Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

19:05: LIVE Recording – Revisions with Mahtab Narsimhan

Some writers love revisions and some would rather scrub the toilet than revise their writing. On this episode, we are joined by author Mahtab Narsimhan, who many will recognize as a host from past seasons! Mahtab talks with our hosts about how she thinks about revisions. How do you revise your writing? What is the difference between revising and rewriting? Mahtab describes her favorite techniques and provides tips to make it more manageable. 

Homework Assignment from Mahtab Narsimhan:

Take the first 3 chapters of your finished draft and distill it by 1) Chapter 2) Scenes 3) Key plot points per scene 4) POV  5) Setting 6) Time of day/timeline 7) How many pages per scene and/or chapter. 

Thing of the Week: 

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

Liner Notes: 

The Revision Template that Mahtab mentions is a free resource on our Patreon! You can find it at

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Join Our Writing Community! 







As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Revision is a mindset. The first draft is telling yourself the story. In revision, you are telling the story to readers. Use the template to distill your story into factors and notes, then revise using that outline. Your first draft is for what you want to say, your final draft is for how you want to say it. Revision is like writing a first draft all over again, but with spoilers. Try a trello board! A spreadsheet, including columns for the purpose of the scene in story terms, and the purpose in audience terms. While writing, add placeholder notes in brackets. Also note the purpose of the scene. Look at the emotional core of each scene. What works for you, works for you. 

[Season 19, Episode 05]

[Mary Robinette] This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by our listeners, patrons, and friends. If you would like to learn how to support this podcast, visit

[Season 19, Episode 05]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Revisions with Mahtab Narsimhan.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And if we were smart enough to write it well the first time, we wouldn’t have to revise.

[Mary Robinette] We are here with our special guest, who is a past season host. Hello, Mahtab.

[Mahtab] Hello, Mary Robinette.

[Mary Robinette] So, for people who have not had the pleasure of having you join us before, would you tell us a little about yourself?

[Mahtab] Thank you. So. For those who haven’t attended my session, I write books for kids. Everything from picture books, chapter books, middle grade, YA. Writing is actually my 5th career, because I have been hotel management, I’ve been sales, I have been recruitment. Writing, and I love it. This is my 5th one. It took me most of my life to figure that out, but now that I’m here, I am staying.

[Mary Robinette] So, basically, what you’re saying is you’ve been revising your life to get to…

[Mahtab] Thank you. Yes, yes. Yes I have.

[Mary Robinette] So, I’m excited about this. You pitched several topics to us, but I was like, “Yes, listeners are always asking us about revisions.” So when you said that you wanted to talk about it, I was like, “Yes, please.” So, when you’re thinking about revisions, like, do you have a process or is it different every single time you pick up a new project?

[Mahtab] It is different every single time, because, first of all, revision is a mindset. There are a lot of people who feel… They love the rush of writing the first draft, everything is new, everything is shiny, let’s just keep going. Then, when it comes to revision, it’s like, “Oh, gosh, I know this story already. Why am I doing this again?” For me, the first draft is actually the hardest, and then the real work begins during revisions. It really is a mindset, because you’ve got to realize that this is the time that you’re actually going to be telling the story to the readers. The first time, when you’re doing the draft, you’re telling the story to yourself. There are a lot of holes, there are a lot of gaps, there is no pacing, there is basically no story or structure, unless you’re a plotter. Or you might be a hybrid. But then, revision is when the real work, I think, begins. I… Like, for picture books, I’ve got a book coming out… Shameless plug, sorry about that, but I’ve got a book coming out in October, which is The Boy in the Banyan Tree. That, even though it’s a 700 word picture book, that took about 4 years to finally like finalize and revise. I had to keep reading and writing the same 700 words again. First, when I just wrote it on my own. Then when the illustrator’s notes came in, I had to write them again. I had to change my text to match what the illustrator did. So that was a whole different way of thinking about revision. Because most of the books that I write are middle grade, and those, I do have a revision process I have pretty much settled on which I really like. I do have a template which I will be sharing and people can download it. But it’s basically distilling your entire story into chapters, scenes, plot points, a point of view, the setting, a timeline when that is happening, and then, when you’re not distracted by dialogue or you’re not distracted by descriptions or anything else, when you’ve just distilled the story down to these factors, and then you have a column on notes, that is how I actually revise based on that outline. Then I go back into the full revision. That really helps. Because you’re not distracted with any of the other stuff. All you’re looking at is are your chapters consistent, do you have enough point of view characters? If you’ve got 2 or 3, are they appearing at regular intervals? It just gives you a very distilled snapshot of your story. Which is easier to revise.

[Howard] Last week, the episode on pacing with Fonda Lee raised for me the question of if your pacing’s wrong, how do you go about fixing it? Pacing, I think, is one of the most challenging things to address during the revision process. Because often you realize you’ve got scenes in the wrong order, you’ve got character whose arcs are not in the right places. The rewrite… For me, anyway, the rewrites for pacing often require me to take something that I just loved and set it aside, because it can’t happen yet in the book. So… But when it happens later, it can’t happen like that, and so I just have to rewrite it. Yeah, so, for me, often rewrites are about pacing. I want to get the flow correct, and it always hurts when I find that I’ve done it wrong, because I know that it’s not so much a few words here and there, it is a few pages here and there that just have to be rewritten.

[Dan] I’m really with Mahtab on the way she thinks about revision. I think revision is the most important part of writing, and it is definitely the part where the real work starts. I think it is incredibly fun to do. That took me a long time to come to terms with, because I’ve already written this book. Why do I have to write this book again? Why do I have to keep working on it?


[Dan] Why do I have to throw some words away? Why do I have to add extra words? I’m already done. But… That’s what helps you really fix it. One of my very favorite sayings is that your first draft is for what you want to say, in your final draft is for how you want to say it. That’s where you take all these words you’ve written and you polish them and you hone them and you reorganize some of them and make it into a story instead of just a bunch of stuff that happens.

[Erin] I like to think about it as a fun thing. So… I think because I’m a little bit of a pantser, I’ll be like, “Okay, I thought I was writing story X, but, oh my gosh, midway through, I realized, really, it’s story Y.” Now I get to go back and make it story Y all the way through. That’s so fun. So, for me, it really feels like writing a first draft all over again, but, with, like, spoilers. Like, you know what I mean, like this is where you were going with this, now build it.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I think of it… Because I… Before theater, I came out of art school, and we had sculpting, which was… When you were sculpting, it was, with clay, an additive and subtractive process. So you would get kind of your armature, which is an outline, and then you’d do the rough sculpt. Then you go through and you start fine tuning things and honing them and sometimes that means adding a little bit more clay, sometimes it means taking a lot out. I find that revisions, it’s much the same thing. It’s like sometimes I’m adding a scene, sometimes I’m pulling a scene out. Sometimes the revision is just, oh, I can fix this entire problem with just a single sentence. Those are like so satisfying when I managed to find that.

[Howard] That’s the point where you realize, “Oh. I am a writer. I am good at this.”


[Howard] My friend, Jim Zub, used to do portfolio reviews for comics, for illustrations, and he had some pointers for people on do’s and don’ts for portfolio reviews. One of the things he said was if there’s a piece in your portfolio that’s not on good paper, it’s something you drew and it’s on notebook paper, don’t put it in there. Draw it again on another piece of paper. If it’s on notebook paper, and I look at it, what you are telling me is you don’t like drawing things a second time. You have to be willing to take the original and do it again.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. One of the… Sorry, that just made me start thinking about the tools of drawing. Which then makes me think about the tools of writing and the tools of revision. So you had mentioned that you have a…

[Mahtab] A template.

[Mary Robinette] A template. I find that my revision tools change kind of as I go through the process. So, when we come back from break, what I’d love for us to talk about are some of the tools that we use when doing revisions.

[Mahtab] Great. Absolutely.

[Mahtab] So, the thing of the week is I would love to recommend a story called, or rather, a book called Nevermoor, The Trials of Morrigan Crow. It is one of the… One of my favorite middle grade trilogy series that I’ve been reading right now. Such fabulous worldbuilding. It has got all of the tropes that you would need for the middle grade. You’ve got a child who’s cursed, who gets whisked away into this magical land where she has to get inducted into this wondrous society, and she has all of these trials to go through. The voice is amazing, and it is… Well, the writing is amazing, but the voice of Gemma Whelan, who has narrated this book, is just as delightful. So, I actually raced through the entire trilogy, and now I’m listening to it, which is a whole different way of enjoying the book. So I highly recommend Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend. It’s Nevermoor, The Trials of Morrigan Crow.

[Mary Robinette] So, now that we’re back… What I’d love to talk about are tools that we use. So you mentioned the template that you’ve got. I have a trello board, which is a newer thing for me that I’ve started using. Which I will also share in the liner notes. For me, one of the things that I find that is most difficult about revision is that it’s hard to mark that you’re making progress. Which is one of the things that the trello board gave to me, is that I got little ticky boxes that I got to check off. It’s like, yeah, I did the thing. What are some of the tools that other people use when they are diving into revision? Or do you want to tell us more about the template?

[Mahtab] You know what, actually, I went looking for where is versions or tips and techniques to look for revisions. I actually came across this blog post by a writer called Anita Nolan. Unfortunately, that blog post is not available, but I did have a chance to prepare the template based on what she had recommended, which is what I use. For anyone… Has anyone here opened the pie safe? Anyone cracked the… Wrote the number of words? No one here. But I did see… Any hands up? Okay, that’s… So that’s great. So you would have seen my first chapter revisions for Valley of the Rats. Which is the method that I use. I just found that even if I use it in a simple format, this particular revision method helps. Of course, the shorter the novel, I kind of… If it’s a chapter book, I would probably do it in a slightly different way. But for most middle grade, YA novels, this helps.

[Mary Robinette] So, I’m going to give a really good example of revision. Which is that often you have information that you should have planted earlier so that the readers understand where you are. One of the pieces of information that I failed to plant at the beginning of the episode was that we are recording this live for an audience on the Writing Excuses workshop and cruise. So that’s who we are talking to when we say for those of you who opened the pie safe. The pie safe, which is again information that you might have wanted…

[Dan] Vital worldbuilding exposition.

[Mary Robinette] I know. It’s so much worldbuilding exposition. The pie safe, if you are on our cruise, we create this thing we jokingly call the pie safe which are basically behind the scenes looks at different things that we’re working on as a prize for writers who have managed to write quote high, which is 3142 words in a single day. So, with that exposition out of the way…


[Mary Robinette] Which I should have planted earlier, we’ll just all pretend that I… I’m going to go back and… Maybe we’ll ask Alex to put that in…

[Howard] We can tell our engineer Alex to revise the episode for us. He loves doing that.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. We’re absolutely not going to do that. But…

[Howard] One of my favorite tools is the spreadsheet that I use for my outline. Once I’ve written through a chapter or a scene or an entire book, I know a lot more about what an individual line in the outline might mean, and I will add columns to the outline for things like what is the purpose of this scene in story terms? What is the purpose of this scene in audience terms? Story terms might be I’m planting a clue or I’m creating a red herring. Audience terms is I’m building tension or I’m relieving tension or I’m telling a joke. I like to fill out that spreadsheet because as I do, it gives me a map for revision. It tells me what the scene’s for, it tells me… It helps me find the things that are wrong or find the things that are missing.

[Erin] A tool that I use as a short story writer, a lot of my tools are really micro, because, like, you’re getting into the individual sentences and paragraphs. One that I actually stole from essay writing is that sometimes when I’m writing an essay, I’ll put a spot in brackets and I’ll be like, “A brilliant sentence that summarizes all the things and makes it really make sense with this scene.” So… I don’t know if anyone remembers literal videos back in the day of MTV where they would tell you exactly what was happening in the video as opposed to the song? Sometimes I will go through a scene and actually look at what is this line doing? Not what’s the line itself, but I’ll be like, “A long, winding sentence that establishes the world and gives a little bit of character.” “A short punchy thing that like keeps the audience going.” I’ll actually look at what I’m trying to accomplish with each individual sentence. The reason to do that is it gets me out of the headspace of I love these words, I don’t want to touch them, to thinking about why did I put these words here in the first place. So that when I look at the literal video outline, it… I’m like, that’s a series of things that doesn’t make sense in a row, that tells me that the actual words that I wrote may need to be moved around as well.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I often find that when I’m sitting there, trying to revise the same sentence over and over and over, that it’s a clue to me that that sentence doesn’t belong in the manuscript at all, and that I was just desperately trying to make it fit in. When we’re talking about sentence level stuff. But, I also do the “really terrible German joke goes here” is one of my more recent ones…


[Mary Robinette] Or “competence porn. Then Almo does more.” It’s like sometimes you just… You put in these placeholders and the revision process is honing them. So, one of the other things that I find useful along the lines that you’re all talking about is the purpose of the scene. That’s something that I also mark down. So, sometimes I will look for redundancies in my manuscript, where I can look at rolling scenes together. I find that that’s really fun. So, for me, what I’ll do because I get attracted to my beautiful, beautiful words, is I’ll pull the entire scenes all the way out, stick them in the scrap folder, start again. Then, when I’m like, “Wait, I’ve written this already,” I’ll go and grab a piece of it and drop it back in.

[Mahtab] What I also like to do is when I’m doing the revisions, also look at the emotional core of the scene. Sometimes, when you’re doing the descriptions or you’re doing the pacing, all of that, that might be missed out. So I also have an EC, and then for every scene, in the notes section, I will write in what is the emotional core. What is it that you want the audience to feel? How are you going to end the chapter to make sure that the audience feels… Or, it’s not audience, the readers feel that way and they want to turn the page? So there are many things that I will also look at in the revision, and that’ll all go into the notes column. Then, one thing I love to do is when I start a brand-new draft, I don’t… Or rather, when I start the revision, I don’t use the old… The first draft that I wrote. I start a brand-new draft. Then I just pick the pieces that I need, change it around so I’m starting with something very, very clean. It helps me in my head rather than looking at this whole jumble and getting bogged down by it and getting overwhelmed. I just go chapter by chapter by chapter and it just makes it a lot simpler and easier to kind of revise.

[Dan] I wanted to just say, really quick at the end here, that the method Erin and Mary Robinette are talking about, where they will insert placeholders, I will come back later and add this sentence or this scene or this dialogue… That is not something that I can do. So I just want to let you know out there that there isn’t a right way to do this. What works for you, works for you. For me, I have to write things in order. I can go back in revision later, and I can add a line, but I find myself kind of constitutionally incapable of planning to go back and add the line. If I know it needs to be there, I have to put it in right there because everything that comes after it will stem from it or grow out of it in some way. So, whichever way you do it is fine. There’s just lots of different ways to do it.

[Mary Robinette] So, with that in mind, it is time for us to give you your homework.

[Mahtab] Right. So, I would love for you to take your first chapter, whatever you’re revising, your work in progress, or even if you’re… Well, actually, this will work if you already have a draft. You will have access to the template very shortly, as soon as the podcast goes up. Try and revise your very first chapter by creating that template. The first time, I can tell you, is going to be a little bit painful, because all you’re doing is you’re picking out the plot, the chapters, the point of view, all of that. Just put that into your template, and aft… It will go a little bit easier, but I remember the first time I did it, it was extremely painful. It was very slow. I’m like, “Why am I doing it?” But, trust me, trust the process, it is going to work. Do that with your first chapter and see if you can see… If you can work out what’s missing, if you can write notes in the chapter, and then continue on with chapter 2, 3, 4. But, at least, try that with the first chapter to see if this is a process that works for you.

[Mary Robinette] Well, thank you for joining us, Mahtab. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go revise.

[DongWon] Hey. Have you sold a short story or finished your first novel? Congratulations. Also, let us know. We’d love to hear from you about how you’ve applied the stuff we’ve been talking about to craft your own success stories. Use the hashtag WXsuccess on social media or drop us a line at [email protected].