A Simple Approach to Revisions

Kath here. We’re thrilled to have Cathy Yardley guest post with us today. You may remember that Vaughn Roycroft, one of the Facebook page’s Mod Squad, blogged about Cathy in his post The Mentor/Mentee Benefit and since then we’ve been itching to have Cathy guest with us and share her fiction-writing insights. Cathy has been writing humorous women’s fiction and romance for the past thirteen years. She’s a teacher with Savvy University and offers writer’s coaching and editing services through her writer’s website ROCK YOUR WRITING. Her latest novel, TEMPING IS HELL, has been described as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets The Office” and releases December 2012. 

Why we love Cathy: 

Having my own business, riding herd on a rambunctious six-year-old, and trying to maintain a fiction career in the current “wild west” of the publishing industry has made me obsessed with creating simple solutions for myself and other writers. I adore genre fiction, and I love helping other writers find the sweet spot between art and business when it comes to crafting their own stories.

Follow her on Facebook or on twitter @ cathyyardley. Enjoy!

A Simple Approach to Revisions

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when revising your novel. You’re hit with slew of decisions that need to be made all at once. Should you add a character?  Cut a secondary?  Why is the dialogue so stilted, and where is the setting, and should you add more sensory detail or axe it altogether because the pacing seems to drag?

I’m a hard-core plotter, and I’m all about systems.  I see revisions as Plot 2.0 – the natural extension to how I approach creating a story.  This system doesn’t work for everyone, but if you’re freaking out about how to revise your genre fiction project, this approach can be a very useful jumping off point.

Based on the traditional three-pass editing system, here’s how I tackle revisions for genre fiction.

First pass:  macro planning.

  1. Check GMC.  (Otherwise known as Goal, Motivation, Conflict.)  If you haven’t written it down before the draft, make sure you’ve got the GMC for your protagonists and antagonists handy.  
  2. Check plot points.  If you don’t know where they are, or worse, what they are, then rather than a driving cannonball of a story, you may have an episodic version of buckshot.  Go for the cannonball.  Make sure you have plot points for any POV protagonists especially.  Like your protagonist/antagonist GMC, I’d have this handy.
  3. Do a scene by scene list.  (This is what freaks most people out.)  To me, it’s logical to create a map of what we’re working with.  For each scene, write down:
    1. Whose POV is this scene in?  POV is important.  I don’t just mean third versus first, or a voice element.  Whose eyes are we seeing the story from?  Is this the right POV for this scene? 
    2. What is the goal of the scene?  If you’ve read my book ROCK YOUR PLOT, you’ll know I believe every scene has its own GMC – and that goal, motive and conflict is tied to the POV character.  If that doesn’t work for you, at least figure out why you’ve included the scene.  What does it do?  Why is it important?
    3. Is the character consistent? Ask:  “is this really what he would do in this situation?  Is there any other choice he could, or would, believably make?”  This tests for plot myopia – the horrible “but I need him to do to this, so the rest of the story works!” that inevitably spikes the tires of a story.  Plot must come from character. 
    4. Is the conflict strong enough?  Tension and conflict are fuel in the fiction engine.  Is there any way you can plausibly bump it up?
    5. Does it end in a disaster or hook?  If you end the scene on a triumph, or even just a comforting lull, then the reader is free to put the book down. Unless it’s a resolution scene, you don’t want that.
    6. Identify the plot points.  Make sure they’re happening at around the right locations and in the right sequence.
    7. Check for escalation.  You’ve already noted the conflict for the scene.  Look at the scenes prior, in the same POV.  Do you have repetition of conflict?  Can you increase the urgency, the stakes, and/or the obstacles?
    8. Check for talking heads syndrome.  Do you have several scenes where there are simply characters talking? Is there some way to rewrite the scene incorporating an interesting action that either move the plot forward, or perhaps symbolizes the story/theme/conflict in some way?

Armed with these notes, you’ll know where scenes need to be added, rewritten, lightly revised, consolidated, or cut.  Address each scene as needed.

Second pass: micro scene work.

Once the first pass is done, check for:

  1. Setting.  Do we know where the scene is?  When it is? Make sure the scene is anchored.
  2. Exposition.  Are you showing, or telling?  If you’re not sure, print out a scene, and highlight how much is in internal monologue.  If you’re suddenly able to see your pages in the dark because of all that neon ink, you’re telling.
  3. Overshowing. The converse of exposition.  Does the reader need to know all this detail?  If so, why?  Can you summarize it if necessary?
  4. Dialogue.  If you don’t read anything else aloud, read dialogue.  Ask: “Would my character say this?  Would anyone say this?”
  5. Internal voice.  If you’re writing in deep third or first person especially, make sure that your character’s internal observations and monologue match what he would say aloud to another character.
  6. Sensory details/description.  These can be what put your reader into the scene.  Help them experience it, rather than just “think” about it.
  7. Emotion.  Are you getting the emotions of the scene across?  Or just reporting the actions?
  8. Final information/set-up issues.  Did you have world building you needed to clarify?  A payoff in the third act that needs mentioning in the first?  Make sure you close all necessary loops at this stage.

Third pass: final details.

Here’s where you’ll look for the “usual suspects.” (For example, I am addicted to ellipses, and I suffer from a recurring case of adverb creep.)  Once you’re aware of your writing blind spots, you’ll be able to fix them.

You can also check for things like varying sentence length, grammar clarity, word choice, or any number of things that influence how the reader experiences the work.  Here’s also where you do a typo run and look for anything that might jar your reader out of the experience.

The sequence is key.

The important part is learning to focus on one pass at a time.  Otherwise, it’s like painting and decorating a room in a new house, only to rip out all the wiring afterward because it’s not up to code.

Follow this sequence, and when the dust settles, you’ll find not only is your story sound and sturdy, but enticing.  Your final draft will feel like home, to both you and your readers.

You can learn more about Cathy on her website, and by following her on Facebook and Twitter. Write on!


About Cathy Yardley

Cathy Yardley is the author of eighteen novels, published with houses such as St. Martin's and Avon, as well as her self-published Rock Your Writing series. She's also a developmental editor and writing coach, helping authors complete, revise, and get their stories published. Sign up here for her newsletter to receive the free course Jumpstart Your Writing Career.


  1. says

    I need to print this article out. I’m currently in the revision process and shooting blanks (since I’m in the wild west too) on many of these points. Thank you.

  2. says

    Thanks for sharing your system. It is a logical and sound approach to revisions. It will work for any writer. I use a hybrid of your approach, focusing on the big picture issues in the first round of revisions and winnowing down the problems as I get into further rounds. My main goal in the first round of revisions is to make sure the story hangs together and the main character’s motivations and goals are clear. I just bought your book on plot and I can’t wait to read more. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  3. says

    Thank you, Cathy!
    So much smart information condensed so well. I can feel your many years of writing experience in each paragraph.
    And each point powerful enough to blast through the inertia whenever I get stuck in the big picture.
    A special thanks for posting this at just the right moment.

  4. Diane Burton says

    Thanks, Cathy. This is just what I need right now as I go through my latest WIP. I dreaded revising, but now I have a plan. Again, thanks.

  5. says

    Cathy, you rock! I love how you are always able to drill down and separate the wheat from the chaff on any editing project. For some, editing is an innate talent, but you have made it attainable for everyone by breaking it down into a system we can all clearly understand.

    WU blog readers– teaching yourself how to self-edit will make you a better writer out the chute, reduce rewrites, and hone your MS so that you won’t have to pay for repeated edits. Bookmark or print this page now–and consider getting the e-book (there’s lots more juicy bits to be gleaned.)

  6. Jeannine Thibodeau says

    Wow, Cathy! This is excellent advice, and you’ve made it so simple! I am not up to the revision stage of my novel yet, but I know I’ll be coming back to this post. I’ve bookmarked it already–thanks!

  7. says

    “If you don’t know where they are, or worse, what they are, then rather than a driving cannonball of a story, you may have an episodic version of buckshot. Go for the cannonball.”

    Hello, my name is Vaughn, and I am an unfocused drafter.

    The cannonball thingy has been what you’ve been guiding me toward (very gently and patiently, I might add). Book one was all over the place, very much a buckshot approach to reaching my ultimate goals for the series. I think we (finally) moved to some semblance of cannonball for my primary MCs. At least for the first one (still work to do on the others). Although it’s still a pretty big story, so maybe more of a salvo from a cannon brigade…?

    It’s been a long haul, Teach, but the beauty of it is I’ll have Rock Your Plot and Rock Your Revisions in my arsenal on the front end for the next one. Thanks for everything!

  8. Carmel says

    Thanks so much for sharing. The holidays are pulling me away from my writing, and I need this (if not until Jan. 1st) to get me back on track. Appreciate your generosity.

  9. says

    Cathy, I’m so happy to see Rock Your Revisions is out. I just bought it. I actually used Rock Your Plot to help revise my novella. Looking forward to settling down with the revisions book to see what kind of golden nuggets of knowledge it contains! I love your systems and they definitely work for me.

  10. says

    Thank you so much, guys! :D I love being a part of the WU community, and I was thrilled to have the chance to contribute to a site that I get so much from. I’m glad you’re finding the post helpful!

    And if you ever have any questions or want some clarification, email me or post on the FB page. Ask Denise and Vaughn — like a bad penny, I always turn up. ;)

  11. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    Thank you for this, Cathy. It is definitely a keeper to check my stories against. You rock.

  12. says

    I’m just curious why you say this works for genre writing. I can’t see why this wouldn’t work with any kind of story or novel. Am I missing something?

  13. says

    Amy, I think that this approach could work for any 3-act structure-based novel. I do strongly believe that if you’re writing genre fiction, this stuff is critically important. If you’re writing something episodic, or high literary, or something experimental, then these principles might not be as crucial. For example, “A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing” was episodic and wouldn’t necessarily follow these. Or Erin Morgenstern’s haunting and fabulous “The Night Circus” — that breaks a lot of these rules. But for straight up genre fiction like fantasy or mystery or romance, which is my wheelhouse, these points work like gangbusters. :)

  14. Christine Row says


    Loved this post so much I decided to start at the beginning and get “Rock Your Plot.” Thanks for sharing how to break down something so complex into easily managed steps.

  15. says

    Cathy, I really really dig your approach to revisions. As a writer who finds himself locked in endless “revision loops,” its great to have a structure to follow. Would you consider the macro planning pass equivalent to a developmental edit, and the micro pass more like a line edit?

  16. says

    Isaac, essentially. There aren’t hard and fast lines between the edit types, IMO. I consider myself a high-level developmental editor, but when I work with clients, I cover GMC and plot points, as well as “micro” elements like exposition, setting, and dialogue. I think of line edits as more of the third pass, meticulous detail sort of check. But that’s me. :)

  17. says

    Cathy, so useful. Thanks! I’m in a final round of edits for my next fantasy novel in the series, and found myself geting stuck. Your system will help me look with fresh eyes at the manuscript. Thanks, Cathy!

  18. says

    GREAT advice! I’m seriously going to print this out and hand it out to people.

    I cringed when you mentioned “talking head syndrome,” though. A lot of my older fiction suffers from this problem, often combined with telling rather than showing. A quick example: for some reason I had a couple of characters talking about another character committing suicide…rather than showing the guy who discovered the body actually discovering the body. Looking back, I have NO IDEA what I was thinking!

    I have a whole novel manuscript that’s about half scenes where stuff actually happens and half characters talking about stuff (sometimes stuff that already happened). I’d really like to go back and revise someday – but it just seems like so much work it’s hardly worth it. I guess I can chalk the whole thing up to a learning experience.

  19. Marilyn Slagel says

    I’m in! I’ll be buying both Rock Your Plot and Rock Your Revisions. Great information here, Cathy. I’ll be using it on my WIP. Would love to friend you on FB and Twitter – LinkedIn?, too. Thanks so much!

  20. says

    I find the more faithful I am about following these points in my first draft, the less angst I have in later drafts. I need to print these out… and take them to my tattoo artist!

  21. says

    I focus on these points in my outline – it is so much easier to modify at that stage when a scene is only several fragmented lines in an outline than when it comprises a thousand to three thousand words.