Five Tricks to Supercharge Your Revisions

Sarah Kolb-Williams

October 2015

Whether you’re self-publishing, traditionally publishing, or working with a small press, editing is a crucial part of the publishing process. But it’s just as important to work on your own manuscript as much as you can first, before an editor ever gets involved.

New authors sometimes worry that they don’t know enough about editing to revise effectively on their own. It’s true that self-editing doesn’t replace the need for an objective editor, but it’s also true that by taking a few hints from those same editors, authors can make sure their revisions are heading in the right direction.

1. Make a Style Sheet

A style sheet is a set of editing notes that chronicles every editorial decision you (and, later, your editor) have made about your book: spelling and hyphenation preferences, real and made-up names and places, decisions regarding capitalization, the treatment of various numbers, and anything else that might recur throughout the book.

In other words, a style sheet is the ultimate resource.

It’s brilliant, if you think about it: With one central resource to help you remember how to spell everyone’s names, you’ll never have to scroll back through your manuscript to chase down spellings and other editorial preferences. The document will help your editor understand when you’re intentionally deviating from standard usage. And when you decide to write a sequel, you’ll have a ready-made list of all your characters, towns, and invented words in case you forget any details!

2. Make an Outline

I know, I know: I can see your eyes rolling from here. But hear me out.

Writing out a brief overview of your book in outline form will give you a bird’s-eye view of the manuscript, which will help you isolate and repair weak points and rein in tangents. It may even help you identify and strengthen connections and themes you didn’t even realize were there.

You don’t have to use fancy software or Roman numerals; this isn’t a test, and penmanship is not a factor. What matters is that you write down the main ideas in each section of the book as you come across them, then look carefully at how they relate—or don’t relate—to the ideas around them.

I’m not saying you have to outline your manuscript before you write it, either. If it’s your style to jump right in and start a novel on the fly, go for it! But coming back later and creating a play-by-play account of what’s happening will help you track of all your plot points and ideas, even over hundreds of pages.

3. Read It Aloud

Reading aloud forces you to slow down, to really listen to the cadence of your writing. If the words you wrote don’t quite portray what you intended, or if they sound stilted or awkward, your ear will pick up the issue every time.

If you have to stop and breathe three times in a single sentence, consider breaking it into shorter sentences. If your tongue keeps tripping over an affected writing style or overly wordy descriptions, try using a more natural, conversational tone. If you’re pausing often at odd places, it’s possible you’re overusing commas or other punctuation.

If something just isn’t working and you can’t quite figure out why, hearing yourself read it out loud just might identify the problem.

4. Change the Format and Read It Again

Looking at a manuscript in a different format can help you see things you never would have noticed otherwise. If you typically work on a laptop, you might try printing your document or sending it to your tablet or e-reader. Even changing the font or size of the text can highlight issues you may not have noticed initially, such as hard line breaks or other formatting oddities.

When I work, I like to do a standard copyedit using Track Changes first, make a copy with all the changes accepted, then send that to my Kindle to read through it again. I always find something to fix.

5. Let It Rest

The absolute best thing to do for your manuscript is to put it away, lock it in a drawer, and go do something else with your mind for a while. It’s the sad curse of the author that while you’re writing, you’re way too close to the idea of the thing you’re creating, so that it’s hard to see how it’s really shaping up.

The great value of beta readers is that they only read what’s on the page, rather than what was in your head when you wrote it. When you step away from a manuscript for weeks at a time – months is even better – you’ll give yourself a chance to forget, then come at it like your own objective beta reader, ready to rediscover what it is you’re really doing.

Catch up with a friend. Read a book. Start House of Cards. Go camping. Do anything in the world that isn’t working on your manuscript. When you return to it, you’ll be able to see your writing the way everyone else sees it.

And that’s when the real work begins.


Sarah Kolb-Williams is a writer, editor, and serial comma enthusiast from the Twin Cities. She is the author of The Indie Author’s Guide to Book Editing, which shows new authors how to find, hire, and work with qualified professional editors. Find her at or on Twitter at @skolbwilliams.

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