Rewriting a novel: the scene cards technique

The most important of my New Year’s resolutions was to rewrite my first novel. I thought it’d be long, sure, but I hadn’t realised how difficult it would be.

I tried in January, failed, then proceeded to write something else. I’d let the story rest so I could see it with new eyes. I tried again in March and failed again. I figured I’d edit the thing after I was done with my creative writing courses… which I plan on starting this fall.

Eventually, I realised that stalling wasn’t the solution. I needed a method: baby steps to bring me where I wanted to go. There is no doubt taking creative writing courses will make my writing better. But so will writing on my own. Stalling, on the other hand, just makes me waste my time.

I had the idea that I should do several rounds of edit: IMG_20170717_110113a
1) A rough edit, in which I correct anything related to themes, conflict, story structure, and anything related my overall appreciation of the story.
2) A finer edit, in which I correct anything related to character development, facts checking and scenes fine-tuning.
3) A language edit, in which I correct mistakes, remove unwanted repetitions, tighten sentences, and basically make every sentence as elegant and effective as possible.

Each of those rounds may, in turn, be divided as necessary.

I suspect rounds 2 and 3 won’t give me too much difficulty: character development is my greatest strength, scenes fine-tuning can’t be all that different from short-story fine tuning, and language, well… I’m a language professional. It’s round one that’s a bitch.

The main problem I was faced with was that a novel is so long that it’s difficult to remember every little thing that happens in it. Yet, as a perfectionist, I feel the need to know everything that happens. I don’t want scenes to get repetitive, for one; I don’t want to hammer my themes into the reader’s head, but I do want them to be clear; and finally, I want my characters to be consistent and to evolve at a natural pace.

I had seen “scene cards” here and there, but I thought people mostly used them to plan their stories. I can’t use them in that manner yet, my plans are not detailed enough and I do like to surprise myself while writing the first draft. However, I figured I could use them to summarise everything that happens in every scene of the book.

scene card

I found Ingrid Sunberg’s scene cards and printed a bunch of them. But as I filled them, I realised they weren’t optimal for my needs. Scene cards should probably be tailored to every writer and every book. So I made my own version in MS Word, three per letter-sized page. Feel free to use them or modify them. Here’s a PDF version in case that works better for you.

My novel has a little over 60 scenes in it. Just like that, I reduced an 85,000 words novel into a very manageable 20 pages.


However, as awesome as it may be, it’s still just a way to make a very detailed summary. There is almost no visible relationship with rewriting or editing.

I must admit I spent a few minutes hours staring alternatively at my cards, then at some part of my manuscript, until I figured the next step: reread the book from cover to cover and critic every scene on the back of the page. Critics include everything from very precise comments about a detail to “rewrite the whole thing” to “delete this scene” (I can safely delete stuff because I’ve kept a copy of my first draft from which I can restore deleted scenes if need be). This method has the added benefit of making me see every scene in relation to the rest of the book. This process doesn’t take too long: I can do a few scenes every day.

The next step will be, most likely, to look at my detailed scene cards and reflect upon the story and everything that happens in it and add even more comments on the back of my scenes and in a note book that I keep for more general comments about the story.

When that’s all done, I can start rewriting efficiently, because I’ll know exactly what needs to be done. And efficiency is important because… basically the whole thing will have to be rewritten to some level.

Yep, you read that right. I honestly thought, when I finished the first draft, that it was “clean” and didn’t need too much editing. But in the meantime, I’ve read and critiqued great books, and I’ve raised my expectations for this novel. That also allowed me to take some distance from my beloved first draft and see it’s worst flaws, at least. For the rest… I’ll find alpha/beta readers and hire an editor.

There is no great writing, only great rewriting.
– Justice Brandeis

Second post in this series: Rewriting a novel: self-critique

17 thoughts on “Rewriting a novel: the scene cards technique

    • Thanks! I love Scrivener, it’s handy for keeping tracks of what’s done or not and arranging scenes, but I don’t like the “cards” system they have; I don’t think any software could have a cards system I’d like if only because they are limited by the size of the screen. I need more space than that. I typically paste things on walls or spread them on tables. I may or may not look like a mad novelist as I do that. XD

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  1. Something I’ve found helpful in improving my own writing is including someone willing to proofread / edit. Easier said than done, of course… but if you can spend some money and are able to find good professional it is definitely worth it.

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  2. I have completed two novels that sit sadly in the mud. The first draft is easy, fun, inspirational. I feel like the next stage is actually work! ike you I have sat down several times, but end up re writing the first six chapters, get bogged down and walk away. I am going to try this method and see if I can set them free. Thank you.

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    • Haha! You remind me of an article by a creative writing teacher saying, more or less, that “writing isn’t fun”. I disagree because I enjoy the whole process, rewriting and editing and all, but it definitely is hard work (then again, I don’t have a master’s degree in creative writing and I’m not a professional writer… yet). Here is the article, if that might interest you:
      View at

      I agree that the first draft is the most fun to write. ^_^ It’s an intoxicating kind of fun. Rewriting… is a more subdued kind of fun, but more “satisfying”, because you’re constantly improving the thing. As for language editing, well… as a language professional, that’s the part I’m the most comfortable with. The fun, here, is that when once you’re done with it, your text is fit to be read. XD (Plus you get to reread the final draft of your beloved story.)

      I hope my method helps make rewriting/editing more fun for you! It did wonders for me. Not that I didn’t like rewriting/editing before… it’s just that feeling incapable of doing it properly made it somewhat frustrating. And if this method doesn’t help, well… I hope it can give you ideas on how to create your own. ^_^

      Good luck!


    • Not yet. I need to finish my self-revision first.

      Regarding you comment on the community pool (I can’t comment there anymore), I see what you mean about my post being more about the “why” than the “how”. You’re right. I’ll see how I can change that. Thanks a lot for the feedback! ^_^

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  3. This sounds like a great idea! I used a card method, myself, on a project several years ago, and remember really liking it. I’ve used Evernote for other projects, and I like that to an extent, but I just seem to think better when the scenes are physically laid out in front of me than when they’re on a screen.

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