One-Pass Manuscript Revision: From First Draft
to Last in One Cycle
© by Holly Lisle
All Rights Reserved
The first draft of your novel is finished. Now, according to the
recommendations of any number of writing books, pundits, and writers
who go through this themselves, you’re in for five or ten or
more rounds of revision, in which you’ll polish your work until
it is a gleaming, perfect pearl … and in which process you’ll
dither for months or years.
You can do that if you want. But you don’t have to. It isn’t
the way I work. I find a lot of truth in the adage, “If you
don’t have time to do it right the first time, how are you
ever going to find time to fix it later?”
Which is not to say that my first drafts are perfect – far
from it. My first drafts suffer from the same little shop of horrors
as everyone else’s: poor plotting, crappy characterization,
logic leaps, redundancy, aimless wandering, bad writing, worse writing,
and utterly execrable writing.
But my first revision is my last revision. If you’d like to
cut years off the process of revising, I’ll be happy to show
The Supply List
For the process of One-Pass Revision, you’ll need the following
- A printed copy of your manuscript (Do NOT attempt to do this
while working from your word processor and screen. It simply won’t
- A cheap spiral-bound 8½” by 11” notebook
- A couple of smooth-writing pens. Don’t waste time with
pencils – erasers are not your friend when you’re doing
- A table where you have room to stack your manuscript into three
piles and have the spiral-bound notebook open at the same time
- Good lighting
- Nerves Of Steel™ (available from Walgreen’s, Target,
and other national chains) (Yes, that’s a joke)
This first part can be as grueling as the whole rest of the revision
if you haven’t already thought about it, but it’s essential.
(I do it before I start writing the book, so all I have to do is
copy it over from previous notes – for your next novel, you
might want to consider this approach if you haven’t already.)
THE PROCESS, PART ONE — DISCOVERY
Start with the spiral-bound notebook.
- Write down your theme in fifteen words or less. Some of my regular themes are Love Conquers Evil, Heroes Are People With The Guts To Say “No”, and The Individual Can Change the World. (If you’re still not sure what a theme is, here’s an article to help sort things out:
- If you have sub-themes and know what they are, write them
down too. I usually have one theme and from three to six sub-themes,
depending on the length and complexity of the project. You may
have more or less.
- Write down what the book is about in twenty-five words or
less. This is not as impossible as it sounds – the micro-summary
for the 375,000 word Secret Text Trilogy was “Werewolf Romeo
and Juliet versus Renaissance Godfather in the jungle, with magic.”
- Write down a one-line story arc for the book’s main
character. The story arc for Kait Galweigh in the Secret Text
Trilogy is “Kait battles her own nature, magic, her family’s
enemies, and resurrected wizards from her world’s past, finds
unlikely love, and at terrible cost, saves her world.
- Write down the main characters, and a paragraph of no more
than about 250 words describing the story, sort of like the blurb
on the back of a paperback.
This is not the easiest process to go through, but if you’re
going to nail the revision in one shot, you have to have each of
these bits of information clearly in mind going in. If you don’t
know where you’re going and what you hope to accomplish by
the time you’re done, how will you know what you need to fix?
Nothing will guarantee that you’ll wander aimlessly in revision
hell faster than this.
And let’s debunk one bit of writer myth while we’re here:
Doing a seventeenth revision on a project does not make a writer
an artist or move him above the writer hoi polloi any more than
dressing entirely in black or wearing tweed jackets with leather
elbow patches or big, black drover coats. These are all affectations,
and smack of dilettantism. Real writers, and real artists, finish
books and move on to the next project.
THE PROCESS – PART TWO: THE MANUSCRIPT SLOG
Okay, the stuff above was tough if you hadn’t thought about
it before. But this next bit is rugged no matter how much thought
you’ve given it. We’re going to pull out your manuscript
and make it bleed.
So where do you start? You start with a mandatory scene check.
Is your manuscript written in scenes?
A scene is a cohesive block without which the novel will not stand,
encompassing everything that a novel has to have, but in miniature.
A scene has a start and a finish, characters and dialogue, engages
at least one and sometimes all five senses, and offers conflict
and change. It takes place in one time and in one place. If the
time or the place changes, you’re in a new scene. A scene is
usually written from only one point of view.
(If you’re still not sure what a scene is or if your novel
is divided into scenes, check out Scene-Creation
Workshop: Writing Scenes that Move Your Story Forward)
You may have done one scene per chapter, which I have done on occasion.
You may have several scenes per chapter. Your scenes may be as short
as a paragraph, or as long as twenty or thirty pages. However, time
and place will not change within the scene.
You’re going to run through your novel scene by scene and
ask yourself the following questions:
- · Does this scene belong in the book? That is,
does it address your theme or one of your sub-themes, contain
action, conflict, and change, develop one or more of your characters,
and move your story forward?
If the scene just tells the reader about your world or its history,
or lacks characters, conflict, and change, put a note in your
spiral-bound notebook telling yourself which important points
of worldbuilding you’re cutting, and draw a big X through
the entire scene.
If the scene involves characters who have nothing to do
with the main story of the book (walk-on characters who got carried
away and grabbed lines, and who are never seen again, for example),
draw a big X across the entire scene.
Even if the scene involves your two main characters, but they’re
carrying out action that has nothing to do with what your story
is about, does not develop them as characters, and does not move
the main story conflict or address any of the sub-themes, cross
the whole thing out.
Does this seem brutal? It is. But the biggest thing you can do
to help your story is to make sure each scene is involved in telling
So you’ve decided the scene belongs in the book. What do
you look for next?
- Is the scene a story in miniature? Does it contain characters,
conflict, action, change, dialogue, setting, and involvement of
the reader’s senses? Does it have a beginning, a point where
things change, and a clear ending? Is it interesting and entertaining?
Does it move the story forward? It must do and be all of these
things. If it’s missing elements (like dialogue, or setting,
or tastes, smells, sights, sounds, and textures), figure out how
you can add them. Start writing in changes in the margins. Carry
them around to the back of the page, and onto additional pages
- What is the conflict of the scene? Is it the argument
between lovers, where one discovers the other has been cheating?
Is it the discovery of the body in the garden and the realization
that one of the other Queens is a murderer? Whatever the conflict
in the scene, make sure you develop it well. Weed out things that
don’t relate to it, or that weaken its impact. End the scene
at the point where the conflict is either made worse, or resolved
in some fashion. Cut any material that goes on after this point
— save it to insert in a later if it’s truly important.
- Does the scene contain elements that no longer fit the story?
This happens to me all the time. I think I’m writing one
kind of book when I start, but find that it has become something
completely different by the time I finish it. I’ll have characters
and story lines at the beginning that just flat vanish by the
end – and things at the end that I promised myself I’d
make fit in the beginning. Time to fix all of those.
- Go over to your spiral-bound notebook, and write in details
about threads you’ve killed. Just a line to remind yourself,
like: “Cut all references to the Houbar Council – eliminate
Houbar Council scenes.”
- Make notes to yourself about new directions you took.
Like: “Find places early on to mention King Purdue and his
Queenly Harem. Add a complete scene where Queen Hotibel is murdered.
- Make notes about characters you’ve condensed or eliminated.
Like: “The Blue Guy, Fred the Barber, and Hangin’ John
have all become Hangin’ John. Combine them, and correct all
- Offer yourself suggestions about the evolution of your story
and theme. It’s entirely possible to discover at the
end of the book that it isn’t about what you thought it was
about when you started it. So when you realize this, give yourself
a couple of notes to remind you of what your early scenes are
going to need. Like: “Introduce the first potential for a
romance when Hangin’ John and Queen Bridget meet at the scene
of the murder.” Or, “Add spiritual elements and internal
conflict regarding his faith each time Hangin’ John is forced
to consider his vows of celibacy.”
- Is the scene well-written? Can you find words that repeat,
grammatical and spelling errors, clichés, stilted dialogue,
endless description? At any point do you get drowsy reading what
you’ve written? Are you ever tempted to skim?
- Does the scene fit logically in time and space? That
is, if the previous scene takes place on Thursday at noon, and
the following scene takes place on Friday at noon, and all three
scenes involve the same character, does your current scene take
place at some time between Thursday noon and Friday noon and in
a location your character could logically inhabit in the time
And just a note for those of you writing books from multiple points
of view. You’re not immune from this time-and-place hunt.
You just have a harder job – you have to track all of your
characters from each scene they occupy to the next, and make sure
they aren’t in two places at the same time, or in two places
they couldn’t get from and to in two sequential scenes, and
that scenes that take place in one location are in synch with
scenes that take place in another location. You can make yourself
really crazy with this. All I can suggest, after more than twenty
books and a whole lot of character tracking, is this: Take good
notes in your spiral-bound notebook, and hope for the best.
- Is your scene full of weak words? How many times have
you used is, was, or were? How many times have you used very?
How many times have you fallen prey to passive voice? How many
adjectives and adverbs can you find? Eliminate forms of the verb
“to be” wherever you find them, rewriting the sentence
with a stronger verb. “It was raining,” becomes “The
rain slashed down, tearing up the gardens and ripping leaves from
the trees.” “He was tall,” becomes “She looked
up at him. And up. And up.”
- Is the word-count right? Currently, the most salable
length for non-series genre novels for adults is between 90,000
and 120,000 words. Novels written for specific lines (e.g., Harlequin
Presents, Silhouette Intimate Moments, Star Trek, Star Wars, or
Buffy the Vampire Slayer) have exacting word length requirements
that absolutely must be met in order for you to make the sale.
If your novel is outside of salable limits by being too short,
look for ways to add conflict, to introduce secondary characters
and an additional story line, or to deepen characters’ relationships
with each other. Don’t try to pad a story out with description!
Padding reads like padding, and will be the kiss of death for
any hoped-for sale. You have to add real story to make the book
worth the extra pages and the reader’s money. If your book
is too long, don’t try to convince yourself that yours is
the one 450,000 word monster that will knock publishers or agents
on their asses. First, look for things to cut. Use look for ways
to condense. Cut hard. When it’s a tight as you can make
it, give it a rest, and then come back and cut some more.
Go through every page and every scene in the manuscript with this
same bloody pen. Refer to your notebook constantly, making sure
that you correct your mistakes, add in all the cool things the book
needs to make it great, tie up all your lose ends, and add conflict
to every single page.
You can safely eliminate almost all greetings and goodbyes in conversation,
every instance where the character is driving and thinking, or sipping
tea and thinking, or taking a shower in thinking. You can skip the
parts where characters are getting from point A to point B if they
aren’t engaged in pitched battle or serious trouble of some
sort at the same time. Mostly you can eliminate waking-up and going
to bed routines.
You want to give the impression of reality and of a life without
actually showing the whole thing. Think of your novel as “A
Life: The Good Parts Version.” All the sex and violence, passion
and struggle. None of the teeth-brushing.
Work the manuscript in three piles. The pile you’re reading,
the pile with pages that have writing on them, and the pile with
pages that don’t.
THE PROCESS – PART THREE: TYPE-IN
And then ….
From front to back, your manuscript looks like it’s been savaged
by rutting weasels. (See Revising
Vincalis for graphic images of a post-revision manuscript
— Warning: Not for the faint of heart.) You’ve
ripped out old scenes, hand-written new scenes on the back of the dead
scenes, crammed dialogue in between scratched out lines of description,
written little notes to yourself about changes you still want to make
when you type everything in. Your final clean pages to scribbled on pages
ratio is probably 1:2 or 1:3, or even 1:4.
Start with the first page that bears your scribbles, start with
the first line of corrections, open up your document, and start
typing. You aren’t going to look at the clean pages again —
if you’d like to make a bit of space on your desk, you can
throw them away.
(If you’re thinking, “But what if those pages still need
work?” you weren’t hard enough on yourself first time
through. Stop! Don’t type a letter until you’re confident
that your clean pages are. Go back through the book and give it
what it really needs. Being gentle with yourself the first
time through just means there’ll be a second time. And a third.
And who needs that?)
As you type in your corrections, you may have improved wording
ideas. Go with them. You may think of wittier, more perfect dialogue.
Swap it out. You may finally hit the perfect description of the
character, the locale, or some other goodie. Terrific. Use it.
You will probably also have completely new plot ideas, have great
ideas for new characters who could really shine, and complications
that could just change everything. Don’t indulge yourself by
putting them in this book. Write them down on a separate piece of
paper and save them for the next book. The point of a novel revision
is to finish this book. I guarantee you that as long as you’re
willing to keep piddling around with the same manuscript, you’ll
find ways to make it different. You don’t want to make it different.
You just want to make it as good as it can possibly be, and then
get it out the door.
Why? Because the definition of a writing career is: Write a
book. Write another book. Write another book.
Nowhere in that description is included: Take one story and make
it a monument to every idea you ever had or ever will.
AND A SUM-UP
Does one-pass revision sound like a huge amount of work? It is.
Does it sound frustrating? It can be. It can also be exciting, and
a lot of fun, and you can walk away from it with some very good
books. It’s the only revision method I use. Using this method,
I can revise a 125,000 word novel in about two weeks. I’ve
never done more than one pre- submission revision, and usually only
one, and never more than two, post-editor revisions. My post-editing
revisions are usually light.
Go into the process with the determination to make the book really
good — as good as it can be. Give it your all, get it done, and
then move on, secure in the knowledge that you have made it the
best it can be. And that your next book will be even better. Your
career lies in writing a book, and writing another book, and writing
a book after that.
Reprinted from Holly
Lisle’s Vision: A Resource For Writers, Issue #9 (May-June,2002)
While writers with experience generally can work their way through this process, I had so many reader requests to demonstrate One-Pass Revision in detail that I created a course. If you get the book you want from the process above, excellent. If you need the specifics, investigate my How To Revise Your Novel course here.