If you’re reading this right now, you want to know how to revise a novel. Which also means you’ve written the first draft of a novel—congratulations! That is not an easy thing to do, just ask every writer in the world who still has an unfinished draft (or drafts) on their computer.
Before you read any further, make sure you celebrate finishing your first draft. You deserve it.
Then once you’ve celebrated your accomplishment, it’s time to get back to work.
And what do you do after you write a first draft? You have to revise it.
The problem is, revising a novel is about a lot more than just fixing your words, and yet most articles about how to revise a novel focus exclusively on that—making your writing sound better.
While prettying up your writing is an important part of revising, it’s not the most important part. Not even close.
The most important part is making sure you have an actual story.
You can write great prose, but if you don’t have a compelling, engaging, entertaining story, even the prettiest writing in the world can’t save you. So story first, prose second.
Keep in mind this list of steps assumes you already have all of these elements of craft in your story and just need to revise it. If you don’t have these elements, you’ll need to create them as part of your revision.
Also, at this point, we don’t recommend that you do any actual rewriting. Go through all of the steps in the process first, then when you’ve done that, you can begin your revision. This will ensure you only have to revise your draft once.
Now that we’ve set that foundation, let’s dive into how to revise a novel.
Step 1: Read Through Your Draft
Before you can start your revision, you must thoroughly assess what you have to work with. So the first step in the novel revision process is to read your draft.
For this read-through, just read. Don’t worry about taking notes yet (unless you really want to).
The point of this step is to get clear on what you current draft looks like—the good, the bad and the ugly.
Step 2: Make A List of Your Current Scenes
Now you’re going to read through your draft again, but this time you’re going to do two very important things:
- Make a list of every scene in your current story
- Write down notes for anything you already see that isn’t working or that you want to change
It may seem odd to make a list of all the scenes in your story, but the reason to do this is so you can have a high-level overview of your current story that you can quickly reference.
The best way to do this is to make a bullet-pointed list of each scene, along with 1-2 sentences about what happens in the scene. You can either use a notebook and pen or you can do it right on your computer using a Google Doc or even a spreadsheet.
As you’re reading through your draft and making your scene list, you will likely come across many things you want to change or parts of the story that are disconnected or need more explanation, etc., and that’s why you will also want to make notes for additional changes you want to make.
You can make your notes right on the scene list, if you want to, so you have all of your revision notes all in one place.
At this point, you’re still doing an overall assessment of your current manuscript. The rest of the steps in the process will dig deeper into the different elements of craft, to make sure you’ve covered everything before you start revising.
Step 3: Answer the 5 Plot Questions
After you’ve finished reading through your draft, making your scene list and any additional revision notes, it’s time to really dive into the craft elements of writing a story.
Again, you’re not actually doing any rewriting at this point. You’re simply continuing to assess and make notes for what needs to be fixed, changed, revised, etc.
The next step is to make sure that your current story answers the five most important plot questions. If it doesn’t, this is something you’ll want to work on as part of your revision.
Here are the five plot questions:
Who is your Protagonist?
What is your Protagonist’s goal in the story?
Who is your Antagonist in the story?
What is your Antagonist’s goal in the story and how does that goal directly oppose your Protagonist’s goal?
Why does the Antagonist want this?
The most important part of creating a story plot is making sure there’s direct opposition for your Protagonist. No opposition, no story.
And if your story doesn’t have opposition, these five plot questions will help you create some.
Step 4: Reconfigure (Or Figure Out) Your Story Structure
Now that you know what the plot of your story is, you can reconfigure (or create, if you don’t have any yet) your story structure.
Structure (aka: plot points) is another one of those problem areas in most novel first drafts. Structure will make or break your story.
Without structure, you don’t have a story, you have an episodic narrative that documents the day-to-day occurrences in a character’s life. And that’s not a story.
Structure also helps to create the timeline and pacing for your story. Without these structure points, your story will fall apart.
So, what plot points do you need in your story and where do you put them?
If you’re used to three-act structure, this is the same thing, we’ve just broken the plot points down more specifically.
Use this as your guideline:
Hook—this is an early hint at your Antagonist and/or the forthcoming problem in the story. The Hook occurs about one percent into the story. For a novel, this is typically within the first chapter to first 20 pages.
First Plot Point—this when you officially introduce your Antagonist in the story. The FPP occurs 20 percent to 25 percent into the story, and is the moment where the Protagonist now knows who/what they’re up against for the remainder of the story. It also defines what’s at stake (see Step 6 for more on stakes). This plot point ends Act 1 of your story.
Pinch Point 1—this plot point occurs halfway between your FPP and your MP and is a reminder of the Antagonist and what’s at stake for the Protagonist.
Midpoint—this plot point introduces new information that changes the direction of the story. It occurs 50 percent of the way into the story.
Pinch Point 2—this plot point occurs halfway between your MP and your SPP and is a reminder of the Antagonist and what’s at stake for the Protagonist.
Second Plot Point—this is the final bit of new information that can come into your story and occurs 75 percent to 80 percent into the story. This plot point ends Act 2 of your story.
Here’s a video on how story structure works in a novel.
Does your story have proper structure? If not, this is something major to consider as part of revising your novel.
Step 5: Fix (Or Create) Your Protagonist’s Character Arc
Along with your story’s structure, you’ll also want to make sure your Protagonist has a character arc.
In simple terms, character arc is how a Protagonist changes from the beginning of the story to the end.
Character arc also requires your Protagonist to have an inner demon or inner struggle that he’s dealing with in the story. This is what he’ll be overcoming as part of his character arc.
An inner demon is a flaw or character trait that society would say is a negative trait to have, such as being a liar, manipulator, hot-head, narcissist, etc.
Does your Protagonist have an inner demon? And how does he overcome this in the story to fulfil his character arc?
If you don’t have answers for these questions, now’s the time to find them.
Step 6: Raise (Or Create) the Stakes In Your Story
Stakes—especially personal ones—increase the tension, drama and conflict in your story. Another way of saying this is, what does your Protagonist stand to lose in the story because of the Antagonist?
If there’s nothing at stake, there’s really no reason to read the story in the first place.
The whole reason a reader reads a story is to go on a vicarious journey with a character who they want to root for. And in order to have a reason to root for this character, there must be something at stake.
So you will definitely want to think about what’s at stake for your Protagonist in the story.
Step 7: Revise (Or Create) Your Subplot(s)
A subplot is a side story, usually related to your Protagonist, that is happening alongside your core story plot.
While it’s not required for you to have a subplot, it is recommended. Not only does a subplot allow the reader to see another side of your Protagonist, it also helps increase the length of your story.
If your story is falling short in word count, you may want to think about whether a subplot or two could help you bring the story to life better and make it longer.
Step 8: Create (Or Revise) Your Theme
Theme in a novel is simply the message you want the reader to take away from the story.
The best place to find your story’s theme is to look at your Protagonist’s character arc. Over the course of your story, your Protagonist is struggling and growing and overcoming his inner demon.
As he overcomes the inner demon, he learns something. That something can be the theme of your story.
For example, let’s say your Protagonist is a control freak. He overcomes this in the story and learns that sometimes it’s OK to ask for help. Learning to ask for help is a great theme for a story.
Step 9: Revise Your Writing Voice
Once you’ve completed all of the prior steps in the process, now it’s finally time to look at revising the actual prose of your story.
You’ll want to read through your draft a couple more times and look for the following:
Passive Voice—this is when the subject of the sentence is being acted on by the verb in the sentence instead of the other way around. Active voice is wordy, unclear and best to be avoided.
Adverbs—adverbs are words that end in “ly.” You will want to further examine any sentences that contain adverbs to determine whether they’re necessary or not.
Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation—most word processing programs have automatic spellcheck and grammar check, but it never hurts to hire a proofreader or use proofreading software to catch additional spelling, grammar and punctuation errors.
Info Dumps—this is when you “dump” a ton of backstory or info all in one section of your story. It’s unnecessary and it reads badly. Watch for this as you’re completing your revision.
Showing Versus Telling—you’ve probably heard writing instructors say “show, don’t tell.” Most first drafts are full of telling instead of showing. So this is something you’ll want to look out for as you revise. The more you can show instead of tell, the better.
Whew—that was a lot of steps! But that’s everything you need to know about how to revise a novel.
As a recap, here are all of the steps again:
Read through your draft
Make a list of your current scenes
Answer the 5 plot-questions
Reconfigure (or figure out) your story structure
Fix (or create) your protagonist's Character arc
Raise (or create) the stakes in your story
Revise (or create) your subplot(s)
Revise (or create) your theme
Revise your writing voice
So now you know how to revise a novel. It’s not nearly as hard as it sounds, even though we did give you a really in-depth overview of everything we recommend you consider before you spend any time rewriting your draft.
Once you’ve finished revising your novel, you’re ready to move on to the next step: hiring an editor. Check out our editing guide for more on how to do that.