Are You Making These 3 Common Revision Mistakes?

Today’s guest post is by Janice Hardy.

I’ve always enjoyed revising a novel, both with my own books and helping other writers with theirs. It’s exciting when an idea blossoms and I can see all the random pieces come together to form a compelling story. It’s also satisfying to help a writer pinpoint the exact problem she is having with a manuscript and work with her to fix it. Some might call me crazy, but it’s a lot of fun.

Every novel has its own quirks and trouble spots to work out, but there are some revision mistakes that new writers run into more than others (and even some pros do too).

  1. Polishing the Text before the Story Is Solid

No doubt you want your novel to read beautifully, but an early draft is not the place to polish the text. You’re still working out the story, tweaking the plot, fleshing out the characters and the setting. Until the story, plot, and characters are the best you can make them (and working as intended), the specific words in the text don’t matter.

It’s easy to see how this sidetracks a writer though. You spend a lot of time writing your novel, and once it’s done you want to start “making it better.” Beautiful prose = better, and let’s be honest—it’s less work to polish the prose than revise the story, and after a first draft, you’re tired.

Polishing that text to a shine makes it feel as though you’re progressing and improving your novel, even if you aren’t.

Why this can cause problems: Once you polish your manuscript it feels “finished,” so it’s much harder to change the text or cut any scenes that aren’t working. If your story needs a major overhaul, hacking and slashing at clean, perfect text feels like you’re ruining your novel.

To avoid changing anything, you decide against fixing a bad scene or wind up performing literary gymnastics to keep a great line, often to the detriment of the novel.

First-draft words are still “words in progress,” so they’re easier to rip out and edit. You know they’re not final. Get the story right first, then polish it to perfection.

  1. Adding More to Make It “Better”

Most early drafts need work (it’s the nature of writing). It’s common to finish the story, finally see how it all unfolds, and then realize it’s not as strong as you’d have hoped. The stakes aren’t high enough, there aren’t enough subplots, the secondary characters aren’t creating enough conflict—any number of common first-draft issues could apply. So you decide the story needs more complexity.

You add more to the book. You put more characters at risk so the stakes feel higher. You give every secondary character a subplot that interferes with the main plot for more conflict. You add backstory that connects characters in ways that feel contrived or coincidental. But instead of making it complex, you’ve only made it complicated and unwieldy.

Why this can cause problems: The more complicated a plot, the less space the novel has dedicated to focusing on what really matters. It takes all the wonderful things about your novel and reduces them to shallow ideas. Adding new scenes and subplots takes time away from the core conflict and risks the novel feeling aimless and unfocused. Add too much and you can confuse readers so badly they stop reading the book.

Odds are your story is good already, and all you’re missing are ways to further develop and explore that story. Don’t look for things to add; look for ways to deepen what you already have that’s working.

  1. Changing the Novel to Fix the Novel

This is more common with first novels, but I’ve seen writers of all levels making this revision mistake. Every time a draft is revised, the story completely changes. It’s usually triggered by a critique, but self-doubt can also cause an unwarranted rewrite.

For example, if you received feedback that the opening chapter is slow, you trash what you had and rewrite a whole new chapter. Trouble is, the issue had nothing to do with what the scene was about, and the new chapter has all the same problems as the old one.

Most of the time this happens when you’re not sure how to fix a problem that either you see or one of your critique partners sees (or they’re not able to articulate what the actual problem is).

Say your critique partner said, “The chapter felt slow,” and so you decide that starting with your protagonist arguing with her daughter’s teacher isn’t exciting enough. You scrap it and have your protagonist get into a car crash on the way to her daughter’s school instead.

Then, you’re told, “Why should I care about these characters getting into an accident? I don’t know who they are yet.” So you decide to write a new scene that shows why these characters are likable and wind up with “This chapter feels slow” comments again.

The problem was never with the scene but concerned something the scene was lacking. Add stakes to the fight with the teacher, put the daughter’s scholastic career on the line, and the scene works great to hook your readers without having to rewrite what happens.

Why this can cause problems: If you’re not fixing the underlying problem, nothing will improve. You’ll spend hours, days, or even months rewriting scenes that don’t need it. Your frustration level will spike because you’ll keep getting negative feedback and feel as though nothing you do is working. If it goes on long enough, you may even question your ability to write at all.

Have faith in your writing. Don’t start over; instead, look for ways to make what you already wrote stronger. If you’re not sure how, do some research and teach yourself the skills you need.

Great writing sites like Live Write Thrive and my own Fiction University can help you get where you need to be.

Even when you enjoy them, revisions take work. But with a little planning and perspective, you can avoid creating more work (and frustration) for yourself.

Have you ever made these revision mistakes? What revision problems do you struggle with?

Janice Hardy head shotJanice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series. She’s also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. Visit Janice at or on Facebook or Twitter. Her latest book is Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel.

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  1. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot from you, Janice.
    But… but… I do revise while I write. And it works for me.
    Nothing helps me see the story better than actually writing it.
    I don’t view editing as the final stage of writing as I revise my manuscript several times. Editing is simply part of writing.

    1. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s your process. Editing IS part of writing. And I’m talking about final draft polishing, not editing.

      I don’t think revising while you write is a problem or a mistake. I’m referring to situations where a writer finishes a first draft, and then spends hours polishing the text and copy editing before they ensure the story is they way they want it.

      For example, if you were editing as you went and getting frustrated because you never got a draft done, or you kept having to redo huge sections you edited because the story wasn’t right, or you were reluctant to change something you’d spent two weeks polishing because it was “done,” then you’d likely be doing something that was causing you problems. Since that’s not the case, it’s not a problem for you.

      Apologies if I didn’t make that clear 🙂

  2. I am definitely guilty of the first one. With my first novel I revised it to death before I actually finished it and pretty soon I lost all objectivity. That one is still not publisher-ready!

    With my second and third novels I got myself into the habit of drafting WAY faster, but I do continue to revise a bit as I go. I just have trouble moving on from a scene when I can clearly see something wrong with it, and then I can’t get the next scene to flow, etc.

    I fortunately don’t have the second problem you mention because I am long-winded and when I go to edit a draft I am looking to cut stuff out, not add more stuff in. I have yet to have a first draft of my (YA) novels come in under 100K!

    As for the third problem, I find I did this when I reacted too quickly to critique. Now I ensure that before I change anything 1) I take time to digest a critique instead of rushing immediately to a manuscript and changing it and 2) I get critiques from more than one person to see how many people actually agree. This has really helped me with that one.

    Great tips, thanks!

    1. Sometimes just letting a manuscript or critique sit for a few weeks before you do anything to it can provide enough distance to gain some objectivity. I’m glad you’ve managed to work though most of these and make it safely out the other side 🙂

  3. I hadn’t thought of number 3 as a problem, but now I can see how it could be. As for #1, I do tweak while I draft, but I wouldn’t call it polishing. I have a hard time focusing on a scene if the wording feels off.

    1. Tweaking is fine, and most of us edit as we go to a certain degree. I’m talking about “final polish” on a first draft when you start your revision.

  4. I fell victim to the second one on my last novel. I had a pretty clean outline with my hero’s story out front then fell too much in love with the minor characters and their stories as I wrote the draft. 67 scenes went to 83 scenes and I totally washed out all focus on the main story line. I’m in the process of trimming the subplots and changing a lot of scenes back to the POV of my main character so that the driving force of my main characters quest for his goal isn’t washed out. Your description of this flaw help me put words to the mistake I made. Thanks.

  5. These tips are really useful. Thanks so much. Whenever I’ve been tempted to trash a scene in the work I’m on at the moment I go back and re-read it – many times.

    1. Always a good plan. It’s also helpful to mark it (I like to highlight or color the first paragraph in red) and then decide after the draft is done. Doesn’t work quite as well during a revision, but it lets me know there’s still a scene that’s iffy 🙂

  6. When I revise I feel scattered, like my mss is falling apart and caught in a breeze. I end up with notes and docs all over the place. Usually I feel like I’m writing cr@p before it gets better.

    1. I’ve found taking a little time to prepare and organize your notes and feedback really helps avoid that scattered feeling. I like to use OneNote to organize everything, but any organizational option will work.

      I like to start with an editorial map to see what I have to work with (the final draft always changes from my original outline), then determine what I want to change. Then I start with the largest changes first(the big story edits), then work down to the small ones.

      You might try exploring different revision process and find one that helps keep your focused and organized so it’s not so frustrating. 🙂 They’re got to be one out there that will work for you.

    I worked on my “first draft” as I read a truckload of writing-help books on technique, with at least five major plotting theories boxing it out in my head. With each new “aha”, I tinkered and then tinkered some more, here and there, now and then, killed characters, added new ones, duplicated scenes. I know first drafts are supposed to suck, but three years and almost four thousand pages (really!) later, I knew enough to know this one really sucked. Revision? Revise what? I was ready to give up writing altogether.

    Read “Authorphobia” by Steve Windsor. Cried a lot, laughed a lot, took a deep breath and came up with a plan: Spent a weekend fast-reading ALL those pages I had written, put them in a box, super-glued the lid, and slid it under my bed. Spent a week of intense house-plant studying and watching NCIS. Re-read ONE book “Planning Your Novel” and finished the workbook in two weeks. Spent a long weekend studying my workbook answers, and slid it under the bed. THEN started fast-drafting with a sign on my monitor,”Don’t Think. Just Type. PLEASE!!”

    I’m several weeks into it, getting a lot of words (good, not perfect) down. I’m pretty sure it’s in chrono order and in synch with my workbook plan, but I’m not looking back to make sure….

    I finally realized there is a reason writing is so often segregated into phases such as “planning, drafting, revising, and polishing” (at least for writers like me).

    1. I hear you! That’s why I put my writing craft books out. I spent years floundering and decided it was time to make the novel-writing process clear and organized, with key steps in the right places. A good book for you to start with would be The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction and the workbook. I’ve had so many writers thank me for taking the confusion and mystery out of structuring a solid story. I wish I’d had someone make it clear and simple thirty years ago when I started writing novels. My aim is to save writers the frustration and confusion that I, and you, and so many others, suffered, lacking direction.

    2. I was the same as CS. I read a lot of great writing books, but they couldn’t tell me what I needed to know and I had to figure it out myself. Now I share what I learned so others don’t have to deal with those same hassles.

      JC, so glad my book is helping you! Taking it in smaller, manageable pieces really does help make the whole process easier. That allows you to focus on what you need to do for the story, and you can ignore anything that doesn’t need to happen at that stage.

      It’s okay to look back at your plan 🙂 That’s what it’s there for. Just don’t feel you have to stick with it exactly if your story has evolved. Changes do happen, and it’s okay to explore a new idea if you want. Just keep an eye on it in case it starts to take over. 🙂

  8. Not sure if my post took before or not, so trying again. I came to this via Janice’s post and found it very helpful for myself and for my students. I also spent way too much time “polishing” several first drafts. Should have just written without thinking. Will know next time.

    1. Thanks, Carol. A big, big problem for so many writers, especially beginning novelists, is they can’t see what they are doing wrong or what their weak areas are. That’s why having a professional critique done is so helpful. It shows a writer what they need to work on. Like athletes who spend 80% of their time working on the 10-20% of their skills that they’re weak in, writers need to identify what they’re weak in and then work hard to master or improve that skill. It might be overwriting, POV issues, weak construction. Any number of things (all covered in my 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing book). I’ve known many authors who’ve been polishing and rewriting the same badly structured book for years. If they’d had help at the outline stage, they wouldn’t have wasted all this time. I do a lot of scene outline critiques, and writers tell me it’s exactly what they needed to get clear on their story problems and how to fix them. I wish I’d had someone to help me in this way when I was writing my first novels. But now with the Internet, online courses, blogs, workshops, podcasts, mentoring, there is no lack of help to become a great writer!

    2. It’s easy to do, especially if we’re not sure about the story but feel we need to finish the manuscript. Making cosmetic changes makes us feel we’re making progress. It can be hard to break that habit, but you can do it 🙂 And you’ll be much happier with your drafts after that.

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