Plot Review: Is it really necessary? by Rachel Hills

I am honored that Rachel Hills has agreed to guest post to my blog. Rachel provided an excellent plot review for my book over a year ago that caused me to make significant changes to the plot and resulted in a tighter, more interesting story. Whether you’re a “plotter” or a “pantser,” her insights are especially valuable.


Plot Review: Is it really necessary?


Can I skip that step?

I once stated the process of writing a work of fiction consists of hundreds of steps. You’re thinking of several, aren’t you? There are many pieces in the creative dimension of fiction writing just as there are in the mechanical aspect.

For the actual writing, you must consider plot (with its arc), structure, characters (and their arcs), conflict, cohesion, and much more. The best writers know when to break these rules. And of course grammar, syntax, and spelling require attention.

But wait – do you have a platform? What about a marketing plan? Do you know how to write a book proposal that secures an agent?

Sometimes we get to skip a step or even three in this magical but lengthy and convoluted process called writing a book. How do you know when it’s smart to skip a step? With regard to the writing, a plot review can reveal issues unknown to you as author because you are so close to the work.

A plot review should include an assessment of the key elements, such as characterization, structure, dialogue, and coherence along with an evaluation of issues that could be improved to achieve publishable quality.

To the plotters:

You wrote a detailed outline, character sketches complete with arcs, timeline, and back story; you created conflict and selected the best point of view for your protagonist. You researched the location and time of year. You’ve spent months preparing just to get to the fun part of writing – why should you solicit a plot review? You worked hard on the preparation stuff, stitched together all the pieces with your best writing, and now you’re ready for editing, right?

But the middle does drag a bit and you’re hoping the editor can tighten it enough that readers won’t get bored. Or you’re unaware, only because you’re so involved, that you didn’t reveal a piece of back story that connects part C to part D.

To the pantsers:

You know who you are. You have to transmit virtuosic visions from your head to the monitor. It took weeks and months of your life but you had to pour out all the wonderful pieces of your book. It’s your baby, and you’re not sure you want someone telling you what’s wrong with it.

But the pacing is erratic and some dialogue is sketchy. Or certain scenes don’t drive the plot – they’re in your manuscript solely because you love them.

You have some darlings that need to die and it’s hard to let them go. Or maybe you’re just stuck and don’t know where the story should go next.

To writers who are both plotter and pantser (that’s most of us):

All of the above apply. Don’t believe it? How many times have you been bounced out of a good read by a misstep in the writing?

So, you deny, defer, and delay but eventually submit your manuscript for a plot review. When it comes back, you see your manuscript with fresh eyes. From 30,000 feet, the plot holes are obvious. That bog in the middle? Now you have fresh ideas how to drain it, leading to a killer climax.

Suddenly your manuscript has potential, your story is powerful, and you discover all over again how much you love to write because you were willing to learn from someone who wasn’t in your head when you were creating.

So many elements to writing a book – is the plot review one you can skip? Is it one you really want to skip?

Freelance writer and editor Rachel Hills assists both new and experienced writers. For the previous 18 years she edited writing primarily from those in higher education, spiced with the occasional memoir manuscript. The last five years however, fiction became the focus, that of other writers and her own. You can learn more by visiting her website.


  • I never heard this term “plot review” before. However, after visiting the author’s website and reading about the services offered, I think she means what I have generally heard called a “manuscript critique.” Please let me know if this is correct, or I probably won’t be able to sleep tonight…

    • Mel, In the interest of a good night’s sleep, I’ll offer my own newbie opinion. Then I’ll ask others to weigh in.

      Seems to me a plot review would examine the overall arc of the story. Does it build tension at the right pace? Is the story line erratic? Does the climax come at the right time? Is there resolution beyond the climax? Does it flow?

      I would think a manuscript critique might include additional elements. Are the characters well defined? Is their behavior consistent? Are there grammatical errors?

      So maybe the plot review is one part of the more comprehensive manuscript critique?

      does that make sense? Any other opinions?

  • Apologies for any confusion. As you know, geography, culture, and time continue to influence the evolution of terminology and definitions in the writing/publishing world.

    I consider a plot review to be shorter, more dense, and focused more on plot than a manuscript critique, which, in my experience, is more substantial and offers more insight to the author on the work as a whole.

    Regardless of the semantics, I find the process of moving the writing toward a publishable state fascinating. I’m sure you do, too. Wishing you all the best.

  • I write both fiction and non-fiction. My non-fiction works (theological) are more clearly outlined than my fiction. I do use outlines, mind maps, sketches, and even a tornado diagram or two when developing a story or “loosely” framing the plot. I suppose that puts me in the wide middle between plotter and panster. I would think that for the devoted plotter, a plot review prior to a substantial amount of manuscript work would be helpful. It appears that the panster may need to wait until at least the second draft is done.

    I have never had an official plot reviewer. I am blessed with loving (and patient) family members and friends who will read first drafts and offer me near-immediate feedback. I find this process both encouraging and invaluable. The live reviews expose areas that worked in my head but don’t resonate with readers or didn’t translate onto the page.

  • Having family and friends who can offer constructive criticism is a real benefit. I also covet feedback from those who are near to me. However, all those folks are pretty biased!

    Having Rachel do a plot review for me was eye-opening. She had never seen the story before and had no preconceived notions about it. I think that made her comments especially relevant.

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