Guest Post: How to Revise your First Draft

Please welcome guest author, Sally Whitney, today as she shares her tips for revising a completed story. (Hint-hint: you’ll need this after NaNo!)

Not only is Sally giving away her tips, but a copy of the Fifteenth Dame Lisbet Throckmorton Anthology, 2010 to one lucky winner! (Leave a comment or question to be entered)

Win this book!




You’ve Got a First Draft. What Do You Do Now?

Guest post by: Sally Whitney


The thought of revising short stories or novels used to terrify me. I could read the first draft a thousand times, but beyond rearranging some sentences or changing a few words, I was at a loss. And that could be a death blow to the piece at hand. The heart of the story is often found in revision. Although I thought I knew what my story was about when I started it, I didn’t. I didn’t know until I questioned every aspect of it and made myself answer those questions. To do that, I needed concrete strategies. Over the years, I’ve found three that work for me.


1. Kick out the loafers. The first thing I do with a new story is look at each character and ask myself, why is this character here? What does he (or she) do and do I really need him? Can somebody else in the story do the same thing? If the character doesn’t serve any real purpose or if somebody else can do what he does, that character gets the axe.


2.  Shape up the scenes. Once I have my cast whittled down to the essential few, I look at how they do what they do. For this, I examine every scene. I ask myself, what does this scene do now and what does it need to do? I make a chart of the scenes, and when one doesn’t do what it needs to do, I make notes about ways to fix it. This is the step in revision that really gets my brain rolling and starts me digging beneath the surface. For a short story with only a few scenes, it can take a few days, but for a novel, it can take months. Believe me, it’s worth it. And when I’ve done it the first time and made the changes I need to make, I start at the beginning and do it again. And again, if I think I need to. Along the way, a lot of scenes get tossed because they don’t do anything to advance the plot or develop character or add to the energy of the story. Some scenes get rearranged or scaled down. Some get new dialogue or description. And somewhere in this process I begin to have an inkling of what the story is about. I see my characters more clearly, and I understand—or question—why they do what they do. And that process leads me to the next step—recognizing scenes that need to be there, but aren’t.


3. Fill in the gaps. I read once that the main difference between a published novel and an unpublished novel is the scene that’s left out. It’s the scene that’s in the author’s head, but isn’t on the page. I think the same is true for short stories. In “Shelby Jean,” my story that appears in The Fifteenth Dame Lisbet Throckmorton Anthology, 2010, the final two scenes weren’t in the first drafts. I thought the story was about the decision the main character makes near the end, but it isn’t. It’s about what she learns from that decision, and I needed the final scenes to show that. In the novel I’m working on, I’ve discovered several scenes that were in my head, but not on the page, and I suspect there are others.


Granted, these are only three steps of revision and there are lots more, but these three push me in the right direction. What’s the first thing you do when you finish a draft and have to plunge in again?

Sally Whitney’s short stories have appeared in literary and commercial magazines, including Buffalo Spree, Catalyst, Common Ground, Innisfree, Potpourri, Kansas City Voices and Pearl, and anthologies, including New Lines from the Old Line State, published by the Maryland Writers’ Association, and Grow Old Along With Me—The Best Is Yet to Be, published by Papier-Mache Press. The recorded version of Grow Old Along With Me was a Grammy Award finalist in the Spoken Word or Nonmusical Album category. Sally lives in Millersville, Maryland, with her husband and calico cat. She is currently working on a novel about a woman whose struggles with isolation and loss of identity in 1972 lead to an obsession that threatens her family’s stability and security.


that is all. thank you.


Filed under Advice, books, characters, Fiction, Give Aways

7 responses to “Guest Post: How to Revise your First Draft

  1. Like stripping down your characters and scene, your stripped-down advice speaks to the essence of writing process. The purpose of writing is to learn what your characters are up to. The purpose of revisions is to learn what your characters are really up to–and to show it to your readers.
    Thanks, Sally.

  2. Sally, I like your suggestion of deleting characters who don’t earn their keep. A dinner party with too many guests seated at a long table makes it difficult to hear or follow the conversation at the other end of the table. A table for four is about right. I’m not sure how many characters you feature in a short story, but three or four seems right to me. What a wonderful idea you suggest; a story reveals itself to its creator after the rewriting.

  3. Sally Whitney

    I agree that three or four characters is about right for a short story, and I love your analogy of the dinner party.

  4. Sally, great advice! Thanks for sharing.

  5. Martha Newland

    Great advice, Sally. At what point in the revision process do you allow someone else to read your story or novel?

    • Sally Whitney

      Readers can be helpful with any draft, but I like to wait until I’ve gone through the three steps I talk about above before I ask for comments from someone else. I don’t like to ask people to point out things I should be able to recognize myself.

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