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Self-Editing Tips: How to Revise a Novel or Short Story

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 5 min read

Whether you’re an award-winning novelist like Joyce Carol Oates, a New York Times Bestselling storyteller like Dan Brown, or a self-publishing hobbyist embarking on your first novel, you’ll need to invest a great deal of time and effort in the revision process. Composing a first draft of a story can be thrilling, but unless you’re Jack Kerouac drafting On the Road on a continuous roll of typewriter paper, you’ve only just gotten started in your writing process.



Joyce Carol Oates Teaches the Art of the Short StoryJoyce Carol Oates Teaches the Art of the Short Story

Literary legend Joyce Carol Oates teaches you how to write short stories by developing your voice and exploring classic works of fiction.

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How to Revise a Story

Completing the first draft of a story is a big accomplishment. You’ve probably produced a great deal of world building and character development, with an A-story revolving around your main character and various subplots that rope in ancillary characters. As impressive as all this is, your work has only just begun. The revision process is where good stories become great novels, where an interesting plot can become a gripping bestseller thriller that wows literary agents, critics, and audiences alike.

To get your story to the next level, your self-editing process must achieve several objectives:

  • Objective One: Add dimensions. After you are finished with your first draft, flip to the beginning and start anew. Keep in mind that second drafts are still not for polishing. This is when you can go in and start refining all of your characters and different plot points. As you write and edit more of your story, you may add different aspects to a character that might need to be mentioned in a section you already edited. You might add a part of the plot that should be alluded to earlier in your book. This is all part of the editing process.
  • Objective Two: Fill in the gaps. Writing is not a structured process in the sense that what you write is not totally set; you can always go back and revise, edit, rethink, and reconfigure to suit your needs and the needs of the story. Re-reading your first draft might reveal plot holes that will be addressed via revisions. It may expose logical inconsistencies that must be buttressed with enhanced detail. If you, as the author, know a lot of details about a character’s backstory, make sure your reader does as well.
  • Objective Three: Mend character arcs. Audiences want engaging plots, but they also want detailed characters who undergo change during the events of a story. Use a second draft to make sure that your main character and key supporting characters follow consistent character arcs that take them on a journey over the course of the story. If your story is told through first person point of view (POV), this will be even more important as it will also affect the story’s narration. Just how much editing this process will involve depends on how thoroughly you addressed character in the first draft of your novel.
  • Objective Four: Track the pacing of your story. The one thing that tends to unite rapidly written first drafts is that narrative action isn’t equally balanced throughout the whole book. Often, key turning points in a story are back loaded—resulting in too much exposition up front and a frenetic ending that feels cramped and hurried. A key editing tip, whether you’re on your first book or your twenty-fifth, is to find ways to space out your story points so that every section of your novel is equally compelling and nothing feels shoehorned in.
  • Objective Five: Clean up cosmetic errors. When some first time writers think of the editing process, they mainly think of corrections to grammar, spelling, syntax, and punctuation. These elements are certainly important—and they get their own category here—but such edits tend to come toward the end of the process. Obviously no book will go out for hard copy publication without proofreading for typos and grammatical errors, but in the early rounds of revising, direct most of your energy toward story and character. If you consider yourself a good writer who simply isn’t strong on elements like spelling, grammar, and punctuation, consider hiring an outside proofreader to help you with this part of the writing process.
  • Objective Six: Inject variety. The best novels and short stories contain ample variety, no matter how long or short the entire manuscript may be. Look for ways to inject variety into your sentence structure, your narrative events, your dialogue, and your descriptive language. You never want a reader to feel like she’s already read a carbon copy of a certain scene from a few chapters back.

Embrace the Editing Process

Enjoy the process of creating your first and second drafts. Focus on getting through from start to finish, and remember that you can always go back and change things later. Prepare to pivot as you embark on writing your own book. If a novel feels too intimidating, try writing a short story instead. But short stories can be deceivingly more difficult to write than novels, since they require a concise and extremely economical narrative containing all the elements of a novel—in a fraction of the space.

Once you’ve finished your draft, the first thing to do is go back to the beginning of your manuscript and carefully reread it. Look for a number of different things: scenes that drag, characters whose names change part way through, inconsistencies in setting (one moment it’s cloudy and the next it’s sunny), and of course, typos.

After you’ve made your first round of edits, seek out honest feedback from fresh eyes. What does a reader think of the characters? Did it feel real? How was the pacing? Did it drag in some places? This is all important criticism you’ll need to move forward. If you absolutely can’t find someone willing to read your manuscript, look into paying someone to do it. In fact, some seasoned writers still hire their own professional editor to read through their material before sending it to a publisher. An objective book editor will invariably catch things that an author couldn’t see when proofreading and self-editing their own work.

Joyce Carol Oates Teaches the Art of the Short Story
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Want to Become a Better Writer?

Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, mastering the art of fiction writing takes time and patience. No one knows this better than Joyce Carol Oates, the author of some 58 novels and thousands of short stories, essays, and articles. In Joyce Carol Oates’s MasterClass on the art of the short story, the award-winning author and Princeton University creative writing professor reveals how to extract ideas from your own experiences and perceptions, experiment with structure, and improve your craft one sentence at a time.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Joyce Carol Oates, Judy Blume, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, David Baldacci, and more.