Revision Techniques


Revision techniques

●      Digging for gold

●      Bracketing/scaffolding

●      Beginning lines/endlines

●      Searching for character in poetry

 “Once you have realized what you need to improve in your piece--either from a writing partner's helpful responses or your own insights--you're ready to begin revising, a process you would be well advised to learn to love. You have no choice, if you want to get good. The desire to revise is what separates the professional writer from the journal keeper.”

 —Adair Lara, Naked, Drunk, and Writing


Get comfortable with the mess. Know that the best writing usually comes from revision.

Process part 2; Revising vs Editing:

Each “pass” of your work should serve a different purpose. Be it theme, setting, imagery, character—every sweep of the writing should have a different lens attached. Below, I talk about my five steps for revision based on what’s worked for me. There are obviously many variations of the revision process in existence, and you will find what works best for you. Take the steps and rework them to make them your own! Revision should be fun and exciting. When making suggested edits on someone else’s work the goal is to leave the writer excited to make their work better. Critique is essential to revision, but constructive feedback combined with trusting someone who is invested in your work and on the same page in terms of the type of feedback you need, will make all the difference. The best writing is always in the revision, no matter what genre you are working in. I will say, revision is especially exciting and rewarding with poetry.

 Fun fact/piece of advice: be careful about who you share your first draft with: first drafts are messy and they should be. But some folks (maybe friends or family) who aren’t writers and haven’t seen books, articles, etc in their rawest form (meaning they may have only ever read books in book form), could easily assume that as writers we simply sit down to write and the gold just spills out, and we are done. This thought makes me laugh. I laugh because even the most established writers will have to sort through their initial page blurts, pull their hair out over stitching together narrative threads, or having to cut scenes that aren’t pushing the narrative forward. Writing is work. Revision is work. Learning to live with the mess temporarily is a requirement. As award-winning writer, David Chariandy once said to me about my work, “continue writing in fragments and chunks. But I personally think it's crucial to be free to continue writing in the way that feels good to you.  After you accumulate enough fragments and chunks, you can go about arranging them in a more coherent "novelistic" order.  Anyway, that's just how I write books.  Always do what feels right to you.” I LOVE THAT! Thanks David Chariandy!

Before you begin, I highly recommend you do your revisions on hard copy. Whether in a notebook or printed pages from your computer, marking up your work with coloured pens is a great way to physically see the work that needs to be done, it becomes tangible and thus, you become accountable for getting the work done because you can hold it in your hands, and feel it. It also allows you to be ruthless with your editing.

 Step 1: Cut the deadwood

Immediately get rid of parts that you know you will not use. When looking at full length manuscripts, this would mean paragraphs at a time. But let’s focus on our freewrites and how to cut the deadwood from smaller pieces of writing.

Scan your piece for words, lines, and phrases that you know aren’t going to work, and highlight them. If you know you want to completely rid yourself of those lines, then strike ‘em out. The key here is to go with your gut. Do not know what to cut? READ THE PIECE OUT LOUD. If you haven’t done this before, you may feel a bit silly. Think about how hearing the words can be a totally different experience vs just reading it. If something sounds off to your ears, it probably sounds off on the page. Having a good “ear” is not something that can be taught. And it’s one of the biggest assets a writer can have. If you don’t feel you have an “ear” all is not lost. There are still 4 more steps you can use to make up for it!

 Step 2: strong beginning and end lines

I am not a stickler for writing being chronological, or having a clear beginning, middle, and end, but I am a strong believer that you need to hook your reader immediately. If your opening line does not do the work, does not pull the reader in, does not make the reader go “What?!!” then you need to revise. Can’t think of anything right away? Do not stress. Circle the opening line and mark it with an asterix, note to revise, or question mark in bold. Do not let it go.

In addition to creating strong beginning and end lines, consider the work not being “too on the nose” especially if it’s poetry you are working with. Consider hinting at certain things vs telling it like it is. Sometimes (not always) you want the reader to come up with their own ideas for what’s happening. Let them do some of the work. This ties into that whole “how do you want the reader to experience your work” notion.

Also note that simple language will always win over stuffy, academic lingo in creative writing. One of the biggest mistakes new writers make, is they feel the need to replace simple language with fluff. Why? I’ll say it again, simple language will always win. Not only will you reach a wider audience, you don’t exclude folks.

Step 3: unique diction, syntax, and enjambments

Simple language will always win, and playing with the way your sentences flow (syntax) will only enhance the simplicity. When thinking about word choice, consider looking at how many times you’ve used a certain word. I am very guilty of befriending a word, and then using it 20 times in one piece. Look for this, and circle these words. Change it up! Repeating words or phrases in poetry may be necessary to the piece (for rhythm) and this is called a refrain. If this is your intention, then by all means, stet! But always be cognizant of word repetition and if it’s necessary to your work. When thinking about combining multiple meanings from one line to the next, get creative with the way in which you break your lines.

Step 4: strong images (get rid of clichés and abstractions)

Scan your work for the 5 senses. If you are saying things like “She was crying” consider revising and here’s an example: “her cheeks burned red and raw as tears flooded the maze of her ears like puddles.”

Let’s talk about the above description. What do you picture when you read the second line? I picture a girl with red cheeks crying. I can see the tears moving through the crevices of her ears because of the word “maze.” I also learn that she must be laying down. How? Because if the tears are pooling into her ears, either her ears are located under her chin or she’s laying down on her back. Through this very slight revision, we have already changed the reader’s experience by offering them just enough to picture what’s happening, while also giving them pause to sort out a few details themselves. This my friends, is the beauty of revision. We can easily find spots within your writing to make better, so you are motivated to keep going. Even though I wouldn’t consider the line finished or polished, it’s certainly a step in the right direction, and definitely better than “she was crying.”

Step 5: vivid setting

Revising for setting is not just for fiction. You need to create a setting no matter what genre you are working in. What I do when I am doing a pass for setting, is write the word setting in big bold letters at the top right corner of every page. This keeps me grounded. This reminds me that I am ONLY considering the setting and that no, I do not care that I spelled “through” wrong three times. Leave it alone! Look purely for ways to enhance setting. How do you do this? Ask yourself these questions as you move through your work:

Poetry can and should have characters, too. Ask yourself: Do I know where my character is in this moment in time?

Does your reader know where they are?

How does my character interact with the setting? Or how does the setting affect my character in that moment?

●      Is the sun causing her to sweat through her dress?

●      Is the sudden downpour soaking the important documents she had in her hand causing her to run for shelter in some random, dark cave? (ooh cool idea I can expand on!)

●      Can your character smell the newly bloomed cherry blossoms (also a good way to give away the time of year without having to say “hey, it’s spring.”

So setting plays into character, which ties into plot and the motivations that drive your character/s to do what they do.

After these initial steps, theme is the last thing you’ll want to look for and this is pretty much the same for all genres. This is the core of your work. You can’t see it, but it needs to be there. What is your story/poem/essay about? I don’t know about you, but I hate being asked that question because it can be hard to pinpoint just one theme. It’s totally cool to have various themes running through your piece, just be able to identify what they are.

What I also like to do when I have an idea for revision but do not yet quite know just how to word it, is I do “bracketing” throughout. Go through the piece and right in the manuscript use a bold font, caps and square brackets with a brief description of how to expand. For example: [FLESH OUT THIS IMAGE] [ADD MORE SENSORY DETAIL HERE].

Once you have completed these five steps, I guarantee you, your piece will already be 100 times better. Don’t believe me? Keep all drafts for comparison. Keep revising. Share your revised work with mentors, or workshop groups. Go back to that very first draft of the piece and place the revised version side by side. You will see the differences and these differences will be very obvious.



Here’s an exercise you can do for setting, if you like:

Select a poem from your manuscript and write a paragraph where you ONLY focus on the setting of the poem. This is will help you add/check for that necessary layering that good poems require.

The above post is a lecture from my Advanced Poetry Workshop and my Advanced Memoir Workshop