Bite-Sized Revisions

Revision can be a daunting task if you’ve completed the first draft of your manuscript, but there are ways to make it more manageable. Remember: You don’t have to do everything all at once.

First, put your draft aside for a few weeks or months. Taking a break helps give you some distance so that you can approach it with a fresh eye. If you get new ideas, write them down in a separate file. Try not to tinker with the main manuscript at all.

Second, consider taking this time to send your draft out to a trusted circle of writers/friends with notes about the kinds of feedback you want — and it may differ from person to person. One person may have an eye for line editing, while another is great at critiquing character or plot. It will take time to collect their responses, and hopefully their feedback will help you focus on certain trouble spots as you revise, especially if it cites recurring issues. (Consider a small gift, homemade treat or offering a reciprocal edit to thank them for their time.)

When you are finally ready to return to the manuscript, make a copy of your master draft. Call this Revision 1 (or another label that you find helpful to organize drafts so that you can track changes). Choose one aspect of the manuscript to revise on this draft — grammar, dialogue, setting, transitions, etc. Make changes and then copy this draft. Call the next draft Revision 2 and choose another single specific aspect of the manuscript to revise. And so on, and so on. You may find it helpful and even necessary to go through this process more than once. By focusing on a single task at a time, you can improve your manuscript in an organized way that is both highly do-able and efficient.


Once your revisions are completed, it’s time to take a bigger picture look at the entire manuscript from the macro to the micro level. Consider sending this revised version to another circle of trusted writers/editors for their feedback. Examine the structure/narrative arc, then individual chapters, then paragraphs within the chapters, and then lines within the paragraphs. Does everything serve a purpose? Is it clear? Is there repetition? Is any information lacking? Highlight problem areas, and then set aside the manuscript again.

Finally, with the feedback you receive and a clear eye, tackle another revision (and fact-checking, if necessary for a nonfiction work) before sending it out for what may be a final critique. You may even want to consider hiring a professional book editor with experience in your genre. Don’t be discouraged. You did the hardest part: You got it all down on paper. Now, take your time to make your manuscript the best it can be.

Decoding with Color

When I’m reviewing and editing nonfiction book manuscripts, I often find that similar thoughts and ideas reoccur throughout the text in ways that dilute their power as well as the author’s message.

For instance, a paragraph about the history of neuroscience is followed by one on art, and then more information about the history of neuroscience occurs many pages later and then again several chapters after that. Skilled writers are able to weave disparate information through their books in ways that serve the theme and provide cohesive narration. (Avant-garde writers, on the other hand, are a different story!) But most mainstream nonfiction writers, especially if they work without an outline, can lose track of their thoughts and confuse readers if they mix up things too much.


By putting similar information together, readers can follow a logical thought sequence and truly engage with the subject(s) in deeper ways. I call this keeping “same with same,” and it's relatively easy to accomplish.

Algorithms be damned. I have an old school suggestion for decoding your manuscript and locating the “sames": Read your draft all the way through using colored pens/pencils to mark the types of information as you go. Say, green for the history of neuroscience and red for art. By the time you’re done, you are likely to see a bold visual pattern that allows you to extract similar information and put it together in one place.

The work doesn’t stop there, however. Once you have the information in one place, it’s time to work on transitions, check for repetition, and see if you have gaps that need to be filled. Maybe you’ll find you have large subsets of similar information that can be placed in a few separate sections and still make sense. The point is that you won’t know until you do the color hunt, and then what you have to work with truly becomes clear.

The Art of Listening

One of the most effective ways to catch errors and awkward language is to read your writing aloud, particularly if you can read it to someone else. It's not necessary for them to comment if you don't want them to, but it is a good way of forcing you to read slowly and listen for awkward words and phrases, missing punctuation, and information gaps.

If you're on a deadline, try to finish a final draft early enough to leave yourself a few minutes to read the piece through. Working on a long research paper or a book-length project? Try reading the material aloud in chunks over time, and mark corrected sections as you go so you don't duplicate your efforts.


This is a surefire way to catch critical errors before editors and readers. And just a reminder: Once you've made the first set of corrections, be sure to read it again all the way through.