The Sticky Note Approach to Revision

Jan 19, 2023 | Novels

I hate revision.

I’m just going to put that out there as the author of a book that went through sixteen full revisions. (Possibly seventeen. I may have lost count.) I know there are authors out there who love revision. For them, the first draft is agony. Once it’s down on paper, oooh! The fun begins. Me? The first draft is where the glory is; everything afterward is just what you do because, you know, you’re an author. You gotta do it. It’s not like anyone else is going to do it for you.

When I first worked through revisions, back in my early days of publishing, I printed out a copy of the novel in question and read through it, marking where edits belonged (sometimes bringing together feedback from two or three readers). Then I’d sit down before my computer and work through it. Easy-peasy.

Then I got serious about writing and developed a beta reading team.

Yep. Team. For my novella Sunbolt, I got feedback from no less than ten beta readers in the first of two rounds of beta reading (that process is a whole other blog post). Suddenly, working from a printout with my trusty purple pen looked like a recipe for catastrophe. How was I going to squeeze all my edits into one document, let alone make notes on what should be moved where? Did I really want to work through the manuscript ten times (once for each beta reader) just finding where each edit belonged? Um, no.

At the point that I felt like curling up on the carpet in fetal position and just pretending my book was FINE the way it was, I knew I needed a better method for organizing my revisions.

So, I set off in search of a revision method that would work for me.

I tried a few different methods, all tried and true by various authors, and began to despair that I’d find anything that would organize the chaos I had singlehandedly brought down on myself. I’ve used Excel for everything from business accounting to event planning–but I couldn’t make it work for revision. It worked great for looking at the arc of my story, but at the point that I had at least twenty edits per chapter, and every edit shifted the page numbers? NOPE.

And then I discovered … sticky notes. You know, generic, find them at the dollar store, Post-It style notes. Those things are amazing. And here’s what I did with them…

I found me a half-used notebook (yes, I’m thrifty like that) and started writing headers on the pages, by and large reflecting the chapters/scenes in the book, in order. Things like, “New Chapter One,” or “Chapter: Betrayal,” etc. Sometimes, if I was expecting a lot of edits for a chapter, I left two or three blank pages after the header. Then, as I received back edits from each of my beta readers, I jotted down what I was going to use from their feedback directly onto the sticky notes–just one thought / edit per note, as concisely and clearly as possible. This is big-picture editing, mind you–not grammar or language-focused line-editing. And…you guessed it! Once a sticky note for an edit came to life, it got stuck to the appropriate “chapter” page.

1. Sticky Notes in Action: Here’s the opening spread from my notebook when I was working on edits of A Darkness at the Door. On the left are a set of sticky notes pertaining to long-running issues or themes I need to keep in mind while editing. On the right? An almost clear page of the edits needed to get the story done (though you can just detect more sticky notes waiting further on if you look carefully).

Sticky Notes in Action: Here’s the opening spread from my notebook when I was working on edits of A Darkness at the Door. On the left are a set of sticky notes pertaining to long-running issues or themes I need to keep in mind while editing. On the right? An almost clear page of the edits needed to get the story done (though you can just detect more sticky notes waiting further on if you look carefully).

There are a few awesome things about working with sticky notes:

1. You can note that a scene needs to move, and then stick it where it goes. Then, when you inevitably change your mind, you can move the sticky again and again and again.

2. When you complete that edit, you can peel off that sticky and move it to the back of your notebook. There is no sense of success like watching the padding at the back of your notebook grow, and watching your to-do stickies thin out to a mere one or two per chapter. (I say this jokingly, but when revisions seem endless, having a physical reminder of how much you have already accomplished is priceless.)

3. You can pick what part of your book you want to work on, reorder things, re-prioritize, color code by ink or sticky note color, and generally be as organized or chaotic as your little heart wishes.

4. You can create a list of issues / themes you need to watch for over the course of your edits, and give them a starter page at the beginning of your notebook so they’re always easily at hand and visible. I use sticky notes for each of these too!

5. Finally, and perhaps obviously, your notes are sticky! They do not fall out when the cat sends the notebook flying! (Or, in other households, a baby / sibling / significant other.) They don’t slide out as you walk into the library for a much-needed work session. The stickiness factor cannot be underrated here.

2. What Success Looks Like: I love when the back of my notebook starts filling with completed edits. When it starts getting hefty, I get a little hum of satisfaction knowing I’m putting in the work to make this story the best I can.

What Success Looks Like: I love when the back of my notebook starts filling with completed edits. When it starts getting hefty, I get a little hum of satisfaction knowing I’m putting in the work to make this story the best I can.

I’ve been using this method for a solid ten years now, and while I sometimes do use a spreadsheet to assess the flow of my plot, or use a printout to do a readaloud and mark line edits, sticky notes are a critical part of my revision process. I am, as you may be able to tell, a fabulous mix of organized and chaotic, sometimes leaning more one way and sometimes the other. I find sticky notes to be wonderfully flexible regardless of how organized or chaotic I am in a given time period.

If you’re struggling to find a method that is both structured and flexible, definitely consider giving this one a go. I’m a firm believer that every writer has to find the method that works for them. Our creative brains are all wired a little differently, so what works for me, or you, in any aspect of writing or revision, may not work at all for someone else. That’s okay. The important thing is to find what works for you.

If you give this method a shot, I’d love to hear how you like it!

Putting It All Together: Print out from my read aloud of Thorn, planning journal, and completed stickies all gathered together for their moment of fame before they head to the recycle bin (okay, no, I definitely kept the journal, but everything else has now departed).

Putting It All Together: Print out from my read aloud of Thorn, planning journal, and completed stickies all gathered together for their moment of fame before they head to the recycle bin (okay, no, I definitely kept the journal, but everything else has now departed).

Thank you to our faculty for this Guest Post!

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