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.

Take it slow, take it fast

Several days ago, a very kind literary agent offered feedback on two fifty page snippets of my writing. While he had some positive comments, when asked more directly, he said that my writing “does not have the pace and energy to capture the enthusiasm of this reader”. Good to know.

Being a methodical woman, I set out to examine the notion of pacing – I should disclose that I had already adjusted the pace of one of these novels in order to improve its opening chapters. I started the novel differently, cut out several chapters and tightened the language – or so I thought. Do I need to do more?

Let’s begin with a definition of pacing.

  • Pacing is the measurement of how quickly you go from point A to point B. (Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages)
  • Pacing is word count. Minimum word count. (Steven Taylor Goldsberry, The Writer’s Book of Wisdom)
  • Pacing is the rhythm of the novel, of the chapters and scenes and paragraphs and sentences … and the speed at which novel events occur and unfold. (Dr. Vicki Hinze)
  • Pace is the tempo at which a scene moves. The pace varies within a novel, depending on the emotion an author wants the reader to experience at any given time. (Marilyn R Henderson, The Fine Art of Pace – Making Every Scene in Your Novel Count)
  • Pacing, as it applies to fiction, could be described as the manipulation of time. (Gerry Visco, Techniques to Establish Pacing)
  • Pacing is the tempo of the story, the speed at which information is provided and the dynamics of the rising tension. (Gail Gaymer Martin, Pacing – Too Fast or Too Slow)

Other writers talk about the subtlety and complexity of pacing, describing the difficulty an author has stepping back from his or her work to objectively look at overall pace in the context of conflict, tension, the reader’s emotional experience, reader fatigue and reader confusion. At times, a slower pace is necessary; at other times, a slow pace creates boredom.

Here’s a list I compiled of ways to increase and decrease pace:

Increase Pace Slow Pace
Strive for brevity; Use lean writing with fewer adjectives and adverbs Description, particularly ones that are steeped in sensory input and rich in texture and sound (DVH)
Zoom in – eg: beads of sweat on a face Zoom out, describe a wide panorama
Keep the action rolling; include lots of action Reduce the psychological intensity
Trim physical detail/description Slow the pace in order to place emphasis on something
Avoid analysis, rumination Slow the pace after a dramatic, active scene
Increase narrative tension by raising the stakes. Resolve some of the conflict
Create white space on the page Slow the pace to expand emotional impact – a love scene or an intense situation
Reduce telling and description; replace with dramatization Note specific details that seem larger than life
Dialogue speeds pace, gives illusion of action, particular abrupt, pointed dialogue Long blocks of narration slows the pace
Increase the conflict Long flowing sentences; soft sounding verbs
Edit out insignificant actions Layering details, one upon another
Short, snappy sentences and paragraphs; towards the novel’s end, short chapters with more drama More relaxed dialogue
Cut scene short at a dramatic moment Flashbacks and backstory; remember that readers are interested in what’s going to happen not what has happened (SK)
Crisp, sharp verbs
Use sentence fragments
Switch back and forth between POV
Check each scene for a crisis situation

What will I do now?

Armed with these ideas, I’m going to crawl through one of my manuscripts noting slow, medium and fast paced areas then block these out against my chapter/scene outline. Perhaps I will have a eureka moment.

If anyone has other advice, please let me know.

By the way: SK means the suggestion comes from Steven King’s book On Writing; DVH indicates an idea from Dr. Vicki Hinze’s article on Pacing.