Revision Tips

On Friday, Cathy and I had some unruly bushes removed from the landscaping around our house, and yesterday we went shopping for some that we thought would be reasonable replacements. We were, in a sense, revising our landscape design.

“You know,” I said to Cathy, “maybe we should have had these plants picked out so they could have put them in while they were here on Friday.”

This, I said, in the midst of trying to dig holes in rocky clay soil amidst humidity that left both Cathy and me drenched.

Well, we hadn’t thought of that, had we, Cathy reminded me, and we kept taking turns with the shovel. Our problem was we wanted most of the new plants in slightly different locations than the old ones, so the holes where the latter had been dug out, didn’t serve our intentions. We were trying to make new holes, and it was rough going.

Making changes to a manuscript can be exciting, frightening, or usually a bit of both, but one thing’s for sure, changes have to be  made. Rarely, does a piece of writing come out fully formed. Really, does that ever happen? Maybe once in a while, but for the most part a rough draft is there to show you what else has to be done—what needs to be added, subtracted, or eliminated. Here, then are some tips to help you with revision.


  1. Start at the End: Look at the final move of the piece. That’s where you usually know where the piece has been heading all along. Ask yourself what you’ve done to make that landing place appear. Then ask yourself what else you might be able to do to make the end more effective. Usually there’s some sort of resonant turn at the end. How have you prepared the way for it? What to you need to change, add, or subtract to make it more of an inevitable surprise?


  1. Start at the Beginning: What are you setting in motion as the piece gets underway? Have you got something in motion that will demand a resolution? Does it already contain the end? More often than not, the opening of a first draft is in need of compression. How close to the end of the piece can you begin? Tighten, tighten, tighten.


  1. Start in the Middle: First of all, ask yourself if you have a middle, one made up of complications that put the end in doubt. Slightly past that middle point, something usually provides a tipping point—a moment beyond where the brakes won’t hold; we have to move on to the end.


  1. Start with the Holes: What have you left out? Where are you or your characters holding back? Do you need more of a back story? More of a confrontation? More of something opposite to what you already have? Find the gaps in the draft and fill them.


So Cathy and I finally got five new plants into the ground—some of them in new holes that were hard work to dig and thankfully one or two in the holes left behind by the landscape company. Now everything is mulched and there’s no sign of our labor. That’s what a good revision should produce, something made new with no sign of the making.


  1. Ellen Keim on August 3, 2020 at 8:18 am

    This is a great analogy! Just in time for a revision of a personal essay that I want to submit this month. Thank you for sharing these wise words.

    • Lee Martin on August 4, 2020 at 11:58 am

      You bet, Ellen. Best of luck with your revision!

  2. Cathy Shouse on August 3, 2020 at 3:34 pm

    What wonderful tips! You’ve packed a lot of good information into a few words, which really helps. Sometimes the instructions for editing are as long as the manuscript, which I find daunting. Thanks.

    • Lee Martin on August 4, 2020 at 11:57 am

      Thanks, Cathy. I hope these tips pay off for you.

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