Developmental revision tips from a professional book editor (avoid common writing mistakes)

Developmental revision tips from a professional book editor (avoid common writing mistakes)

I’ve talked a ton about editing over the years but it can be tricky to find all of the specific writing advice I’ve created to help writers improve their manuscript, so I made a quick video referring to a bunch of valuable resources and I’m going to organize them here for easy access. Keep in mind this is all 100% free content and it’s better than most people’s expensive writing courses, but only if you’re prepared to dig deep and really work on your craft.

Proofreading and copy editing

This stuff should be easy, but it’s pedantic and time-consuming. You should use Grammarly to go through and just fix typos, misspellings and punctuation to get things clean… eventually. But you shouldn’t do that yet, because if you’ve just finished your first complete draft, it’s probably not even close to ready. Don’t worry about the mistakes (yet) or even the words, focus on the actual story.

When you are ready to get to it though, Grammarly is fine or use some AI tools that I’ll mention later.

To simplify, proofreading is about fixing mistakes, and copy or line editing is more about improving the style and flow, removing repetition and redundancies, and making it smooth and clear to read. Both of those are important but neither of those will *actually fix the book* which is about what happens and why it matters, and whether each scene has suspense, intrigue and conflict to keep readers reading and whether the ending is satisfying.

Developmental Editing

A good developmental editor will dig deep and point out a ton of specific things you could do to improve the story. They might suggest fixes but they won’t rewrite the book for you, so even though this is rare and valuable to an extent, there’s only so much a developmental editor can do for you, so again, you should self-edit as much as possible.

Down below are the biggest, main things I think a good developmental editor will help you with, that you can actually focus on first to improve your manuscript dramatically. There’s a lot more of course, but these are often overlooked or poorly understood “craft” writing tips that will put you ahead of the majority of inexperienced authors.

Writing Tips and Resources

Before you seriously think about handing your manuscript over to someone else, I highly recommend you go through all these resources, absorb as much as possible, and edit your own book. Yes, it’s difficult and exhausting – you’ll have to learn new skills and put them to use at the same time. It will feel like work and won’t feel as much fun creatively as writing the first draft, but it’s seriously important if you want the best possible book.

Story Structure & Novel Plotting

There are many different formulas for plotting your book. But I’ve read them all and they didn’t help until I figured out a better way to deal with the conclusion and resolution – I made my own 9 point plot dot and 24 chapter plot outline that I think are pretty great.

Those will take some time to understand, but basically:

Your protagonist needs to want things he/she isn’t able to get.

There must be desire and obstacles.

Keeping some key turning points in your outline helps generate momentum and motivation to make sure things are happening, because otherwise the story feels hollow and empty.

So figuring out what HAPPENS is critical, but that’s just the beginning….

Mastering the Art of Storytelling: The Top Book Writing Methods Every Author Needs to Know

Thanks a zillion for your free fiction writer’s novel one-page plot outline and template.
It’s – hmmm, what’s the word I’m looking for – oh yeah. fucking brilliant!! -Stefano Boscutti

scene checklist (drama, conflict, intrigue)

Once you kind of have an idea of what happens, then you can improve every scene by adding conflict, drama and intrigue. This means, adding more interior and external barriers and obstacles, and allowing them to linger without resolving them quickly. The hint of potential conflict or danger is the important thing; this can include relationship conflict which is often misunderstanding, which is why you don’t want your characters to sit around talking to each other and sharing their feelings – it will resolve all the conflict!

And you don’t want them so kickass and superpowerful that everything is easy, because that makes the conflict meaningless; the challenges should be uniquely impossible for the character that must face it, and that’s what backstory is really all about, why is THIS challenge impossible for this protagonist, and why must they attempt the challenge anyway.

Here’s a scene checklist, which includes the 3 types of conflict you should include and a bunch of other things that will help you revise and improve your scenes; keep in mind, each scene needs a point – there’s a change or revelation or surprise, something new happens.

Backstory InfoDumps

Backstory infodumps are usually the author figuring things out and leaving the info in the wrong place. Intrigue and suspense can only exist with a lack of understanding, so you don’t want to tell readers too much too early; but also, because all backstory is resolved conflict – even if we don’t know how it got resolved, we know that it’s history and we can see the protagonist right now, out of danger. The backstory is not important until halfway through the final battle scene which it’s crucial to understand what this loss/victory actually means in a personally relevant way for the protagonist.

This doesn’t mean there can’t be some worldbuilding, but you want to start your story close to the action. Getting the first chapters right is absolutely critical and very easy to screw up. I recommend starting on a “very important day” where your protagonist thinks they are about to finally get/solve all their issue and is then brutally disappointed. They can’t just start in a vacuum – they should start and immediately have their “normal” expected path taken away, to force them to seek desperate solutions and be more open to their call to adventure (which they will still refuse!) until all other options are exhausted.

Common Writing Mistakes

I’ve been editing books for nearly 2 decades so I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting consistent, repeatable things that amateur authors always do, and ways to avoid them – here are a couple of big lists. It’ll take you some time to go through all these but I promise it’ll be worth it if you really apply them to your own writing.

PS – there’s a tendency to be defensive and say “I’m not writing commercial, templated fiction… I’m writing Unique Genius and nobody can tell me what to do!!!” – and that’s fine. But there is a mechanics to successful storytelling that can be learned, without practicing on your own and spinning your wheels. You won’t know if your book actually resonates with readers until you publish, and *most* authors don’t want any advice and just do their thing; and *most* books never sell more than a handful of books. If you want to be successful, you need to be better than average, and no editor can actually rewrite your entire story idea in a satisfactory way, which means you will have to do the heavy lifting yourself.

show don’t tell (what does this look like)

“Show don’t tell” is one of those old pieces of writing advice that is hard to explain without specific examples, but the easy fix is to try to sketch or draw your scene. What does this look like, how would this look on the stage or in a movie? Is a character sitting and musing while the narrator delivers a 5-minute soliloquy about the history of the culture? Are the characters “frozen” in time while things are being explained? Is there current conflict or just the presentation of information and material?

The reason people say adverbs are lazy, is that adverbs are almost always telling: the narrator is telling the reader that the character is doing something “happily, angrily, dynamically” or whatever: those are information words, not picture words. The word symbolizes the state of action, but does not evoke an image or picture. Try to replace adverbs with actual scene description; show what is there.

  • Hint1: the key with scene description (and avoid cliche) is to focus on what’s different. Don’t say it was a “stereotypical classroom” – people will already have an image of whatever thing you mention; focus on what’s unique and different and unexpected about THIS classroom. Those are the interesting details worth mentioning.
  • Hint2: also, scene description should appear when a character is in a new place and looking around. If they are familiar with the place, they won’t notice or reflect on the things they expect to be there – but they can notice new and different things that have changed since the last time they’ve been here. Also, a character running through a place, in a panic, won’t pause and notice all the details of their surroundings; save description for slower-paces scenes.

four-pass revisions (what, how, why, now)

Two things I think are very clever: the first is, your character or protagonist should be focused on different story questions as things progress; and that’s when you should give them the relevant information or backstory. This is kind of hard to describe, but basically, first they’ll be asking,

  • what is happening? (what do I want, what is going on?)

This will probably extend about 25% of the way into your book, when they get introduced to the *new* status quo and start to have a shifted perspective. Now they’ll focus on the details,

  • how is this happening? (what are the rules, how do I get what I want?)

At the midpoint they’ll shift and have enough information (always start with conflict, add more conflict, create dramatic tension before you reveal or give away any information – don’t give any information until the characters are forced to notice and ask questions and seek answers, and then don’t make it free, make them fight for every piece of information. Also avoid dumping a bunch of huge twists and reveals at the same time. Each single, powerful revelation is An Event and should close the scene (also, don’t give the info and have everyone overreact dramatically and be Shocked and Amazed… if you’ve set everything up right, the Twist should hit emotionally because readers already know why it’s important and significant; having your characters overreact will seem flat and cartoonish.)

Big pause, deep breath, final reveal… break scene. Then escape, run, fight… don’t let them sit and process things immediately. Keep things moving. Always interrupt whenever two characters are getting too close to accidentally divulging information; build suspense and tension by getting *almost* to the frank reveal or easy dissolution, but resist it.

  • why is this happening; why does this MATTER (backstory, motivations, depth)
  • now, finally, with clear stakes and obstacles, the action plays out.

My own book editing process

I use a 4-step process that mirrors the above steps, though in this video I expanded it to 5.

  • What is happening (plot)
  • How – what does this look like/how does it work (description)
  • Why – backstory, motivation, emotional depth
  • Now – proofreading, editing

Basically, I start with the plot until I have a rough draft. I clean it up and add descriptive details, what are they wearing, what items or objects are with them – or where did they get them; how can you make things harder by requiring a “key” or device for everything they must do (make all the things they need even more difficult).

Then when it’s kind of OK, I’ll focus on making everything matter; more meaningful, more passion and chaos, more emotional depth. This is my “why” – often the slower chapters I was anxious about, actually become my strongest chapters later on, because it’s during those slower scenes I can really build up the meaningful bonds and depth.

Free self-editing course for fiction writers

So there you have it, a big ol’ dump of information. I have more stuff on YouTube and a free editing course I made a long time ago that’s still pretty useful. I also have a bundle of writing courses, and the link below should get you a big discount).

AI Editing tools

I keep a list of best AI writing tools here, but I’m really interested in the best AI book editing tools. Here are the ones I use:

I like the grammarly Word plugin, but not the modern floating icon that follows me everywhere. I think the free version comes with “correctness” which is all you really need. Prowritingaid is more robust and some people like it.

I believe very soon, MS Word will just have advanced AI tools built in, so you can quickly suggest better words, rephrase or spin sentences or paragraphs, and upgrade the style. The problem with AI tools, is that it’s so easy to make revisions, then you have to compare and choose *which* sentence is better, which is exhausting and tedious.

  • quillbot – great for simple editing and proofreading, but mostly it’s just a content spinner.
  • sudowrite – the best for fiction; instantly improve your prose and story
  • chatGPT – it works but needs constant wrangling; people are using Claude which might be better.
  • ghostAI – this is the tool I’ve been building and working on. I wanted a very simple, copy/paste AI tool to edit, revise and polish a rough draft into a consistent style. It’s a work in progress, but you should be able to edit your whole book for $25.

Will AI tools replace editors?

That’s a big topic. I think AI tools will probably replace everybody. For the moment, I think AI tools are already better than most human proofreaders. They aren’t quiet smart enough yet to tear apart your manuscript and suggest the big-picture, serious fixes it needs… but even few developmental book editors actually have that much skill.

There’s a limit to what human editors can do, because everything is tedious and time consuming; I could focus only on big picture comments, but rewriting it myself would be too tiresome… which is why I charge around $7K for projects like that and that’s still not enough for the amount of work it takes.

Most editors, will focus on proofreading and copyediting; fixing typos and mistakes and slightly improving the style so it isn’t Bad… but they can’t really get it where it needs to be. For the big, serious, dramatic changes your book needs, you will have to focus on all the information above, which will solve the Real Problems with your story, by avoiding common mistakes and adding in the essential ingredients.

If you want to bake a cake, you need to follow a recipe and the instructions. You can deviate AFTER you get all the basics right; then you can embellish, sprinkle, decorate and experiment – but if you go into it without any plan, you might end up with a scorched inedible garbage fire.

It needs to look like and taste like a cake or nobody will want it.

If that metaphor feels uncomfortable, then you should read this:
“Nobody wants to read your shit.”

What about nonfiction books? Don’t worry, I have plenty of tips for writing memoir and nonfiction as well.