Eleven Ways To Take A New Look At Your Story

revising your book

Whether you’re ready to begin revising your book or struggling to get to the finish line of your first draft, these exercises can help you get a fresh perspective and see your writing in a new light.

As you close in on finishing the first draft or are set to begin revising your book, it’s not uncommon to have the sparks stop flying and the momentum drag. Perhaps you could use something to jump start your progress towards the home stretch – some way to alter your perspective and help you take a fresh or deeper look at your material. One way forward is to get dependable beta readers to give feedback. If you can’t do that, or you’re not ready to share, you need to do something to trick your mind into looking at the material as “new.” Something to sweep away the blindness of being too close to the content and help you see your work as a reader will.

Hopefully, after doing one of more of the sanity checks outlined here, you’ll see your way out of the woods and make quick progress revising your book. Taking a systematic approach to evaluating your book as a whole forces you to look at pace, identify gaps, and rekindle your creativity. This is how the reader will experience your book  –  from start to end. Once you exhaust these exercises and feel you have nothing to change, you are truly done (until you look again, that is). If you try one or more of these creative tricks and feel deeply satisfied with the outcome, it’s a good sign you are ready to publish.

Read the story out loud

It is surprising how much it helps to just tell your story orally. You’ll add emotion. You’ll stress certain things and drop others. This is very telling. Some parts of your story will lend themselves to long descriptive passages that are hard to convey short of speaking the narrative. Other parts of the action aren’t that easy.

You’ll start to feel the pace of your book when you do this. You might even pick up new twists to the story, remember details you have to add, or identify gaps. If there is no one around, read it to yourself, or record yourself. Rehearse and rehearse. You might be surprised what pops out of your mouth that had never occurred to your fingers when writing or typing.

Play your story in your mind as a movie

Think visually. How would your book translate to the screen? When you visualize each scene, you have to place it in a real environment. You might find some flat sections that lack pace. You might begin to see your characters so vividly, you see new or better scenes to add.

If you had to paint 10 scenes from your book, which would they be? If you don’t paint, which photographs would you take? If you have no artistic leaning at all, which scenes would you want a professional artist to take the time to render visually for you?

Why are you picking those images? What do they mean? Are they spread evenly throughout the book, or do they come in patches? What does the collection of images say about your book? Are they all faces of characters? Are they the climactic moments or scenes of special importance? Are they deeply emotional moments felt by one or more of your characters? Are they of objects of symbolic or practical importance?

Was it easy to pick out 10 images, or was it difficult? Readers form images in their minds while reading books. What will your readers be thinking?

Study the opening and closing of each chapter

Writers often get lost in the details. The opening and ending of each chapter should be as strong as the beginning and conclusion of the whole book. Checking each chapter ending for how it relates to the opening of the next is important. On a micro level, you can look at the end and opening of each paragraph. As you do this, look to adjust the weight of each sentence so it has more impact.

Summarize each paragraph, section, and chapter – as well as the entire book

This is what belongs on the back cover!

Your manuscript should be like a perfectly carved set of Russian dolls, with each fitting into a larger doll beautifully – from words, to sentences, on up. The more dolls you have, the more exquisite the set.

At the lowest level, go through your chapters and write down what each paragraph is about. Do this quickly. Circle or mark the best parts of each paragraph. Are your circles sparse or so dense you can’t see what you wrote? You are writing out the story in shorthand so you can check the higher order patterns. In all likelihood, you’ll see new arcs. You are also checking that each paragraph says something new. If you can’t quickly figure out what the paragraph is about, delete it. If you essentially say the same thing in more than one paragraph, pick the best and delete the rest. Often you will find a paragraph that contains more than one idea. This probably means you should split it into two paragraphs, as great paragraphs are focused on one topic.

Draft a final outline

If you didn’t start with an outline for your book, try to make one now. Hopefully, you’re such a good writer that it jumps out at you. Having a solid outline means you have a logical, well-thought out book. If you have a fast-paced story that has all its parts in place, this will be very easy to do. If you started from an outline, start from scratch to see if anything has changed. Few writers stick to an original outline, and it will be insightful to see where you deviated and think about why.

Decide what you think your reader will remember most

Sit by yourself somewhere different from where you usually write and mark down the most memorable moments of your book. What you do think a reader will take with them? What do you want them to take away from the book? The best books contain something that a reader can remember for a year, a decade, or even a lifetime. What are your points? Do you make them clearly? Write down all your best scenes in rank order. They should come spilling out of you if you are close to done and your book has true substance. If you have to think too long or none stand out as favorites, you have more work to do. You should be dying to get these scenes in front of readers because you know they are so good. If a few pop out, great! Think hard about why you like those so much and try to edit the rest of the book to meet that gold standard.

In a related vein, think about which passages you would pick for a book reading and why. If you don’t have a bunch to chose from, get writing.

Check your book’s emotional cues

This is like making an emotional script of the book, or an outline based on feelings. Think about how you expect the reader to feel at each part of your book. What trajectories do you send them on? How well have you paved the way for them? Are there clear road signs? How much ambiance have you created? Go through the book and make a note of whether the reader should feel happy, sad, lost, etc. Write down what they should think about each of your characters and any of the actions. Should they be rooting for this character and hating another because you are going to kill him off in the next chapter? Look to make the peaks and twists of the story more riveting. If a married character is going to reveal she’s having an affair, make sure the reader thinks until then that she is happily married.

Change your ending

This is not about changing your story, or throwing your ending away and starting over. It’s about solidifying your current story by comparing it against other possible endings. Get a piece of paper and write down at least 10 alternative endings for your book. It’s just a thought experiment. Do more if you can. The more outlandish the ending the better. Then evaluate them against the one you have. Try to figure out what you would need to change in your current version of the story to make each ending work. This will give you a new view of everything from your characters, to their environment, to the action.

Remove each chapter, one by one

If you remove a chapter, what happens to the rest of the plot? Does it break the story? If it does, that’s good, it means it contains essential information for the plot. If it doesn’t, you should seriously consider dropping the chapter. You can repeat this for subsections, or even for paragraphs, although it can be harder to decide at that level of detail. You can also repeat this for each character. Is the presence of each one justified in terms of the plot?

In another twist on this, flip each chapter. Especially see what happens if you flip chapter two for chapter one. Do you get rid of unnecessary back story and let the action rip? What happens when you flip other chapters? If they are in correct order, and all needed, you shouldn’t be able to flip any of them without major disruptions (although there could be some exceptions).

Write something different

This might not help you directly, but it will refresh your mind. If you chose to write in a very different style it might just awaken new skills or get certain things out of your system. After a while, come back to the book and you’ll be able to look at it more objectively. Irrelevant details will fade to the background and you’ll see the chaff more easily. The themes and action points will gel. Don’t be afraid to throw paragraphs, sections, or even chapters away.

Read it backwards

With the ending in mind, go through the book from the start and ask how each chapter (or section, paragraph, character) helps to get you to that ending. If you can’t tell how it does, it is extra to the story and should be removed. Then start at the end of the book and tell the story backwards. If the ending is “Z”, it should come about because of previous circumstances “Y,” that hinge on “X,” that are only possible because of “W,” and so forth to “A,” the first action in the chronological timeline of the book. Are you compelled backwards at each point or do you have to search for the link? A great plot will be like a chain  –  all the links will be tightly bound together. Of course, often the more surprising and unusual the links, the better, but they also need to be believable.

Image via ShutterStock.com.

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  1. […] Normal Struggles When Writing A Novel Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules For Writing A Short Story Eleven New Ways to Take A Look At Your Story Variety Is The Spice That Will Improve Your Writing Have You Considered Entering A Writing […]

  2. I loved this article. So much more interesting to do some of those exercises and with a more productive result. I especially loved the working backwards to check if the plot really is an unbreakable chain. Swapping or flipping chapters around to check if this disrupts the plot and trying to remove chapters to check if they are vital to the plot. Great and interesting methods to get rid of anything unnecessary. Wonderful advice.

  3. I loved this article. (Bookbaby seems to have a lot of really great advice, hints and things to make your writing better). I have used the read aloud trick, only I use a text to speech so I can hear it. When I hear mistakes or awkward passages, I change it right then and there. You also hear the stilted speech patterns, the boring parts, or the exciting parts where you want the reader to speed up.

    For those editing issues, I started using an editing program on top of my MS Word. I want my professional editor to have very little to do in the way of correcting tense, word usage, passive verbs, punctuation, sticky sentences, excessively long sentences or other technical issues in writing.

    I’m going to try the outline for the book along with the character arcs. I also like the mixing up the chapters or taking out paragraphs for that matter. Like words, if it doesn’t change the book, why is it there. Because I’m an indie writer, I don’t have and can’t afford a content editor, so I have to make sure my novels are in the best possible shape to compete with the publishing houses. It is places like this where I have begun to really hone my writing skills and find my books coming together to the point of being really good.

    My first (and only) book wasn’t that great, but those who have read it, liked it. (And no they weren’t all friends) But, I do see some of the ‘mistakes’ in the book which if corrected, it would have been much better. I had to let it go and get at least one out there so I could believe I was an actual author and get back to writing and learning.

    The current WIP, is going to be so much better. Not only is the story tighter, it flows better, the characters are better and the action…well it moves. Most of that is from classes, blogs like this and just sitting down and writing, revising, learning, writing and revising, and learning, and repeating it all over again.

    Thanks for the help and keep up the great work!

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  8. These tips are exquisite. After keeping up a steady discipline with organizing and writing a memoir for my family entitled “Mortuary Musings: “Families Full of Life in an End of Life Setting,” your ideas provide incentives for me to get back into the routine. Thanks so much.

  9. I once had a ‘tip sheet’ from a publisher on what style and content they wanted from authors. [page 8 this – page 15 that – page 22 the other]. I tried composing that way and failed miserably and was bored out of my mind.
    Then, with my own style, a round of agents and publishers. many rejects. Revision and more revision – two books self published (to local acclaim and good launches with a full bookshop in both cases.) Lo and behold I had been doing instinctively half the tips you give.
    I shall now look at the other half of your tips. Agents and publishers, here I come!
    I was told by a friend I must write a book a year until I am a hundred. At 92, only another eight to go! (That’s what keeps me above ground).
    Many thanks Dawn, and bless you – the first page of my third is a corker! – and so is the last paragraph.

      • Hello Dawn, I’d love to send you that first page, but it is now with an agent along with the first three chapters. As it is a fantasy and involves a brother and sister schoolchildren, I asked for comments by twelve and twenty year-old girls.
        I was stunned by the 12 year-old’s review – equally as well written as a top newspaper review. – Now there’s a future writer! – The twenty year-old said “Greatly honoured to read it. You paint such vivid pictures with your character’s actions and words.”
        Both made me glow with confidence. I went straight back to the succeeding chapters to look for any ‘flat’ bits, ‘tells not shows’ and chapter endings.
        I am still ‘at it’ while having elevensies – black coffee with honey and home-made apple cake.
        I love your blogs and most useful writing guides. Keep up the good work.

  10. I have written and self published about 25 books and I am still learning. Some of these tips were helpful to remind me what I should do with each book and story, and try to do, especially reading it aloud, but I still manage to miss a few or resist others (chopping chapters). Having your list on my desktop will help overcome that lapse.

      • Each morning before starting on my novel I take time and do a ‘word doodle’ I thought of some people when on the phone will doodle on paper So I write a short story usually about when I was growing up in the woods. I have posted them as I finish on Facebook and was truly surprised at the response I get right away. Doing the doodles helps get my brain in the writing mood and works well for me
        Love your suggestions
        Thank you
        Doc Harris

  11. I am a four times traditionally published author, and this is the most beneficial online editing advice I have read. I plan to book mark it and use it from now on. In fact, I am getting ready to postpone sending queries on my new manuscript until I follow these instructions step by step.
    Thank you for sharing.

    • I was told by someone in my critique group not to begin a sentence with hopefully. Also, Websters uses toward instead of towards, and backward instead of backwards. I read a sports columnist who used the word phase instead of faze, as in “His father did not attend the game but it did not phase him.”

      • Websters is a terrible resource, founded by editors with a Religious Fundamentalist approach to language. It is highly opinionated and exclusionary. Better to Use American Standard or Oxford.

        As for Toward/towards, the employment of the “s” depends on regional preferences, and are interchangeable. However, consistency is the guide here. Using both willy-nilly exhibits a lack of attention to detail, and will cause readers to dismiss the writer. Note: Brits tend to prefer “towards”, while American English practice tends toward “toward.”

        The sports columnist does not understand the difference between “phase” and “faze.”, or if he or she did, he or she was either being capricious or suffers from being error prone. A “phase” (as a verb) denotes a transitioning from one set of circumstances to a different set along a series of transitioning events, such as “Her hitting the bottle because of her divorce will faze her into a nasty person, but once she meets a new fellow, she’ll quit drinking and be a nice person again.” “Faze” represents an effect on attitude or behavior from influencing or changing circumstances. It is mostly used, however, in the negated form: for example, “Having had to shoot her rapist did not faze her; she still was against free access to guns.”

        • Ack, corrected that incorrectly. Should read:

          A “phase” (as a verb) denotes a transitioning from one set of circumstances to a different set along a series of transitioning events, such as “Her hitting the bottle because of her divorce will phase [corrected] her into a nasty person, but once she meets a new fellow, she’ll quit drinking and be a nice person again.” “Faze” represents an effect on attitude or behavior from influencing or changing circumstances. It is mostly used, however, in the negated form: for example, “Having had to shoot her rapist did not faze her; she still was against free access to guns.”


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