A Writer’s Notebook: Revision checklist

Today’s exercise is going to be short and relatively uncreative. I’m polishing up a story collection I recently finished, and while most of the stories are published, finished, or well on their way, one is still very much an ugly draft, so I’ve decided to go over that weakest story and do some broad revision. What follows is a checklist of sorts, just a dry accounting of things that won’t really make much sense to anyone but me, but I’m posting it anyway because an exercise is an exercise and I think it helps to see writers at work. I’ll explain the checklist and my notes below.

1. Check your external conflict.

  • Does the story have an immediate and gripping external conflict?

Yes. But really, no. The story opens on a scene filled with conflict, but it is merely an introductory conflict, and mostly, it’s someone else’s conflict. The main external conflict for the main character doesn’t show up until page 3. It’s a 21-page story (for now–it’s going to get shorter), but still, page 3 is a long time to wait for the main conflict. I think I need the other, introductory conflict involving other people to set up a major complication later in the story, but I need to get into and out of it a LOT faster so I can get to the main conflict somewhere on page 2.

  • Does the external conflict keep tension alive throughout the story?

Yes. There’s a shift in conflicts, but it’s less a swapping of one conflict for another and more of a transition, an evolution of the main conflict, so I think (for now) it works.

  • If the first external conflict is resolved and its place taken by successive external conflicts, check each for conflict, crisis, and resolution to ensure that the parts are working.


  • Is there a final crisis action bringing all the outstanding external conflicts together…?

Oh boy, is there ever. I’m not sure yet that it’s the RIGHT crisis action, but it sure is a doozy.

2. Check your internal conflict.

  • Is the internal conflict well established after page one of the short story…?

No. In the current draft, the external conflict starts on page 3, but the internal doesn’t even get hinted at until the end of page 5. That’s way too late in the game. But I think I know a way to bring it up earlier without wrecking the story–I’ll just have to cut some stuff and move some other things around.

  • Trace the internal conflict as it heats up and cools down throughout the story to make sure the flame doesn’t burn out.

I like the pieces of this internal conflict, but right now they’re still just pieces. It’s not running in an ebb-and-flow (a “heats up then cools down”) rhythm like I want it to. It’s like it dwindles to embers and I have to blow like hell to get the flames going again. Definitely need to work on that.

  • When the internal conflict is finally resolved, do you use a dream or an image, or the character’s thoughts and memories to make the moment significant and convincing?

No, it’s all in action. The internal conflict gets externalized, which–right now–is the point (see the next question).

  • Which type of resolution is it, comes-to-realize or fails-to-realize? Decide now.

This main character is so messed up in the head that I can’t honestly say whether he realizes anything or not. But I think he does. Because the internal conflict becomes externalized–it’s brought out into the open, out loud–it’s hard for this to be anything but comes-to-realize.

There’s a lot more to the checklist, but this is plenty to work on for now, and I don’t want this post getting too long.

This checklist is from the chapter on revision in Jesse Lee Kercheval‘s Building Fiction. To be honest, I’ve always resisted such checklist-style approaches to writing–and revising–fiction, because it’s always felt too rote for me, too formulaic. Kercheval flirts with formula here, too, but if you read her other chapters on conflict and character and endings, you realize how very flexible her approach is. For me, it is the perfect blend of the flexibility I want in my writing process and the discipline I feel my fiction needs.

Take this story, for example: I knew when I finished the draft that the story was a hot mess, but I’ve been rolling along smoothly enough in my fiction lately that I assumed it would be a day’s work to fix it. Going through this checklist–even just the first two sections–I see now how much revision is needed. I’m not talking about fixing a few problems; I’m talking about revision in the classic sense of seeing this thing with new eyes. One of the things I love about Kercheval’s checklists, actually, is that they help you become your own second reader. It’s not a replacement for actually handing a draft to other human beings and getting their feedback, but it’s perhaps the next-best thing.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

One thought on “A Writer’s Notebook: Revision checklist

  1. Hello Samuel!

    Very useful revision tips you’ve got there.

    You may want to share them too with other Writers over at Expert Checklist http://expertchecklists.com/. It’s a new web app for professionals working in difficult and complex environments where users can work together to create and discuss very effective checklists for their fields.

    They can also customize checklists for their own personal needs and download them in a convenient PDF format . Applications include medicine (for example WHO safe surgical checklist), aviation, adventure sports, and project management. The site was inspired by the book ‘Checklist Manifesto’ by Atul Gawande.

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