Manuscript revision – advice from a pro

The First Five Pages by Noah LukemanNo, I’m not the pro, but Noah Lukeman is. Lukeman is the author of The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. As an experienced literary agent based in New York City whose clients include Pulitzer prize nominees and New York Times bestselling authors, Noah Lukeman knows a thing of two about finding top-notch manuscripts to represent. And he presents his advice simply and succinctly, using lots of examples to illustrate his points.

I’ve been revising Time & Regret so a book designed to help writers stay off the rejection pile seemed an excellent one to reread. I thought some of you might be interested in the notes I took as a result. Today’s post will be part one of two.

Overuse of adjectives and adverbsavoid the use of common adverbs or adjectives and the use of adjectives or adverbs when a stronger noun or verb would do

  • Fewer adjectives and adverbs forces readers to use their imagination – engages them in story building
  • As you edit, remove all but one, find stronger nouns and verbs, substitute comparisons that create a visual for the reader

Revise for sound by reading your MS aloud

Use comparisons to cut down on description

  • Avoid cliché comparisons (such as ‘sweating like a pig’, ‘dropped like flies’)
  • Strive for specificity in comparisons
  • Use comparisons sparingly

Dialogue is a powerful tool, to be used sparingly, effectively and at the right moment.

  • Dialogue should illuminate character, move story along, prompt emotion
  • Avoid too many attributions (he said, she said)
  • Avoid long sections of dialogue without any description; at the same time avoid too many interruptions to your dialogue
  • Dialogue is dramatic … writers need to learn restraint in dialogue, allow each scene to unfold slowly, giving the reader time to absorb it
  • Make sure dialogue reflects the character
  • Avoid commonplace dialogue “Hi Sue” “See you tomorrow”
  • Avoid using dialogue to state things both characters already know
  • Watch out for melodramatic dialogue
  • Silence is often a better way to convey drama
  • Substitute dramatic action for dramatic dialogue – example: don’t have your character yell and curse the husband who has asked for a divorce, flush the wedding ring down the toilet

Show don’t tell

  • Show don’t tell leaves room for ambiguity and interpretation in the reader’s mind
  • Allow the reader to enter a world as he or she sees it – don’t describe it too much detail
  • Check for places with excessive description, or where characters are introduced (often a place for too much telling)
  • Instead of saying ‘his wife was abusive’ show her hitting him.
  • Eliminate passages with a dry, synopsis-like feel
  • Try introducing characters through their actions, rather than using narrative or dialogue
  • Evoke mood through description not by telling reader what the mood is
  • Have character A tell us about character B, not only to learn about B but to learn A’s perspective

Viewpoint characters

  • A common problem is a viewpoint character with no real viewpoint, no voice, no originality
  • Readers must feel strongly about viewpoint characters
  • Avoid having viewpoint characters who know what some other character is thinking


  • Eliminate stock or cliché characters and character traits
  • Don’t introduce too many characters at once (confuses the reader); Stagger character introduction
  • Avoid extraneous characters
  • Avoid generic character descriptions
  • Create characters readers will care about
  • Characters are your plot – their needs, wishes, developments
  • Don’t introduce people by name unless they’re significant
  • Describe uncommon aspects of a character – not just their eyes, hair, nose
  • Remember, readers don’t want the ordinary, the everyday, they want to be captivated

So that’s round one with Noah Lukeman. Part 2 covers hooks, subtlety, tone, focus, setting, pacing and progression. I hope these are helpful. Gotta get back to my editing!

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

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16 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed this, but I’m not sure I agree totally with limited dialog. My favorite movies are by Whit Stillman and they are almost 100% dialog. Not much happens at all. Films aren’t the same as books, but there are similarities. Maybe there’s a reason Whit’s movies never went on to be mega-hits, but I prefer them over the action-packed, limited dialog blockbusters of our day.

  2. I have a real beef over Show and not Tell – this is the much taught creative writing 101 – but take a look at the best sellers. They are FULL of tell. I’d prefer one line of tell and ditch the three torturous pages of show. So much as I agree with the rest of this…Tell doesn’t do the best sellers any harm.

    1. Lukeman goes on to say the same thing, J Manton. How one good line of tell can be used effectively. So not a rigid rule from his perspective, although I suspect he would advise writers to keep that out of the first few chapters that an agent sees!

    2. Well said. Since starting to write in 2010 the one topic which continues to raise my already too high blood pressure is the “show not tell mantra”. Perhaps because I am a non fiction reader and business report writer. Old habits die hard. Some useful comments in the post. Thanks Mary.

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