How to Revise: Hook, Retain, and Impact Your Readers
Revising a book-length manuscript can seem like a mammoth of a task, but breaking it into pieces and focusing on one aspect at time makes the process manageable. Keep the goals for the parts of your manuscript in mind: your opening should draw your reader into your story, your middle should keep them entertained and constantly raise the stakes, and your ending should satisfy.
If you haven’t read How to Begin Revising Your First Draft, I recommend completing those steps before these.
Make Your Opening Pull Your Reader In
Your beginning must hook your reader. If it doesn’t, they will move on to someone else’s story. When revising your beginning, ask yourself what about those opening lines and paragraphs will pique a reader’s curiosity and make them want to commit to reading your whole book. Is dialogue possible? Is something happening? Readers want to enter your book the moment your characters’ lives change, not before that.
Assuming you wrote your manuscript mostly in order, you are probably a much better writer now that you’ve completed a book-length story than when you began. Especially if this is one of your first books. Also, even with a detailed outline, stories rarely turn out exactly the way a writer expected, so you will likely need to rewrite pieces of your beginning. This is normal and definitely worth it. Embrace the rewrite.
There are several kinds of openings that rarely work. Happy people in happy land aren’t interesting. The moment that happiness changes is when your story becomes interesting. Too much backstory will quickly kill the pace and tension of your story and your reader’s curiosity. Strive for no more than three sentences of backstory in the first 2,500 words. Starting with your character all alone feeling something doesn’t hook your reader because they don’t care about that character yet.
In addition to hooking your readers, the beginning of your manuscript needs to introduce your story’s characters, stakes, setting, and plot. During your revision, make sure each of these aspects of your story are present and clear. Readers want to know who they should care about and why immediately.
Your Middle Should Retain Your Reader’s Attention
When revising the middle of your manuscript, make sure each chapter, scene, and moment are necessary. A scene should either advance the plot or deepen your character(s). If it doesn’t, find a way to make the scene do one or both of these or cut it. Ask yourself how does this scene move the story forward.
The progression of your scenes should constantly raise the stakes of your story. Each time an obstacle is overcome, a new, more difficult one should arise. When the stakes don’t rise, a manuscript develops a sagging middle. These are the books with enticing beginnings and fabulous endings, but middles that readers forget, skim, or can’t get through. Make sure your obstacles occur in an order that raises your stakes.
Your Ending Is Where You Impact Your Reader
Your ending must satisfy your reader. If you don’t earn what happens in the end by setting it up – however subtly – throughout the rest of the book, your reader will feel cheated. This leads to bad reviews and poor sales of your next book. Not satisfying your reader is a betrayal of trust. Cliff hangers are notorious for infuriating readers, so they don’t return to your collection.
A satisfactory ending is not the same as a happy one. It can be happy, but doesn’t have to be. A satisfactory ending shows how your characters have changed, completes the plot arcs, and resolves the stakes. When revising, ask yourself how the final scenes show your character is different than they were at the beginning. Are all of your loose ends tied up? (If this is a series, they shouldn’t be; if it’s a standalone or final book, they should be). Have the stakes been won or lost?
The ending is where your story either lingers with your reader or doesn’t. That lingering quality is an emotion. During revision, ask yourself what emotion you want your reader to be left with and how you can ensure that happens. Your climax, the moment your stakes are won or lost, will have the greatest impact on this emotion, so you don’t want your resolution to be too long. Otherwise you’ll dampen your reader’s feelings. Your resolution should be just long enough to tie up any loose ends and hint at what happens next in your characters’ lives. Cut as much from the resolution as you can in revision.
An Editor’s Advice on Revising the Order of Your Manuscript
Don’t be afraid to rearrange your story. Often switching the second and first chapters makes your story start with the inciting incident, minimizes backstory in the first 2,500 words, and introduces the necessary elements. You still get to keep all of the information packed into that first chapter, but don’t allow it to bog down your opening.
Organization is crucial to the success of your middle. The order of your scenes can be the difference between rising stakes and killing your tension. It also controls the pace and emotional journey of your reader. If you put high tension, action scenes back-to-back-to-back, your reader can become overwhelmed. Slipping a lighter chapter in that deepens your character or advances your plot in a quieter way gives your reader time to breathe.
I recommend writing your scenes down on notecards and playing with the order. What happens if your switch two obstacles or break up a chapter? What if your reader sees your characters talking about an event before seeing it in scene? The arrangement of your manuscript can make or break it, so before you dive into line edits or rewriting, make sure you have solidified your organization. Revise your story to hook your readers, retain their attention throughout the middle, and satisfy them with your ending, so you Ignite Your Ink.
Which part of your story do you have to spend the most time revising? Share your struggles in the comments below. I tend to rush my endings and often have to develop them further in revision. For more articles and tips on revising and other aspects of writing, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.