Maureen's Three Level Method

Revising a novel is like eating a whale, both massive and overwhelming. We struggle with where to begin, what to focus on and how to manage the process. If you’re like me and have trouble identifying what the steps of revision are, let alone figuring out what order to do them in, then I think this blog will really help you. I’ve been wishing for a system like this for a long time and feel like I’ve found my unicorn.  

Jess Goodrich

Revision: Maureen’s Three Level Method

Credit to Maureen McQuerry

Revising a novel is like eating a whale, both massive and overwhelming. We struggle with where to begin, what to focus on and how to manage the process. If you’re like me and have trouble identifying what the steps of revision are, let alone figuring out what order to tackle them in, then I think this blog will really help you. I’ve been wishing for a system like this for a long time and feel like I’ve found my unicorn.

These notes are based on a revision workshop put on by SCBWI. Maureen McQuerry, Stephen Wallenfells and Heidi Lang are published authors that presented. Maureen’s system was exactly what I was looking for but some tid bits from the others are included here as well. Maureen built her system over a span of years as she revised her traditionally published books with limited help from editors. She gives credit to Jennie Nash and Robert McKee in helping her to create this system. I’ve taken the liberty of breaking it down into steps.


Revision is not looking at our stories in chronological order and making better word choices. Revision changes the substance of the story; it takes deeper probing than the mere cosmetic changes that newbie revisers like myself tend to focus on.

Heidi acknowledged 2 myths that kept her from revising deeply in her early days of writing. The first was the belief that it would ruin her artistic vision. The second was the fear that if she looked too deeply, she would find the story was too big a mess to ever be fixable. Now revision is her favorite part of writing. She’s been able to keep her artistic vision (the heart of the story) and create delightful end-products.

            Step 1: Draft it. If you revise as you go, then keeping these elements in mind may help you organize those revisions as well.

            Step 2: Identify the Heart of your story (again, you may do this before you begin that first draft, but it is essential to do it before revision). Stephen revises while he writes the first draft. He has two posters on his wall. One outlines the plot of his book in three acts. The other is one sentence that is the heart of his story. He refers back to it constantly, using it as a compass, as he drafts and revises. The heart of the story is your elevator pitch, the essence of the story distilled down into one sentence.

            Stephen’s first step is revising the idea, the heart of the story. He makes sure that the idea is big enough for a book, that the premise will be enough to get it through the middle chapters. For us pantsers, it seems that at times the heart of the story becomes clear as the first draft is created. Again, however your organize your first draft, it is essential to know the heart of your story before moving into revision.

Step 3: Create an outline based on each individual scene. Print out your story and read through it to help you. As you examine each scene look for:

  • Is the scene working/is it necessary? (is it true to the heart of the story or superfluous?) Does it come in the correct place in the structure of the novel?
  • What is the crisis/turning point and value shift that happens in it? What’s the conflict?
  • Does it build to the next scene?
  • Why does it matter to the protagonist?

She distills the answers to these type of questions into one or 2 phrases. Jennie Nash ( developed the Two-Tier Outline that Maureen took this from. She encourages us to think in terms of, “Because of this, that happens,” rather than, “and then this happens, and then this happens...”

Step 4: Look at the whole story and be RUTHLESS

            Is the meaning there? Dig deep. Is there enough meat/conflict in this story to create the forward momentum necessary to propel it through to the end of a full-length novel? Are there holes and leaps of logic?

Steps 1-4 will make you really familiar with your novel and prepare you for the three levels of revision. She said that at that point she does not always go through the entire draft with each of the passes, but can hone in on the applicable scenes.

Step 5: Begin Red Light Passes

Red Light issues: Things that will stop an agent or reader from reading further. These are the most essential and the issues that need to be addressed first. Some of this you will begin figuring out during the scene outline phase. Ask:

  • Is it structured well?
  • Does each event lead to another?
  • Is there a promise of conflict and sustained tension throughout?
  • Are the stakes high enough?
    • Look at both internal and external stakes
    • Internal stakes should force change in the protagonist
    • External stakes raise the tension and keep the reader engaged
    • The stakes are high enough when risking failure feels like risking death to the character (this does not have to be literal death.)
  • Character arc: Is it realistic and significant?
    • The arc needs to stretch the length of the story. Plot alone is not enough to carry the story
    • Character motivation (I cannot remember if it was mentioned specifically but I would put it here and with the high interior stakes. 😊 )
  • Does the story give the reader a reason to care?

Step 6: Begin Yellow Light passes

Yellow Light issues will make an agent, editor or reader pause although they may not be deal-breakers by themselves. They include:

  • Pacing. Are there places where the pacing lags, especially in the middle of the story?
  • Dialog:
    • Does it reflect the character?
    • Are the voices consistent?
    • Is the dialog realistic?
    • Is there subtext?
  • SOD—Suspension of Disbelief issues (her term not mine). Is there anything that stretches credibility too far? Even in a fantasy world, is there anything that doesn’t stack up with the world building?
  • Interiority: Is the story emotionally deep enough? Are the characters thoughts, emotions and reactions to situations shown?
    • Steven commented on this at length, noting that we often leave out the most compelling emotional parts. He encouraged us to look for emotional moments that we are tempted to avoid or create distance around. Once we have identified them, we can dig deep into interiority there or blow them up into a scene of their own—whichever suits the story.
  • Supporting cast: Are the side characters developed or flat?

Step 7: Level 3, Green light passes

            Green light issues: things that you are most likely to keep working on even after you have landed an agent or editor (although your editor may still call out red or yellow light issues as you collaborate). Green light issues are important but until the red and yellow issues are dealt with, they are secondary.

  • Word-Smithing: word choice, imagery, similes, etc—all the micro fun stuff that we tend to focus on first.
    • I don’t think this is a reflection on the importance of word-smithing, just the order in which it should be addressed with focused revision passes. No point word-smithing a scene if it needs to be deleted or entirely redone. 😊
  • Subtext (Maureen put less emphasis on this while Steve put more, that’s why I’ve included it in both yellow and green light issues)
    • Subtext is the elephant in the room that the characters are talking around. There should be a variety of dialog, some with subtext and some that is on point.
  • Grammar and punctuation on the level of a copy editor. Grammar needs to be decent from the start. Her main point here was that when we head into revision we tend to look at these surface level elements first, but we should avoid giving them our focus in revision passes until we have dug deep and made the macro changes our story needs.
  • Stephen also mentioned making multiple passes for profanity. He does realistic speech but gives himself a number limit to each swear and tries to take out 10% with each pass.  

One additional thing all three presenters mentioned were ripples. Every revision we make creates ripples or continuity issues that will demand attention and tweaking in order to have a final product that is cohesive. We need to keep this in mind as we do our passes and perhaps do additional passes to seek out and destroy said ripples.

Maureen recommends using the Three Level Method before seeking out an agent or editor for a novel. There was a second part to the workshop that focused on working with editors. After extensive revision on their own, many of these red, yellow and green light issues were brought up again by their editors, as the editors asked them to dig even deeper into their revisions. They each did multiple revision passes with their editors and then again with a copy editor.

It truly is like eating a whale, but I think a method like this can help us focus and not be overwhelmed. Heidi said that she focuses on one pass at a time, rather than thinking ahead to all that still needs doing. Both Heidi and Maureen said revision is now their favorite aspect of writing. Stephen didn’t comment but I assume he likes it pretty well since he does it while drafting.

Thanks for letting me share my unicorn everyone! I’m excited to try it out.

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