This guest post is from poet, writer, and editor Paula Persoleo.

Revising a story, whether it’s a piece of flash fiction or an epic fantasy, isn’t an easy task. You’ve read the same sentences, paragraphs, and pages over and over. You know that something isn’t working, but you’re not sure what that something is. How can you look objectively at what you’ve written and make changes that will push your story in the right direction? Here are three back-to-basics methods you can use to revise your manuscript with fresh eyes and help you identify scenes and sections in need of improvement.

Print it out

These days, almost everyone writes directly on a laptop or tablet; the ubiquity and necessity of such technology offer many reasons for you to skip the pens and notebooks and go directly to the keyboard when you’re ready to write. But there are obvious drawbacks when limiting yourself to one medium, and taking a step back into the dark ages of ink and paper will help you edit and revise your work more effectively.

For short pieces (flash fiction, short stories, or the novelette/novella), this is an easy task. Even with double-spaced lines, the amount of ink and paper used up by the printer won’t break the bank. Choose your favorite pen and take your pages wherever you want—without back strain! You’ll be less tempted to pull up that internet browser to “conduct research” that invariably will send you down a rabbit hole. And, when all else fails, you can doodle in the margins while you think of a better way to describe someone walking into a room or eating a sandwich.

If you’re working on a novel, though, you’ll probably balk at the idea of using All. That. Paper. But don’t feel like you have to read through everything in one sitting. Breaking your work up into chapters or short sections will make revision more manageable, especially if you catch yourself glancing at the page count at the bottom of the screen and thinking about all the work you have left to do. Physical copies also mean you’ll have a physical map of your work, so if you feel like spreading your pages on the floor and moving them around to see what happens to your story (please make sure those pages are numbered), then go for it!

Staring at a screen for long periods of time is a bad thing, both physically and mentally, so forcing yourself to take a break will reduce eye strain and tension, give you a chance to get up and move, and, more importantly for your story, show you what you haven’t caught while reviewing your digital handiwork. Missing or misspelled words (don’t rely on spell check) will pop off the page, and you can use that pretty purple pen to draw lines, arrows, and even exclamation points all over and around your text.

Put it away

This might seem counterintuitive—don’t all the greats have strict writing regimens they follow?—but if you’re wary of showing your story to someone else because it doesn’t feel ready, then this is a natural step to take.

There’s no set amount of time, like two days per page or a week per chapter, to put your story aside. But if it took a month of daily toiling to produce a 25,000-word novella, you need to take at least a short break from each other before you decide to get back together. The self-imposed distance will make you more critical of the pieces you spend thirty days putting together like a complicated puzzle. You’ll notice when scenes are stale, characters static, tone inconsistent, and pace drags, and you’ll not just be ready but also excited to tackle the challenges of revising your manuscript.

Writing routines are great for producing work; they force us to overcome fear of the blank page and push through writer’s block. But once that early draft is “done” and you’re faced with the daunting task of making it better, you need to put some distance between yourself and the story you’ve been intimate with before you can look at your work like your readers will.

Read it aloud

Have you ever listened to an audiobook? You experience a story differently when a narrator’s reading it to you than you do when you read a paperback (or eReader) silently to yourself. Once you’ve taken your draft out of the desk and dusted it off, you can use auditory cues to your advantage when revising your work.

The most obvious part of your story that will benefit from oral recitation is dialog; you’ll actually stumble over awkward exchanges when you try to say them aloud. Inserting colloquial/regional phrases or mixing in contractions where they sound natural will give your characters authentic voices. You can even make up different voices for each of your characters; if you start to forget who’s speaking, you’ll know where adjustments are needed.

Another problem revealed by reading the story out loud is repetition of words and phrases. You might read over repeated words as your eyes sweep the page, but your ears will pick them up almost every time. It’s easy to hit ctrl+f or command+f on a Mac (the Find tool in Word), but knowing you used the word “suddenly” 51 times and understanding why you overused it can be the difference between making surface edits that don’t drive the story forward and making sweeping changes that help you stick the landing.

Reading aloud will also help you determine if sentences are too long or too short. If you run out of breath while reading a sentence, chances are you can break it up into smaller sentences or cut out extraneous words. If there are too many choppy sentences in a row, you’ll rush through a paragraph—and potentially forget important details that should stand out to your reader. Try to couch short sentences with important information between longer ones, then listen to the effect of that structure; those important details should still be fresh in your mind when the paragraph’s finished.

Writing a story of any length is hard work, but revising it is even harder. Forcing yourself to sit in front of the computer to read…and reread…and re-reread it might make you want to give up altogether. If you’re stuck, look at the story in a different way before you reach the point of no return. Turn off the technology, find a comfortable nook, and take out that purple pen. You may be surprised by what you discover with an old-school approach to revising your manuscript.

Paula Persoleo is a 2011 graduate of Stony Brook’s MFA program in Southampton, NY. Her work has been accepted by journals including Philadelphia Stories, Mantis, and Tulane Review. In 2018, she was nominated for the Pushcart Prize by Beltway Poetry Quarterly. She lives and works in Delaware.

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