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Three Aspects of “Revision:” Reworking, Refining, and Revisioning

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Barbara ProbstRevision. We all do it … and do it … and do it.

Writers have had a lot to say on the subject. There’s Vladimir Nabokov, who boasted that his pencils outlasted their erasers. Dorothy Parker, who claimed that she couldn’t write five words without changing seven. Robert Cormier, who quipped: “The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon.”

One of the clearest statements about revision comes from the always-brilliant Neil Gaiman: “When you’re ready, pick [your manuscript] up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.”

Yet Gaiman’s formulation isn’t as obvious as it sounds—because “things” and “fix” can have such a wide range of meanings.

Let’s talk about that.

What is revision anyway?

The word “revision” (literally: “to see again”) means different things to different writers, and to the same writer at different times. Sometimes it means changing a single word or phrase: because it’s more economical or precise; because the rhythm and alliteration are better; because you’ve used the word too often or too recently. Sometimes it means rethinking an entire character or character arc—for example, adding a pivot in a crucial scene, which alters everything that follows, and makes you go back and alter what preceded it.  Sometimes it means switching from first person to third, adding a second point-of-view character or timeline, beginning the story in a different place.

Clearly, there’s no single or correct way to define revision!  Instead, let’s look at some of the things we do when we tell ourselves that we’re “revising” and consider how these aspects of revision can support each other.

Scales of revision

For ease of discussion, I’m putting “revision activities” into three bins that represent the three levels we might focus on:  reworking, refining, and revisioning.

Reworking is about the mechanics of how you tell the story. It addresses storytelling elements like point-of-view, scene breaks, pacing, flashback, emotional turning points, dialogue, and the use of interiority.

You might realize, for example, that the pacing of a scene needs to be improved—slowed down, through dialogue or the addition of sensory detail; or sped up, by deleting reflective passages that halt the forward movement of the narrative. You might need a better transition between two scenes, a better portal as you shift from one point of view to another, an additional obstacle or consequence or risk.

As you rework sections of your manuscript—foreshadow, delay, heighten a conflict, or change the order of events—you’re working with pieces of the mosaic and finding better ways for them to serve the story as a whole.

Refining takes place at the level of language.  It’s about making your writing cleaner, sharper, or more lyrical. It includes concrete elements like grammar and cliché, as well as more elusive ones like rhythm and flow.

When you refine, your focus is on the word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph. You might delete a phrase because you’ve said the same thing twice, find a substitute for an overused word, or break a complicated sentence into several crisper ones. You might adjust the language so different characters speak in different voices, add a metaphor or descriptive detail.

I do a lot of refining, for example, in my use (make that: over-use) of dialogue tags. At some point in the revision, I go through all the dialogue in my manuscript (yes, really) and underline those tags. If I notice more than two instances per scene of heads shaking, shoulders lifting, pulses racing, lips or eyes or chins doing anything—as an accompaniment to a line of dialogue—I replace them with something fresher or omit them entirely.

That’s me.  Other writers will have other tics that creep into their writing.

Revisioning is a shift in your understanding of what the story is about. As the label indicates, it’s a new vision from a kind of aerial view.  

That shift can happen at any point in the process—a buried theme that takes on a surprising importance, a new twist that changes or elevates or expands the message you want to convey. Because this “aboutness” is global, it can require extensive changes in the manuscript.

In an early version of my work-in-process, for example, I thought I was writing a story about a woman who “thawed” after being emotionally frozen. But the more I got to know my characters, the more I saw that this wasn’t at all what the story was about!  Yes, this new vision required far more work than I’d anticipated—for example, my protagonist’s backstory had to change, which meant changes in the arcs of the other members of her family—but, for me, this is where the excitement and the magic happen, as the story lights a path for me to follow …

How the three levels work together:

The three tasks, though distinct, aren’t necessarily sequential—as if you have to complete one level of revision and check it off the list before you can proceed to the next.

Sometimes they’re all happening at once or taking place in recursive spirals. Sometimes a change at one level sparks an insight at another level that you never could have foreseen—and suddenly, you’re redoing an early scene that you thought was finished or making a minor character the agent of an important plot shift.

At the same time, despite what I’ve just said about the intertwined nature of these three aspects of revision, they’re also separate.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that, as tasks, you have to carry them out separately!  Rather, it means that each kind of revision addresses a different kind of problem. For that reason, extra effort at one level won’t diminish what’s needed at another.

Some of us—me, for example—love to spend time endlessly refining at that micro level because it brings a sense of satisfaction and “result,” especially when I want to avoid the issues that need attention at the other levels.  Finding a stronger word for looked or said in a particular sentence, pruning a bloated phrase from ten words to five?  No problem! A clear improvement that feels great …

It is great … but it can be a safe place to linger and won’t address issues like motive or pacing that can only be addressed at another level. (An additional danger with endless polishing is that it can be hard to delete a paragraph or scene that you’ve spent so much time “perfecting.”)

Similarly, no amount of re-working— tinkering with scene openings, condensing the flashbacks, tightening the dialogue—will give your story the powerful, coherent, thematic vision that is greater than the sum of its scenes.

Again, there’s no blueprint for the “right” way to revise. Writers are different, and stories are different. There’s only one principle that seems, to me, to be universally true—that there’s no way to know for sure that you’ve revised enough.  There’s always something that could, maybe, be “improved.”

Yet stories are like people, never perfect (whatever that means), never entirely “finished.” And I’m starting to think that this is a good thing, a truth to embrace rather than resign oneself to.

It leaves room for the story to breathe—and helps us, as authors, to let go, give the story to the world, and trust that it will find its way.

What about you? How do you approach revision?  Is there one aspect you tend to focus on? Do you do it in stages, or do you revise scene-by-scene? Is there an exercise or strategy that’s especially helpful to you?



About Barbara Linn Probst

Barbara’s (she/her) debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) was a medalist in popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, first runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award, and short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Her second novel THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES (April 2021) was the recipient of a Kirkus starred review, where it was lauded as "a tour de force." Barbara has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and has been a therapist, teacher, researcher, and advocate for out-of-the-box kids and their families. When not writing, she’s a serious amateur pianist. Learn more on her website.


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