Category Archives: Advice

On Revision

If you’re caught up in resolution-making this January (and who isn’t?), here’s a suggestion: resolve to cultivate an alternative attitude toward revision. Instead of feeling anxious about it, look forward it.

If you’re like many writers, you dread revising your work. Anxiety plagues you: Where do you start? Will you end up wiping out the good stuff along with the bad?

But, of course, the full potential of a work can only emerge through re-seeing it, that is, through revision. In fact, one could argue that writing is revision.

In an online fiction course, Venise Berry, a novelist out of the University of Iowa, offers what I consider a helpful approach to the process. I hope you’ll agree. Her remarks, lightly edited for the sake of brevity, appear below:


“I like to do a series of revisions that I call layering. . . .After I get the basic draft down on paper, I’ll correct spelling, grammar, punctuation, wording problems. That’s my first layer.

“After I finish that, I will go back through it again and this time I might read through the draft, looking specifically for places where I can add more action, or I can replace a passive sentence with an active one, or scenes that I can show instead of tell.

“I might do another revision, where I look for places where I can improve the dialogue, or the description, or maybe I can begin to pay attention to repetition and start to eliminate repetitive elements.

“In another, I might focus on improving the clarity, the consistency, the flow, the rhythm, just on and on.

“You can do as many as you want, but the point is, when you focus, you really give yourself a chance to strengthen each individual element, rather than reading through and trying to look for everything all at the same time. . . .

“Here’s an example: in starting my first draft, I might just write: She walked into the room. . . . Maybe when I layer it I could say: She slowly walked into the darkened room, afraid of what was waiting for her inside. Now she’s walking slowly. The room is dark. She’s afraid of something inside that room. . . .

“So let’s say I go through, and I give it another layer. After grabbing her husband’s gun from the closet, Constance slowly walked into the darkened room, afraid of what was waiting for her inside. When we know she has the husband’s gun, the scene gets even more serious. When we give her a name, we help the reader to really connect to Constance as a character. Now it’s not just “she”; it’s an actual person. There’s something going on in this woman’s life, and we’re in the middle of it.

“Adding another layer, we can give the reader a clearer idea of what’s going on. It might read: After grabbing her husband’s small silver pistol from the hall closet, Constance slowly limped up the stairs and into the darkened bedroom, afraid of what was waiting for her inside. We’ve changed some more general words like “gun” to “small silver pistol.” Instead of walking, she’s limping up the stairs, and it’s the bedroom she’s going into, not just any room. All of those changes help the reader to envision the action from a stronger perspective.

“We’re going to add one last layer. And that reads: After grabbing her husband’s small silver pistol from the hall closet, Constance slowly limped up the stairs and into the darkened bedroom, afraid of what was waiting for her inside. Despite his constant abuse, the sadness suddenly overwhelmed her. Fourteen years of marriage was over. Each layer adds even more depth to what’s going on. We begin to understand what Constance is about to do. We begin to understand why.”


As Venise Berry makes clear, layering is an effective form of revision. You may find it a welcome strategy to develop your drafts as well as an opportunity to improve your skills.


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