An In-Depth Look at My Color-Coded 3-Level Revision Process

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I’ve been writing novels for 8+ years. (wow I have been doing this for a long time and am getting old) and there are specific problems I have ALWAYS when revising. But, I think I have FINALLY created a revision system that actually FIXES my story EFFECTIVELY.

I did a poll on Instagram, and the general consensus was that you wanted to learn more. So I present to you: MORE. (Buckle in)

When revising, I struggle with:

  • Making the story appear “woven” and smooth — I usually have a chunky mess that results from trying to solve overarching problems with a few paragraphs here and there
  • Taking A MOUNTAIN of a printed manuscript, figuring out what needs done, and then executing these fixes on the computer screen
  • An overwhelming amount of, well, overwhelm — I know what needs to be done, but I have no clue how to start except maybe go through chronologically and hope I remember all the problems I have.

This is going to be a long post, so let’s just get this show on the road already.

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I already laid down the basics of this in my December Coffee Talk, but incase you missed that (and also for the sake of having all my advice in one place for when I become even older and forget how the heck I did this writing thing back when I was a youngster) let’s rehash.

Color-coded key:

  • Setting and world building — pink
  • Character — orange
  • Plot — blue
  • Lines/snippets I liked — yellow —this wasn’t really necessary to revision, but it was necessary to my moral because I can’t hate the entire book … right?

There is no reason I chose these colors other for the fact that I had a pink highlighter & pink sticky notes, an orange highlighter & orange sticky notes, and a blue pen & blue sticky notes.

I did, however, break it down into these 3 different categories (world building first as the foundation, characters second as that thing to stick on the foundation, and then lastly plot to hold them all together) because these 3 categories are — in this particular order — important to me.

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I printed out my whole manuscript and then sat down to read it, armed with my highlighters and sticky notes.

How I used the color-coded system to organize my thoughts during the read through:

  • I HIGHLIGHTED any fact, observation, description, explanation, etc. that pertained to one of my 3 categories (setting and world building, character, plot)
    • If I needed to make a little note in the margins, I did
  • For each chapter, I jotted down ON A STICKY NOTE any bigger problem I was seeing (inconsistencies, logical problems, reactions to what was happening on the page). What color sticky note I jotted this note down on depended on which one of my 3 categories (setting and world building, character, plot) it pertained to
  • AT THE END OF EACH CHAPTER, I usually had 3 different colored sticky notes all with notes on them. I wrote the chapter number at the bottom of each sticky note and then on the last page of every chapter, I stuck these sticky notes into three different piles — pink, orange, blue.
    • If I had a chapter that ended up with a certain sticky note blank, I still wrote down the chapter number at the bottom of the empty sticky note, and I still gave it its own pile.
    • (this was so there wouldn’t be any confusion in the next step)
an example of my highlighted action
what I do with sticky notes at the end of each chapter (in this example, chapter one)

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After I read, I decided to organize my sticky notes so instead of being grouped in their own little color piles at the end of each chapter, I would be able to see ALL the pink sticky notes at once, ALL the orange sticky notes at once, and ALL the blue sticky notes at once.

How I organized my sticky notes:

  1. I grabbed several pieces of paper (I used looseleaf)
  2. I went through my manuscript and flipped to the end of chapter one.
  3. At the end of each chapter one, I removed the pink sticky note. (Or sticky notes if I needed more room to write)
  4. I stuck this sticky note(s) on the pieces of paper I grabbed in step 1.
  5. I then flipped to the end of chapter two.
  6. I removed the pink sticky note and stuck this one on the piece of paper right next to chapter one’s pink sticky note.
  7. Repeat until the last chapter — only grabbing the pink sticky notes.
  8. Start again on a fresh sheet of paper, this time removing the orange sticky notes.
  9. Repeat the whole shebang with blue sticky notes.
the first two pages of my setting and world building master list

So, after going through this process, I had 3 master lists. I had a master list (in chronological order) of all the setting and world building problems, a master list (in chronological order) of all the character problems, and a master list (in chronological order) of all the plot problems.

Instead of saying “oh, here are all the problems with chapter one”, I could now say “oh, here are all the character problems in the ENTIRE WIP.”

Frankly, this was invaluable.

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This part is a lot more messy because it involves going back to the drawing board and brainstorming.

But, by the end of this processes, I knew there were about 5 different conceptual/high-level problems with my overall story. So I set out solving them.

I wrote a whole post about how I solve “plot holes” and other problems with my plots. But for me, my brainstorming process looks like stream-of-conciousness typing and talking through my problems and mind mapping.

So, in Scrivener I have a document where I offer solutions to these bigger problems. It’s not the document that matters as much as the fact that I now understand my story on a deeper level.

And with a deeper understanding, I believe it becomes easier to manipulate, shape, and control the story.

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As a detail-oriented person who often forgets details (oops) I found it EXTREMELY helpful to make myself a Story Bible.

I filled out Rebecca K Sampson’s Story Bible. It was like a big pdf containing a lot of worksheets to help me a) figure out basic facts like character eye color and Hogwarts house and b) organize all the important information about certain topics (characters, locations, etc.) into a page or two I could glance at quickly to refresh my memory.

I also found that filling these out made me dig deeper and solve some more problems. Because chances are, if I can’t explain “it” simply (whether “it” is character motivation or magic system or whatever), then I probably don’t understand it well enough.

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All right, things are going to get medical here. Our stories are like people, right? (Or an ogre because they have layers lol get it?) There’s the skeleton (the bare bones), and then the organs, and then the flesh and physical characteristics.

I found my story had some broken bones — some were completely missing — but quite a few were cracked or crooked or not really where they were supposed to be.

To fix this, I added back in new bones.

AKA, I went back into my draft (THE ONE ON THE COMPUTER, THE ONE I KEEP IN SCRIVENER) and rearranged scenes or chapters that needed to be rearranged. (Scrivener makes this SOOO EASY.) If there was a new part that needed to be added, I made a note in the MS roughly where the new part needed to be.

I DID NOT flesh these bones out. I just left them as little notes sprinkled in my manuscript. Which may seem unnecessary (but hey this is my revision process you can’t tell me what is and isn’t unnecessary) but hang tight. This madness may make sense in a second.

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You might be thinking that I’ve done a CRAP TON of work to basically just organize my story and solve a few high-level problems. (Also, bones? I started talking about bones?)

BUT here’s where things get REALLY EASY FOR ME PERSONALLY.

Now that I’m very enlightened about my story, I’m ready to return to the printed out MS and carry out 3 passes (or levels) of revision on the computer.

The first pass will be setting and world building. The second pass will be character. And the third pass will be plot.

How these revision passes will work:

  1. I will go back to my printed manuscript.
  2. Any time I see a pink highlighted bit, I’ll stop and ask myself:
    1. Is this correct? Does it follow my Story Bible?
    2. If the answer is yes, I move on.
    3. If the answer is no, I consider HOW this little highlighted bit is adding to one of my big conceptual problems. I then GO TO MY COMPUTER, FIND THE LINE, and rewrite it/rework it/maybe even delete it until it is correct and it follows my Story Bible.
  3. REMEMBER: I’m only looking for pink. Also REMEMBER: I’m looking at the highlighted bits in the physical, printed out manuscript, and then fixing these bits in Scrivener.
  4. Once I’m done fixing all the little setting and world building details, I will repeat 1-3 with orange (character) and then blue (plot).

The reason WHY this works so well for me is because I’m weaving a story.

I have 3 strands, and I’m making sure each strand is strong and braided (not just plopped) into the narrative in the most effective way possible. This also works because I’m finding the problem on PAPER but then FIXING it on my computer screen so there’s no unnecessary back and forth (like fixing on paper and then having to go back in and fix it again on the computer).

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In order to make sure that I was focusing on each level AND ONLY that level during passes, whenever I reached a note to myself that said I needed to add more (remember the bones from step 5?), I would either a) add more notes to that note or b) just pass it by.

And after doing all 3 revision passes, I plan on going back in and fleshing out these little notes.

Why am I doing this after? Personally, I just thinks it makes sense that I fill in the blanks AFTER the rest of the story surrounding the blanks is as solid as possible. Also, for full disclosure, I’m still in the pink part of the 3-level revision. So I haven’t actually filled out anything. But, that’s the plan, and I think it will work well! (Again, work well for me personally.) *shrug*

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The WHOLE reason I wrote this post in the first place is because I had a mini-break through this morning.

I’m currently doing the revision pass on setting and world building.

And I came along a pink highlighted area in my story and I knew I needed to change it. So I changed it, right?

But then I realized that changing this detail affects how a certain character (orange!) acts.

Then I realized that THIS changes how my main character (orange again) REACTS.

Then I realized that THIS changes the plot (blue!).

Well, anyways, guess what? The change to this plot FIXES this scene. And it doesn’t just fix THE scene — it fixed everything leading up to the scene.

IT’S A DOMINO!! Getting in deep like this allows me to make the RIGHT changes that set off a domino of other changes.

(Okay, so far I’ve used weaving, braiding, human anatomy, and dominos as metaphors) (And also, I’m going to unceremoniously end this big rambling in-depth post. But really, seeing things from other writers helps me SO much. THIS process is bits and pieces from other writer’s processes that I’ve collected in the 8+ years I’ve been writing.)

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Let's Talk!

Talk revision to me! What are your favorite tips or tricks? Was this post helpful? Do you prefer to draft or revise?


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Author: Madeline Bartson

Writer, bookworm, Hufflepuff. Fueled by caffeine and writing dreams. I want to share tips, tricks, motivation & inspiration for turning dreams into reality.

30 thoughts on “An In-Depth Look at My Color-Coded 3-Level Revision Process”

  1. This is such a helpful post, you write the BEST writing posts ever, thank you so much for sharing these tips and tricks with us. I’m almost done with a first edit of my draft, but… well I feel like I had no idea what I’m doing and ever since NaNo, I didn’t finish my edits because life and back to work and everything else took priority. I have to get back to it but I’ll have to use this method for a new revision once I tackle everything again. Thank you for this! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awww, thank you, Marie!! That means a lot. 💛 And sometimes other things take priority — that’s life. And I find that having a game plan for how to organize and tackle everything always makes revisions so much easier than just looking at the whole MS with no direction. Good luck!! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You are a lot like me with color. I like to identify color with meaning. My editor and I did this during my re-writes. Blue was excellent, green was pretty good, yellow in the middle and so on. Red was bad. Whenever she sent back the chapters the first thing I did was scan the pages for red.

    Excellent post. Lots of info. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oooh, that’s a really fun way to use color-coding, I hadn’t even thought of that. Sometimes I use red when I want to delete something but I’m not sure, so that’s a great tip, thank you for sharing!! And thanks, Bryan I’m glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow this is an amazing system, what a detailed post. I just read it twice because I think I skipped something and got confused, so reread and I am loving your system,

    I have a WIP that I feel this would really help fix some of the holes that have been driving me crazy. Omg thanks for sharing your process in such detail

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Ari! I know there’s so much going on, but thank you for giving it a second chance lol. It requires a lot of details to be managed and it’s not the easiest, but it’s definitely changed how I revise and even think about story structure.

      You’re welcome, thank you for your kind words! I’ve learned that it’s not usually just one problem (like ONLY world building or ONLY character or ONLY plot) but more of a problem with the way all three of these elements interact. Best of luck with revision! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, this is a brilliant system… for those of us who work in a more visual way. My trouble is getting bored with the black and whiteness of editing and this will really shake it up! As well as you say, braiding together the three important parts of the story, character, plot and setting/world building. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Do you outline before you write your story? I use the snowflake method quite a lot but going through with a similar notion in mind might help – I’ll give it a go next time. Now I’m off to look at the draft I’m editing with sticky notes and highlighters!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Jo! I’m glad you found this post helpful. I totally get what you mean with the black and white of editing — everything just turns into a gigantic lump of words and for me it becomes super overwhelming.

      Yes!! I use the snowflake method and I love it! I know the 9th step is optional, but I take the time to expand my spreadsheet (which is just my scene cards in Scrivener) into a full blown outline usually around 20-30k. I’ve never tried to use the snowflake method while revising, but I think you’re right. It could be totally helpful to go through the steps backwards and make sure the whole story is cohesive and not longer than it needs to be. 🙂 Good luck with editing!


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