6 Great Revision Tips For Polishing Your Prose

Woman sitting crossed legged on an open deck writing in a notebook

In this post, I offer six essential tips to help guide you through revising your creative work. Whether you’re crafting a short story, novel, poem, or memoir, these tips will serve you well through your revision journey. From stepping back and examining the big picture to fine-tuning your language, each step is pivotal in transforming your raw ideas into a refined and captivating narrative.

Writing is an art form, and like any art, it necessitates continual refinement and polishing to reach its fullest potential. In the realm of creative writing, it’s during the revision process that the true magic of storytelling unfolds as characters deepen, plots tighten, and language evolves into something uniquely yours.


1. Let your work breathe before revising.

No one has an excellent first draft, which is why they are often referred to as rough drafts because they are rough. A first draft aims to get your story on the page in all its messy glory, and I counsel my coaching clients and students to resist the urge to edit as they go along. The important thing is to get the story on the page and not interrupt the creative flow by stopping to edit. 


Once you complete your first draft, I recommend you put it aside for a while. Editing, in general, is much more successful when done in bulk rather than piecemeal as you go along. When you are ready to edit, ensure you’ve given your writing time to breathe before going back over it (weeks or months). Take a break, go on vacation, or turn your attention to another project. 


The revision process involves critical analysis, and time away from your work will allow a sharper, more objective mindset.


Allowing your writing to sit untouched for a substantial period provides the necessary distance to gain a fresh perspective. When you return to it after some time away, you’ll approach your work as a reader rather than as the author. This fresh perspective lets you identify flaws, inconsistencies, or areas that need improvement more objectively.


The revision process involves critical analysis, and time away from your work will allow a sharper, more objective mindset. And remember, it’s not all about finding the egregious mistakes you’ve made; you may well be delighted with certain aspects of your writing. 


2. Read your writing out loud as you revise.

This step might be one you are inclined to skip—don’t! It might initially feel silly, but you’ll get used to it. Trust me. It will improve your writing every time you do it, as it’s one of the best ways to identify issues. Your brain is focused on making meaning out of your ideas while writing, and when you read over your work silently, your brain is still working on the meaning and easily misses typos.


By reading your work aloud, you force yourself to slow down and pay closer attention to the words on the page.


Reading your work out loud is a great way to identify issues that may not be apparent when reading silently. When we read silently, our brains often fill in gaps in our writing or skip over repetitive language, making it difficult to catch these issues. Because we speak more slowly than we can read, when you read aloud, the brain slows down and can better identify typos, poor word choices, incomplete thoughts, and awkward phrasing.


When you read your writing out loud, you’ll notice when a sentence feels clunky or when the rhythm of the language is off. Reading aloud can help you identify areas that need to be rephrased or restructured to improve the flow of your writing.


​​Repetitive language is an issue that reading your work aloud will highlight. You will likely notice when you’ve used the same word or phrase too many times. Searching for fresh, original words creates an excellent opportunity to build your vocabulary as you search for ways to vary your language, making your writing more engaging.


3. Focus on the big picture first when you revise your work.

When you embark on the revision process, it’s essential to take a step back and examine the larger framework of your creative work. This revision stage is about assessing the fundamental elements underpinning your story or poem. Here’s a more in-depth look at what this entails:


~  Start by scrutinizing the plot or narrative arc of your creative piece. Does it follow a logical and engaging progression? Are there any gaps in the storyline, or do events unfold disjointedly? Pay attention to the story’s beginning, middle, and end. Ensure there is a clear and satisfying resolution to the central conflict or theme. Consider whether your story effectively captures the reader’s interest from the outset and maintains that interest throughout.

~  Characters are the lifeblood of any creative work. Do they have distinct personalities, motivations, and arcs? Are their actions and decisions consistent with their established traits? Make sure you know your characters inside and out. Readers want to connect with and care about your characters.


~  Look at the pacing; it’s crucial to maintaining your reader’s engagement. Are there sections that drag on or places that rush through critical moments? Adjust the pacing to create a balanced rhythm. Slow down to build tension and speed up to convey excitement or urgency. Pacing is an aspect that should align with your story’s emotional and narrative needs.


~  Check for consistency. When you work on a project over an extended period, it’s natural to find contradictory information or events that seem out of place, especially if you’ve moved things around in a full-length manuscript over a period of time. Your readers want to immerse themselves in your story without jarring disruptions. 


Once you’ve focused on the big-picture elements and created a solid foundation, you can move on to more nuanced aspects of revision, such as refining language, dialogue, and imagery.


4. Focus on one aspect of the craft at a time when you revise.

It helps to organize your revision plan, especially for a lengthy manuscript. If you start going over your work without a plan, you may become overwhelmed as you begin to notice issues with dialogue, character development, descriptions, and so on, and before you know it, you’ve lost track of all the threads that need your attention.


Focusing on one aspect of your writing at a time allows you to give each element of your work the attention it deserves and ensures that you make meaningful improvements to your writing.


For example, if you want to improve your dialogue, focus exclusively on this aspect as you revise. Pay close attention to language, tone, and pacing. Make sure the dialogue flows smoothly and sounds natural. Consider whether the dialogue advances the plot, reveals character traits, or builds tension in the scene.


Likewise, if you’re working on description, look for opportunities to use sensory details to create a clear picture in your reader’s mind. Use strong verbs and adjectives to create a sense of mood and atmosphere. Consider whether your descriptions serve a purpose, such as establishing a setting or building character.


Similarly, if you’re focusing on character development, ensure each character has a distinct voice and personality. Look for opportunities to show your characters in action rather than simply telling the reader about them. Consider whether your characters are changing and growing over the course of the story.


5. Ask for feedback once you finish your revision.

Once you are ready, share your work with trusted readers and ask for their honest feedback. Consider a writing partner, hiring a writing coach, or joining a writing group or workshop where you can receive feedback on your writing.


Trusted readers can offer fresh perspectives, identify areas of confusion or weakness, and suggest ways to improve your writing. Whether sharing your work with one trusted reader or in a group setting, providing clear instructions and expectations about the type of feedback you seek and any specific areas you’d like them to focus on is essential. 


Make sure to find someone whose writing you admire and whom you trust to be both honest and kind.


Receiving feedback can be challenging, especially when it’s critical or negative, but it’s important to remember that the purpose of revision is to improve your work, not to receive praise. Constructive criticism can help you identify blind spots and weaknesses in your writing that you may not have noticed. It can also help you develop your writing skills and improve your writing style.


Once you’ve received the feedback from your trusted readers, take the time to review their comments and suggestions carefully. Keep an open mind as you consider each point and decide which suggestions are worth incorporating into your work. Remember, not all feedback is helpful, and it’s up to you to determine which recommendations will benefit your writing the most.


6. Cut unnecessary words and phrases during the revision process.

Be ruthless when you come to this phase of the revision process. Cutting unnecessary words and phrases will help tighten your writing and make it more concise. Watch for repetition, filler words, unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, useless prepositional phrases, and overly complex or run-on sentences.


~  Repetition can make your writing sound clunky and boring. Look for instances where you’ve used the same word or phrase multiple times and see if you can find a way to rephrase it.


~  Filler words such as just, really, and very add little to your writing and can make it sound less confident and precise. Look for opportunities to eliminate these words and use more specific language instead. Also, go through your work and eliminate every unnecessary that—you’ll be surprised how many you find.


Stephen King is quoted as saying, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”


~  Be selective about the adjectives and adverbs you use, and cut any that don’t add significant value to your writing. Overuse will clutter and weaken your writing.


~  Prepositional phrases such as in order to, on account of, and in the event of can be cumbersome and wordy. Look for opportunities to rephrase these phrases using more concise language.


~  Long, convoluted sentences can be difficult for readers to follow. Look for ways to simplify your sentences by breaking them into shorter, more manageable parts. By cutting unnecessary words and phrases, you can tighten up your writing and make it more concise and impactful. 


The more you hone this skill, the better your writing will be and, ultimately, the less revision you’ll need in future drafts.


Revision is an essential part of the writing process, and it’s what gives your work a chance to shine. Search out the rough edges and polish them to a fine finish.


Don’t underestimate the satisfaction of watching your work evolve and improve over time. The more you dive into the revision process, the more you hone and gain confidence in your skills. Giving time and attention to revision is the ultimate confirmation that you respect the time and effort you’ve put into your writing.

Feel free to revise your work multiple times. Each pass can bring your writing closer to its full potential. After each revision, take another break before returning to it with fresh eyes.

Remember that the revision process is as important as the initial drafting process when creating compelling and polished creative writing. Be patient and persistent in your revisions, and your work will benefit from the effort you put into it.


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2 Responses

  1. These are helpful tips, written in a way that made me want to bookmark and it return over and over. As a writer who’s working to hone her editing abilities, this was a godsend. Thank you for sharing!

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I’m Kathryn Kay, the founder of A Writer Within. I offer support and inspiration to women writers through one-on-one coaching, editing services, and week-long retreats in Tuscany. My focus is on getting writers into the creative flow, beyond their internal critic, and their very best stories onto the page. If you have a writer within, let’s set her free!

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