Laura Howard: Chunking Your Revision


Chunking Your Revision

I have about five writing blogs that I subscribe to that I simply must read when they arrive in my inbox. Dear Editor, with Deborah Halverson, is one of those blogs. 

Editing isn't something that comes naturally, to me at least, so her tips will leave you feeling less daunted and ready with the red pen!

Stick around til the end, because Deborah is offering a copy of Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies to one lucky winner!

You’ve finished the first draft of your novel and want to whip it into shape for submission to publishers or perhaps for self-publication. But what does that mean, exactly? What’s involved in whipping? And where do you start when you’ve got 60,000 words staring you down? Revision can be daunting.

One way to ease your revision angst is to rethink the concept of revising. Most people think of the writing process in drafts, which can lead to the mindset that there’s a formal starting and ending point for each revision, with the writer working doggedly from “Once upon a time…” straight through to “…happily ever after,” fixing whatever pops up as it pops up. 

Thus, on any given day you’d be rewording conversations, massaging the narrative voice, rewriting scenes, adding or removing character habits, inserting setting descriptions, running a search-and-replace for en-dashes because you noticed that you used those instead of em-dashes. . . . Serious brain strain, all that.

Why not give your brain a break by breaking your task into focused chunks? With this approach, you’d pick a writing element, say plot, and ignore everything but that. Working Big Picture chunks to small detail chunks rather than page by page, you’d focus not on revising the story but on honing 
single elements. Gone is that scattered, overwhelmed feeling. 

Your chunks may look like this:

  1. Plot progression: This chunk has you evaluating your plot to ensure that the events work together or build upon each other to move the overall plot forward at a steady pace, with increasing tension. A great way to do that is to make a Chapter List, wherein you note the main goal of the story and then list each chapter, one after the other, writing the chapter’s key event right next to it. Every chapter should have a specific plot goal that propels your character one step closer to the resolution of his overall conflict. If you see that it doesn’t, you may have a stutter in your pacing, sabotaging your story tension. Or perhaps you went off on a tangent, losing story focus. You can see that when you examine the manuscript for nothing but plot progression. The scenes within a chapter should contribute to the chapter’s greater goal in a similar manner.

  1. Characters: Revisit your Chapter List. For each chapter, describe your protagonist’s emotional or psychological state at that point in the story. A strong chapter not only has an immediate need or goal that ties into the overall plot, it has a character who takes action on that goal but encounters conflict that mucks up the story further, leaving a new or worsened problem (a setback) to deal with in the next chapter. This messes with your character’s head and heart. As you examine your character chapter by chapter, you should see him working through his inner growth until ultimately he arrives at the final chapter improved or wizened. If you find you’re describing your character in the same manner for several chapters, perhaps you’re not pushing your character hard enough. Revise by taking things away from the character, like his place of refuge when he wants to calm down. Or give him stuff he doesn’t want, like new responsibilities and problems. Force him out of his comfort zone and make him react, adapt, or mess up. Turn the thumbscrews, big time.

  1. Dialogue: You want a balance between spoken words and the action within the narrative beats (those narrative bits, or pauses, between lines of dialogue). Don’t make the dialogue do all the work because then it’ll feel overwrought. Instead, put the emotion in the action. For example, an angry character can jam a pencil into a pencil sharpener and let it grind down to nothing as he talks. The readers will focus on the grinding, soaking up his anger, while the dialogue supports or perhaps juicily contradicts his behavior. This takes the pressure off the dialogue, making it feel more natural, balancing the conversation. Exclamation points and melodramatic statements within dialogue are a sign that you’ve forced all the emotion into the dialogue.
  1. Setting: After you’ve got the plot points, character arcs, and dialogue nailed down, you can focus on creating a stronger sense of place. Sprinkle in sensual details like smells and sounds and textures. Have characters interact with setting props (like the pencil sharpener) or respond to setting elements like heat, snow, crowds, silence. You’ll notice that your characterization will deepen as they react to or interact with the setting. Setting is the unsung hero of characterization.

  1. Transitions into and out of chapters and scenes. This pass has you looking at the first and last paragraphs of each chapter and scene. Your openings should pull readers into the heart of the chapter immediately, letting them know your character’s state of mind and hinting at the problem and goal of the new chapter before you present a new hurdle to jump. Scene and chapter endings should have a “mini-finale” feel, having all the drama of a satisfying ending—twists, cliffhangers, rhythmic sighs—without the final resolution that readers will get in the book’s grand finale.

  1. Language/voice: Now’s the time to massage your language. Notice how it comes last on my chunk list? Writers who work in a draft mindset will often start their revision by trying to perfect the language, right there on page one. But what happens when they realize late in the draft that they need to go back and rewrite entire chapters or character arcs? All that work wasted. With Big Picture changes out of the way first, you can knead, replace, and rewrite words, sentences, and even whole paragraphs until you’ve got just the right voice telling the story to readers. This is when you get to make the manuscript pretty.

Revising in chunks can help you feel more in control and focused. And since all the elements of storytelling are ultimately interdependent, you’ll find that honing one element improves other elements you haven’t gotten to yet. Suddenly, 60,000 words don’t seem so daunting. Happy revising!

Deborah Halverson spent a decade editing books for Harcourt Children's Books before becoming the award-winning author of Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies, the teen novels Honk If You Hate Me and Big Mouth, the forthcoming picture book Letters to Santa, and three books in the upcoming “Remix” series for struggling readers. Deborah is now a freelance editor, author, writing instructor, and the founder of She speaks extensively at workshops and conferences for writers and edits adult fiction and nonfiction while specializing in teen fiction and picture books. For more about Deborah, visit

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For a free printable Cheat Sheet with tips for creating a youthful narrative voice, writing teen dialogue, and evaluating your character and plot, visit


  1. This is terrific. I'm going to print it out and hang it next to my computer. Thanks for this great post.

    1. I agree! It's so true that revision is overwhelming. I'm in the throes of it now :)

  2. I love Dear Editor! And what a great giveaway!

  3. What a great article! This is something I can use right now. Thanks so much!

  4. Thanks for a great way to re-think revision. And how generous of you to share your knowledge and expertise so freely. This is definitely a keeper!

  5. Sound advice. Thanks for posting this!

  6. This post (and the cheat sheet) are going into my binder of the most helpful writing advice I've come across online. Many thanks!

  7. Great advice! I have done plot as its own iteration for a long time but I like the idea of getting more deliberate point by point on the other stuff.

  8. To be honest, I like least the first 100 times through. I find the initial draft the hardest. But I do try to tackle revisions in chunks. Focusing on a character, then another, then another. And then go through the book to look at setting, dialogue, etc. It was never as well thought out as you described above, but along those lines. I think as I finish the second draft of my current book, I'll be more meticulous about the rewriting strategy. It will be less daunting. Thanks for the suggestions!

  9. I agree with revising in chunks. I'd say the important thing to remember is do the worst problems first. Theme, plot, major characters, consolodate scenes then go into the nitty gritty of dialogue, description, wordchoice , spelling and punctuation.

    at least this way, you know what you've accomplished with each pass!

  10. Thanks so much, Laura, for hosting me this week. I'm so pleased to know folks are finding the post helpful. Happy revising, all!

  11. Perfect timing on this. I'm in the middle of a revision and realized I was getting too bogged down in word choices when I still had whole scenes that needed to be added. Thanks for the advice!

  12. A great approach. I can handle chunks!

  13. I once read a tweet by a professional editor suggesting finding typos by reading the manuscript backwards. The theory was that reading backwards makes it impossible for the brain to "assume" what's coming next (think of those cutesie Facebook posts where sentences are garbled but you can still read them because the basic word pattern is intact). I tried it. It will make you bat-crap crazy.

    One trick I've found that helps me maintain a consistent voice for my characters is to go through and read only the dialogue for the selected character. Make a pass for each of the main characters.

    I agree completely with chunk editing.

  14. I love this! I'm in the middle of revising my YA WIP. I like Rosi's idea of printing it up. Thanks Laura and Deborah. I'll have to add Deborah to my blog reading...


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