I’ll be direct, the difference between a writer and someone who merely writes is revision. Learning revision more valuable than learning any other skill, should you want to be a writer. As we’ve undoubtedly seen, a lot of bad books have arisen from a lack of revision. Fortunately, there isn’t terribly much to revision, besides a lot of sweat and some painful introspection. The concept of revision is sometimes misunderstood, however, and this merits clearing up.

What is revision?

Revision is one of those words that is entirely self explanatory. It is RE-Vision. ‘Re’ meaning do it again. It had better be better, too. A revision should not be confused with a mere edit. An edit is pedantic, detail orientated. An edit looks at all the tiny parts of a sentence, an edit is a dissection. On the other hand, a revision is a sweeping revolution, a haphazard macro-evolution.

In an edit you fiddle with the little details of a sentence, adjusting it for grammatical accuracy and stylistic beauty. In a revision you look at your piece as a whole and ask yourself hard questions concerning the purpose of organization, setting, overall style, mood, pacing, tone, etc. These are the qualities you discern after reading the entire piece, not the qualities you identify from a single sentence. It’s in the revision process that you discover your story is progressing too slowly, or that your tone comes off as too angry, or that you really dislike one of your characters. In each step of the revision process you should be RE-visioning. I did a lot of revision with my story The Climb but I probably still didn’t do enough. For illustrative purposes I’ll walk through that process.

Initial Concept: Nora and Adam live in a future where the world is entirely covered in cloudcast. During his astronomy class at The Science and Mathematics Academy for the Advancement of Practical Applications Adam wonders what stars, the sun, and the moon look like. His teacher won’t answer—she’s never seen them herself. Everyone is in denial, telling themselves the absence of these celestial objects they’ve never seen is worth whatever caused the cloudcast. Despite his friend Nora’s concerns, Adam is determined to see the moon for himself—no one else is remotely curious. Adam climbs an enormous telecommunication mast and breaks cloud cover, seeing the moon for the first time ever. On the tower Adam dies of hypothermia, during his dying thoughts he reflects that he’s always had the moon nearby after all—Nora. His body is never found, as he became frozen to the tower.

Revisioning: I’m on a page limit for this piece, so I can’t spend too much time developing the setting. In particular this whole dystopian future requires too much explanation. I really love this particular concept, but it’s not right for what I’m currently doing, so it’s being shelved. However, the image of someone climbing up a metal tower is very evocative to me, so I’m keeping that. Look for more having to do with the relationship between character and setting soon.A new setting is needed, but the climb can be kept. With the new setting comes a necessary character change.

New Concept: Nora and Neal live in the middle of nowhere. Nora wants to climb the local cellphone tower, but Neal doesn’t like the idea.

Revisioining: This is a very rough skeleton. Nora and Neal need a more fleshed out relationship, and motivations.

Concept: Nora and Neal have been dating for ages, childhood friends for even longer. Little ever happens in the middle of nowhere, and Nora is frustrated and bored. There are hints at underlying relationship difficulties as the issue of climbing the tower gets brought up, although it is clear the two are very affectionate. Neal is afraid of losing Nora—in more ways than one. Eventually Nora wins, and climbs the tower. This is an awakening call for her, and she leaves Neal.

Revisioning: Thanks to input from people here I know the pacing was wrong, the ending was rushed and Nora’s decision came too quickly. Even if it had been brewing in the back of her mind for a while, it was too quick. As people Nora and Neal needed to be fleshed out more, in terms of interests and other details.

The final concept you can see for yourself in the Critique section. I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out, in large part because I went through the revision process. What isn’t shown is a whole ton of small revisions, because showing those would be tedious. Unfortunately, the revision process is tedious. Everytime you do a revision you should begin typing your story from the very beginning. Remember, this isn’t an edit. This is a process of redoing something with a new vision.

Retyping the entire thing might seem like a pain, but it has a number of benefits. By not referring to your old manuscript you rid yourself of its undue influence on future drafts. Let me tell you, first drafts of anything are certain to be bad. Why base all of your future work on that kind of base? To an extent, you’ll get bored retyping the story, and this will force you to do things to make it more interesting. As a result, you’ll come up with new metaphors and imagery, develop new dialogue, and even write in new scenes entirely. Without your old manuscript to refer to you might occasionally forget something, and be unable to reproduce it in your new draft. This is great. If you, the author, can’t remember something it means it probably wasn’t that memorable. The reader is even more likely to forget it. That’s not the kind of story you want to write. You want your writing to have a haunting quality, or at least a memorable quality to it. So anything you forget is a pleasing—you can replace it with something better.

Of course, this advice applies mainly to short story. For a full novel it might not be practical to rewrite it constantly (actually, this is exactly what many great writers have done). I would recommend rewriting entire chapters. In a longer story you’ll probably have to delete and rewrite entire chapters as you gain a new vision for your story.

Where editing belongs

I like to call the above process the Revision Cycle. It’s only after you finish the revision cycle that you should edit. Editing is a pretty time consuming art, and it’s pointless editing something you will discard later. By the time you finish an editing session on an old revision you’ll probably notice it could use a general revision. So you might as well wait. Of course, if you are presenting your writing to people for critique you should do a quick cleaning up edit. It gives people a better impression of your writing.


Definitely revise. It’s a process of gradual improvement, and if you compare your first draft to your final draft you’ll definitely spot the improvement. Writing it definitely about practice more than anything, so you should try to write lots of stories, but you can get lots of practice in on a single piece if you revise it thoroughly.

Tagged as:


  1. Spanman on 26 December 2008, 16:58 said:

    Thank you thank you thank you.

  2. trexmaster on 26 December 2008, 17:07 said:

    I myself am currently rewriting the fourth chapter of my story. Rewriting is not a painless process, but I wasn’t really happy with how the first draft of Ch. 4 was turning out, so I think it will be worth it.

  3. Kevin on 26 December 2008, 17:44 said:

    Exactly. Well put, sir.

    ‘The first draft of anything is [garbage].’ – Ernest Hemingway

    ‘You write with your heart; you rewrite with your head.’ – Sean Connery as William Forrester, ‘Finding Forrester’

    I prefer to wait until I’ve got a good chunk to work with, but that’s just me. The downside to that is I might have a good chunk I can’t use, if something fundamental gets changed up front. But that hasn’t happened yet, so…

  4. Snow White Queen on 26 December 2008, 17:47 said:

    It seems so daunting, revising everything. Any tips if you’re doing it outside of the short story medium, Slyshy?

  5. SlyShy on 26 December 2008, 19:39 said:

    With longer projects do this:

    1. Write the whole thing out once.
    2. Go write something else for at least a month, until you’ve gotten your mind of the long project.
    3. Come back and reread the long piece. What you’ll usually find is that you are horribly disenchanted and want to burn the piece with fire. Don’t. Instead, rewrite, but use the parts you did like.

    Leaving is the most important part. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and right after you finish a piece is when it looks best. That’s just a facade though. What a lot of people don’t realize at first is that a long project is just that—really, really time consuming. But this shouldn’t be something to worry you. If you start writing in high school, you’ve got years until you need to start worrying about getting published. Seriously, finish college first. After that you can worry. But before that, keep revising. If you’ve got something you’ve been working on for the last six years the quality will really show. The trick is just to step away from it frequently enough that you don’t get bored of it. (G. RR Martin is suffering fatigue with A Song of Ice and Fire, I suspect.)

  6. Snow White Queen on 26 December 2008, 20:08 said:

    Thanks, that sounds like good advice, Sly.

    With my snail’s-rate pacing, don’t expect me to be even half-way done with my NaNo plot anytime soon, let alone start revising!

    (Speaking of that, I should probably start resuming serious work on it again…)

  7. SubStandardDeviation on 26 December 2008, 21:05 said:

    Hm. That’s an interesting theory, I never thought about it that way before. So that’s what the “side notes” feature is…

    Now, a few questions (to all you writers):

    1. At which point do you stop “re-envisioning” and write the first draft? For example, Sly, you said that the sci-fi world you originally had in mind was “shelved”, so I assume you didn’t actually try to write it out.

    2. At which point do you stop revising and start editing the (final?) draft?

  8. SlyShy on 26 December 2008, 21:09 said:

    1. Actually I did write that out. I’m keeping the concept of the world for later use, because I developed a lot of atmosphere for some reason.

    2. I monitor the amount of progress I’m making with successive drafts. When the change between two drafts is relatively low and I’m out of fresh ideas I call it quits. This is usually around the fourth or fifth draft for me.