Struggling with Revisions? Try Playing with Paper Dolls

revisionsMany books and articles are available that offer step-by-step processes for revising and self-editing your manuscript. Each method has advantages and disadvantages, but . . .

The real secret to getting through “revision hell” is trying different methods until you find the one that works best for you and your writing style.

In today’s digital world, some of the most-used and best-loved writing programs also offer a digital method for revising your first draft. One of the most popular (at least with my clients and writers whose blogs I read) is Scrivener.

Wikipedia has this to say about Scrivener:

Features include a corkboard, the ability to rearrange files by dragging-and-dropping virtual index cards in the corkboard, an outliner, a split screen mode that enables users to edit several documents at once, a full-screen mode, and “snapshots” (the ability to save a copy of a particular document prior to any drastic changes). Because of its breadth of interfaces and features, it has positioned itself not only as a word processor, but as a literary “project management tool.”

The whole idea of virtual index cards just makes my heart skip a beat—I love the ability to virtually duplicate what I used to do on paper. And even in today’s high-tech world where novels are written on smartphones and self-help books are created on tablets, low-tech methods sometimes still work best—especially if you’re not in the mood to learn another new software program.

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When you’re struggling with revisions, try playing with paper dolls.

I’m not actually suggesting you stop writing and crack out that box of childhood toys you’ve saved “for the grandchildren.” I am suggesting you consider returning to a method that you probably used in your pre-computer days, which I call the Paper-Doll Method.

In the days before Barbie, paper dolls were an affordable way for girls to create the worlds that many of them would later go on to re-create in novels. According to Judy M. Johnson in The History of Paper Dolls, paper-doll versions of Barbie and her sister, Skipper, were strong sellers in the 1970s and supplemented their three-dimensional counterparts.

Paper dolls had paper wardrobes that could be mixed and matched for endless variations—just like your manuscript, which is made up of various parts that can be mixed and matched to create the masterpiece you envisioned when you began writing it.

The Paper-Doll Method of revising your manuscript means breaking down your WIP and mixing it up a bit to create a stronger manuscript. Here’s how:

  1.  Identify your problem chapters. Assuming you’ve already followed the first four steps of Self-Editing Checklist for Fiction Writers Part I: Macro Issues, you’ve been through your WIP and corrected as many macro issues as possible. That was probably when you began to realize that something just wasn’t working.
  2. Print out your manuscript draft. I know—that’s a lot of paper. I hate killing trees too, so do what you can to conserve paper: before you print out the entire manuscript, reduce the font size (not too much or you’ll struggle to read it), extend the margins to reduce white space, and reuse as many sheets as you can from previous projects (that’s what the blank back sides are for, you know!). And if you are only struggling with a few chapters, just print those out for now—you can always print out others if and when you need to.
  3. Slice and dice, one chapter at a time. Yes, literally slice and dice. Take your favorite pair of scissors to the first uncooperative chapter you want to work with, and start cutting the chapter into scenes. Don’t work with more than one chapter at a time at this stage, or you’ll end up creating more problems than you solve (“I know that paragraph where they meet is here somewhere . . . maybe under the sofa?”).
  4. Rearrange the scenes. Of course, you can use a table if you have one that’s large enough, but there’s something about getting down on the floor and stringing out sheets of paper that sparks creativity—at least it does for me. Once you’ve reordered the scenes in a way that works, you’ll probably also have identified some plot holes or scenes that need to be added. Make some notes on another slip of paper, and place that new “scene” where it fits in the story.
  5. Tape everything together, return to your computer, and start revising.Paper dolls

The Paper-Doll Method for revising your manuscript is for identifying and fixing macro-level issues. By moving scenes—even paragraphs—around without having to scroll through pages on a computer, you’ll see the strengths and weaknesses in your draft manuscript in a new way.

Next time you’re struggling with revising your manuscript and you don’t have a software program to do the heavy lifting for you, try playing with paper dolls—and let me know if it works for you.

What other ways have you tried revising “off screen”? Do notecards work for you? Do you have sticky notes plastered on every wall in your writing space? Please let me know in the comments—I’d love to know what works for you!

Happy Editing!


If you enjoyed reading this and want to improve your ability to self-edit and revise your work, please subscribe by entering your email address on the right side of this page. And please know that I’ll never sell, share, or rent your contact information—that’s a promise!

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Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer,  and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help, and on fiction ranging from romance to paranormal. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be.

Image courtesy of Sicha Pongjivanich at

7 thoughts on “Struggling with Revisions? Try Playing with Paper Dolls”

  1. I loved playing with paper dolls as a child! Since I don’t have the time to learn a new software, this paper doll method sounds perfect and fun. Plus, it gives me a chance to play with all of my fluorescent colored index cards. Thanks, Candace!

    1. Confession time: I have a passion for office supplies. Specifically colored pens, colored index cards, and colored stickies (especially the lined ones). So much of my writing and editing is done on a computer, and don’t get me wrong, that is incredibly efficient, but sometimes using old-fashioned cut-and-paste with paper (ore fluorescent-colored index cards–ooooo!) is just the best way to cut to the heart of the problem. Thanks for stopping by, Jill!

      1. Okay, if we’re confessing…like my book hoarding problem, I hoard office supplies. I can spend hours in Staples shopping for bright colored post-it notes, highlighters and index cards. I also have a stockpile of various journals, writing tablets and fluorescent spiral notebooks.

    1. Thanks so much for your feedback! I think I’m hitting my stride, now that I’m coming up on my one-year blogging anniversary. I’ll do my best to keep ’em coming, and thanks so much for your support!

  2. Thanks for the link back to my blog and the reason why I love these self-editing posts of late is just that – the rewrite. All your advice recently is spot on and I’m feeling very lucky that some of my struggles have inspired you to post potential solutions. All I can say is, thank god for your blog!
    Keep ’em coming Candace x

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