41 Miscellaneous Revision Exercises


If you’re stuck for ways to revise a piece of writing, consider some of these ideas, questions, and exercises…


  • Are you starting in the best spot? Try cutting words, sentences, even paragraphs and pages until you get to a point where if you cut any more your piece will be ruined. Now, how much do you really need to put back in? (Most first drafts, in my experience, can lose at least their first paragraph. But I’ve written pieces where I’ve gone in and cut out the entire first half. Or just saved one paragraph and started over.)


  • Where do you show instead of tell? Where do you tell instead of show? Do you need more of one or the other?


  • How many of these questions are necessary for your piece of writing to be effective? Can you point to specific places in the text where the necessary questions are answered?
    • Where are we?
    • When are we?
    • Who are they?
    • How do things look?
    • What era, time of year, time of day/night is it?
    • What’s the weather?
    • What’s happening?
    • Who stole my underwear?!


  • Give your piece of writing to a few different people and have them put a RED LINE OF DEATH! across the manuscript at the place where they were inclined to stop reading and to go do something else.


  • Why are the sentences in the order that they’re in? Why are the paragraphs in the order that they are in? Print out your piece of writing, get a pair of scissors, and cut it up by paragraph. Rearrange the paragraphs and see what happens. Play around. Cut it up by sentence if you want and try rearranging the sentences.


  • Look for patterns. Are they the patterns you want? Use highlighters or different colored pens to make patterns more visible, then see if they are what you intend.


  • Choose a random sentence and change the meaning to the opposite of what you originally wrote. Does this affect anything? Is the effect a good one or a bad one? What does this tell you about what is around the sentence you changed?


  • Play around with point of view. What would happen if you changed the piece to 1st person (I, me, my), 2nd person (you), 3rd person (they)? What would happen if you showed things from a different person’s perspective?


  • Change tense. How does the piece change if it is written in present tense instead of past, or vice versa?


  • Take a sentence or paragraph from the piece, copy to a different piece of paper or file, and write something new from it. Is anything that you’ve written better than what you wrote before?


  • Beware of relying too much on adjectives. They can be wonderful things, but they often lead people into patterns that weaken their writing. Do you really need the adjective before that noun? Or do you, perhaps, need to add an adjective…


  • Create a list of all the verbs you use in a paragraph or page or, ideally, the whole piece. Are these verbs strong and specific? Should they be more so?


  • Look for clich├ęs. Have you used too many? Too few?


  • Read a paragraph of a piece of writing you think is effective. Try to match the patterns from that piece of writing in your own. (Imitation is a perfectly legitimate way to learn to write. Great writers have done it for millennia.)


  • Check the first and last sentences of the piece. Are they as effective as they can be? Are the words precise? What is the purpose of the sentence and how is that purpose achieved? What else in the piece supports those sentences?


  • Put your writing to the Gordon Lish test (Lish is a famed and infamous writer, editor, and teacher): “Each sentence must flow from the preceding sentence.” In other words: “The second sentence follows the first. The third follows the second. The fourth the third.” How do your sentences flow from each other? Does this create the effect you want?

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