Bell Revises with Care


James Scott Bell. 2008. Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Finished Novel. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is often asserted that writing is a right-brain (creative) activity and editing is a left-brain (analytical) activity. While I doubt that any writers have been observed under CAT scanning device, the observation has an intuitive appeal and is repeated ad nauseum in books on writing. In my case, I generally find myself plumbing the depths of books on writing mostly as I contemplate another round of editing, both to garner new insights and to gather motivation to jump into editing one more time. James Scott Bell writing books (see references) provide reliable fodder for both needs.


In his book, Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Finished Novel, James Scott Bell describes how to use his book in two parts

“In Part 1: Self-Editing, we will be covering a broad range of fiction technique, with exercises—a sort of writing boot camp … [Part 2] offers a systematic approach to revising a novel.” (5)

Dedicated James Scott Bell fans will recognize Part 1 as an overview of different writing books that he has written previously and he covers much the same topics. The rubber hits the road with a splash in chapter 16, the Ultimate Revision Checklist, where he revisits each topic in Part 1 with specific advice on editing and revising manuscripts focusing on specific problems in those topic areas. If we read in Part 1 that “fiction is the record of how a character faces a threat or challenge” (18), then in Part 2 he advises us to “track the inner change in your character through the three acts” with a “character arc template” (219) that demonstrates how the character grows in response to the threat or challenge. There is method to the madness here.

Background and Organization

On his website, we read:

Jim has taught writing at Pepperdine University and at numerous writers conferences in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. He attended the University of California, Santa Barbara where he studied writing with Raymond Carver, and graduated with honors from the University of Southern California Law Center.[1] 

In addition to his writing books, he is known for writing thrillers, television appearances, and legal work.

Bell writes in sixteen chapters, divided into two parts:

Part One: Self Editing

  1. A Philosophy of Self-Editing
  2. Characters
  3. Plot & Structure
  4. Point of View
  5. Scenes
  6. Dialogue
  7. Beginnings, Middles, and Ends
  8. Show versus Tell
  9. Voice & Style
  10. Setting & Description
  11. Exposition
  12. Theme

Part Two: Revision

  1. A Philosophy of Revision
  2. Before You Revise
  3. The First Read-Through
  4. The Ultimate Revision Checklist (vi-vii)

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by an epilogue, appendix, and Index. This book is part of the Write Great Fiction series published by Writer’s Digest Books.


Bell asserts that 99.9 percent of self-published authors need to learn how to self-edit better. He defines self-editing as: “the ability to know what makes fiction work, so when you actually write (as in a first-draft) you’re crafting salable fiction.” (8) Because more than a million books are published annually and readership appears to be declining, writing is a highly competitive activity. Self-publishing has contributed to this outcome, which makes it unlikely that most authors will not be offered an editor to work with and bookshelf space on which to sell their books. Thus, good self-editing skills are a must for most writers.

Outside of the environment in which we labor, editing becomes necessary once a first draft is produced. If writing is a right-brain activity, then most first drafts will resemble a brainstorming with some structure. This implies that editing is required to develop characters, fill in descriptive details, and generally make things hold together. In my own novella project in September, on first read I found conflicting details about a minor character in my first draft, a product of my own poor memory—an obvious incentive to edit even my edits.


Bell observes: “Submitting a novel without rewriting is like playing ice hockey naked.” (192) In a nutshell, you can play hockey naked, but you probably don’t want to!

Bell sees professional authors as the one taking the long view: “Ultimate success involves a long curve of learning, working, failure, trying again, patience, and perseverance.” (194) Personally, I have found professional are the ones who are constantly learning new techniques and looking for mentors to ease the process. It is the difference between those seeking a job and those desiring a career—only the latter effectively learn the craft.


James Scott Bell’s Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Finished Novel stands out as a good summary of his collective wisdom as a writer and a must-read for fiction authors. I especially enjoyed his advice to write a “pet the dog” beat to deeper the identity of you lead character. For Bell, writers are the ones who ceaselessly learn more about writing. What dog can’t you not pet?




Bell, James Scott.  2004.  Plot and Structure:  Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish.  Cincinnati:  Writer’s Digest Books. (review)

Bell, James Scott. 2014. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (review)

Bell, James Scott. 2019. The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (review.

Bell Revises with Care

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