is necessary.

If an editor’s the next person to read it, you can expect to produce another revision or two… But at the end, you’ll have a better telling of your story.

As an aside, I’ve not tracked down the source of Terry’s quote, but I found this interesting article, a transcript of Terry Pratchett and Gerald Seymour in conversation with David Freeman at the 2001 Cheltenham Literary Festival. Clearly, Terry’s way of writing wasn’t quite what you might guess from the quote, and it neatly illustrates the contrasting ways these two authors found worked for them.

Ian Smith

ERWA Flasher and Quickie Editor

Ian Smith

I’m a professional scientist with a career spent primarily in health care. I live in the south-west of England with my wife and our modest menagerie, currently two horses, two dogs and three guinea pigs. My wife wants to keep chickens too.

My career has involved writing really exciting and stimulating scientific papers, technical reports and dissertations... Okay, important and worthwhile, but not "me". I started writing general interest factual articles and features, as well as preparing and giving public talks. These allow my butterfly mind and insatiable curiosity to go off and play nicely together.

Then my curiosity turned towards fiction. My first efforts were dire, of course, but I hope I’m starting to get the idea a bit now. I've had several short stories published in anthologies, as well as three novellas. Supportive and encouraging feedback from other contributors to the ERWA “storytime” mailing list has been a huge help.

I’ve always read for relaxation and now I write as a creative hobby. I hope some readers enjoy my efforts.

Joining in the Sunday “flashers” with ERWA has been great fun and exposed me to a wide variety of work by other authors. Their examples and feedback continually help my writing to develop. I felt very flattered when approached about taking a turn as the flasher gallery editor.

And yes, I'd rather like to keep chickens too. Just a bit tricky in a small urban garden with two hyperactive terriers...

My third novella, "From The Top (Merely Players 3)" has just been published by Fireborn.


  1. Belinda LaPage


    Before I submit a story, I want it to be in a good shape. I’d like the editors to think I’ve adopted a “professional” approach to my writing, as that might help them feel confident I’ll have the same attitude while working with them.

    So true. I’m so much more inclined to go the extra yard as an editor when I can see the author has already made a solid effort at self-editing.

  2. Lisabet Sarai

    Excellent article, Ian.

    I’ve observed that different authors may have quite different strategies for the revision process. I do a lot of revision as I am writing. Whenever I sit down for a session, I begin by re-reading the last chapter or two. This almost always involves modifications.

    I’m interested in your strategy of saving every draft. Do you sometimes find yourself going back to earlier drafts and reinstating some earlier material?

    • Ian Smith

      Not that I can remember, but it leaves me that option. I have used “chopped” text in other stories a couple of times, where it worked better.

  3. Fantasys

    The best writers know better. They write a first draft not to show readers, but to discover what case they can make for their point and whether it stands up to their own scrutiny. Then they revise

  4. Tig

    Great article. It really is hard knowing when to stop sometimes, though! I have my editor (Tony) confiscate my completed drafts so that I have a copy of something that hasn’t been edited to death.

    As an editor, I would love it if more writers would go through the process of reading their manuscript out loud before submitting. It’s shocking how many little glitches this process picks up.

    You’re a very good and diligent self-editor, Ian. Your copy is usually very clean!

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