Checklist for Revising a Novel

© 2008 Simon Kisner CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Recently, I joked on my personal blog about how (not) to revise your novel, a trying process involving sweat, tears, and numerous trips to the office supply store. And all just so that you can see, in black and white, how crappy a writer you really are.

But seriously, revising a novel is a lot of hard work. And in your first draft, you probably did do a crappy job, because that’s what revision is for, to un-crap-ify it. You’re basically trying to fix everything you goofed on while you were writing your first draft. Melding all those multiple character personalities into one; pruning all those lost plot threads that go nowhere; unifying the story’s theme.

For From the Ashes of Courage, I used Holly Lisle’s one-pass manuscript revision process, exactly as she describes it. I’ve always used a variation of this process, going from first to final draft in one pass (more or less), but this is the first time I’ve done everything she recommends, exactly as she recommends it. I found it workable, and even enjoyable. In particular, her advice to write down the main theme and sub-themes of the story, before you start revising, I found that to be invaluable.

Even though it was fun to work on paper, I don’t think it was really necessary—for me—to print out the manuscript, as she recommends, because I didn’t really make any changes that wouldn’t have been easier right on the computer. This may have something to do with how I write. Unlike Holly, for example, I do not tend to throw in new plot ideas while I’m writing my first draft. I would more likely do that while I’m writing my zero-draft. And because the first draft is a rewrite of the zero-draft, the plot holes that result usually don’t make it into the first draft. Likewise, I didn’t have many scenes that I had to throw away. (There was exactly one, and I know how it got in there in the first place, and it’s now less likely that a similar scene would make it into a future first draft.) Yes, there were lots of plot points, scenes, partial scenes, and so forth that I moved around, recast, and threw away, but they were all in the zero-draft, and I made those changes while I was writing the first draft. That probably made the revision process much less intense than it otherwise would have been.

Even so, I ended up—and I should have done this a long time ago—compiling a revision checklist, all the things that I was checking for. In software-development terms, these are my acceptance tests. These are how I know I’ve done my job correctly, or how I know what’s wrong with my story. If any of these tests fail, it indicates that I need to fix something wrong in the manuscript.

I will no doubt add to this list in the future. For now, here’s my revision checklist:


  • Words are spelled correctly.
  • Grammar is consistent (tense, voice, etc.), or else there’s a good reason for any inconsistency.
  • Prose uses the most powerful verbs and nouns available. Convert adverbs into verbs, if possible, and adjectives into nouns.
  • Descriptive passages refer to as many of the five senses as possible.
  • All dialogue, narrative, and description ping-pongs (is written in MRU’s).
  • All sentences are clear and unambiguous.
  • Every word and phrase adds meaning. Remove all excess words and phrases.
  • Redundancy has been limited. Be wary of repeating the same information (e.g. character descriptions), especially using the same or similar words.
  • Information is consistent throughout. No part of the manuscript contradicts information given elsewhere (except via multiple characters or multiple, unreliable narrators).
  • Context switches proceed smoothly and naturally. If using a POV with multiple simultaneous viewpoint characters, make sure the narrative anticipates all context switches.
  • There are no clichés.
  • All passages engage the reader. Be wary of passages that makes you want to skim or fall asleep.


  • Each scene helps build at least one of the story’s themes.
  • Each scene develops at least one character.
  • Each scene contains action, dialogue, setting, and description.
  • Each scene moves the story forward.
  • In each scene, something changes.
  • Each scene is a story in miniature, with conflict and resolution, a beginning and an end.


  • Each plot element fits the story and impacts the main story line (directly or indirectly).
  • Each story thread goes somewhere.
  • Each event proceeds naturally from the previous and leads naturally into the next.
  • Each plot element melds smoothly with all others. Check for plot holes.
  • Every implication of each plot element goes somewhere or is sufficiently explained away. Check especially for obvious outs, paths that if taken would make the conflict moot.
  • Each plot elements fits chronologically into the story. Watch out for characters, for example, who could not possibly be at the stated place at the stated time (unless they have a matter-energy transporter).
  • Each story thread has a beginning, a middle, and a satisfactory ending. Tie up loose ends (unless you’re intentionally leaving them there for a sequel).


  • Every character impacts the plot in some way.
  • No character serves a purpose that another character could serve.
  • Each conflict produces reaction in each viewpoint character involved in the conflict, or a reason why it doesn’t matter to him.
  • Each reaction by a viewpoint character has a result that affects the character and his story, or a reason why no result is forthcoming.
  • Each character change has a character reaction causing it, and a conflict that prompts that character reaction.
  • Each character reaction is proportional to the conflict the character faces, in terms of his evident personality.
  • A character’s quirks are consistent throughout the story (unless they change due to a bona fide character change). If a character wears glasses in the beginning, make sure he’s still wearing them at the end; if he sucks his teeth in scene 27, make sure he’s been doing so since the beginning; etc.
  • The reader can understand each reaction by a viewpoint character. (Non-viewpoint character reactions don’t necessarily need to make sense to the reader, as long as they make sense to you, the author.)





2 responses to “Checklist for Revising a Novel”

  1. […] a pretty good revision list – although I think it includes some editing items as well. The Fix It List Template is so you […]

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