Revision is Experimentation
The Artist’s Idea of Revision: Not Just Fixing
For a lot of people who are just starting out to write poetry or fiction, revision isn’t easy. It’s not something they look forward to. Part of the problem is that a lot of us are still carrying around the idea of revision that we picked up in high school or even grade school.
When you got a paper back from a teacher back then and she asked for revisions, you figured, “There’s something wrong in this paper, and I have to fix it.” And sometimes you would look long and hard at that paper and didn’t know what to fix. Was there a comma that needed changing, a fused sentence, a paragraph that needed a thesis? And besides, you didn’t like to think of your paper as being broken and needing fixing. Most times when you figure something is broken and needs fixing, you figure that the thing is one step away from the trash heap. Also, we were taught in school to think of revision as merely correcting comma flaws or spelling, that kind of mechanical stuff.
Revision in the arts isn’t really like that at all.
I like to think of it as experimenting.
Paul Valery, a French poet, said that “No poem is ever finished; it’s only abandoned.”
And I think what Valery said is right about poetry and all the arts.
The Story of My Father-in-Law Tony and his Yellow Car Painting
Let me tell you a story about my father-in-law Tony, a graphic artist, a painter, and how he works with a painting.
He literarily never finishes one of his paintings. He is always experimenting with them, trying to see if he can do something different with them, trying to see them in a different perspective, in a different way—in the hope that that different way will be a final way of seeing the painting. But like I said, “He never finishes one of his paintings.”
When my wife and I got married 37 years ago, Tony gave us a painting. It was a cityscape, a picture of a street that was slightly wet from a rain shower, and you could see a gray car across the street in front of a brick 3 story brownstone building (this was in Brooklyn). And on the side of the street nearest the person looking at the painting there was a yellow car. But you could only see the front half of a yellow car because the rest of the yellow car was out of the picture frame.
Okay. That was the painting then in 1975.
The summer after we got married, Tony came to visit and brought his paints in one of those wooden boxes with a handle that painters carry around. I thought that he was going to be working on something new, maybe the patio I was building in the backyard, but he wasn’t. He had thought about that yellow car and thought about it, and decided that he wanted to move it back a little so that it wouldn’t be so big and yellow in the painting. And that’s just what he did. He moved it so far back that all you could see of the yellow car was the bumper and a little bit of its yellow nose.
He was experimenting. You might call it revising but the painting wasn’t broken, didn’t need fixing. But he did want to see it in a different way. This was his experiment. When artists experiment, they try to get a fresh view of their painting or their novel or their jazz symphony or their movie.
And Tony wasn’t finished there. When he came to visit the following year, he moved the car back even further, so that you couldn’t see the yellow car at all. No hood. No bumper. He thought that he wanted to focus on the wetness of the street and the yellowness of the car was interfering with the wetness. Maybe he should have painted the car a less explosive color. Maybe he should have experimented with a blue car! He talked about doing that
You get the picture.
Over the years, Tony moved the car forward and he moved it back. He changed the shade of the yellow. He made the bricks on the buildings across the street slightly redder to balance the brightness of the yellow. He made the street less wet. He put a person in one of the windows across the street. (When my daughter Lillian was growing up, she always thought that she was the girl in the window and that her poppy had put her there, so she would always be in our home looking down on my wife and me.)
And this experimenting never stopped.
He’s 82 years old now and every time he comes to visit he sets to work on the paintings. His current project is a picture of a rowboat in a stream. There were 3 trees in the painting. One on the extreme right, one on the extreme left, and one in the middle. He’s moving the trees around. Currently, the left tree is still in the picture, but the right tree is gone. And the tree in the middle? It’s a stump. But you see more and more of the rowboat.
This is the way artists and poets and film makers and musicians work. If you’ve ever known any musicians, you know they spend endless hours practicing—but that practicing is really experimenting. They’re listening to the sounds in their head and trying to get the sounds in their instruments to sound the same way. And they do this through experiments.
Let me tell you one more story: Yesterday I was listening to an interview with David O. Russell, a film director who’s up for an Academy Award for his film American Hustle. If you don’t know that film you might now one of his other films, The Three Kings or Silver Lining Playbook.
He was talking about shooting a scene in American Hustle with Christian Bale. In his heart and in his brain, he knew exactly what he wanted. He shot that scene 100 different ways.
You and Your Poems
A lot of poetry is this sort of experimentation. You write a poem, it takes you 5 minutes, but it’s not right for some reason. Or you write a couple pages for a story, and it’s not right for some reason. What’s on the page doesn’t match up with what’s in your head or your heart, so you experiment. And the experimentation takes an hour or two; or if you are a sometimes obsessive compulsive like me, it takes 5 or 10 years.
When you do a first draft of a poem or a story, it’s just that: a first draft. It’s your first attempt at that piece. You look at it, and you see it, and maybe you think, this looks pretty good, but you also know that you don’t know what the poem will eventually look like.
There are a million thing you can change in any poem or short story. A million different experiments you can run. And what most writers and most artists will do is try to consider how some of these experiments will change a piece of writing.
The Story of My Experiments with “Lovers”
Let me give you an example. I wrote a poem called “Lovers.” It was a long skinny poem. It had short lines, 6 syllables each, and it was about 70 lines long without any stanzas. I looked at this poem and thought, “This poem looks pretty good but how would it look with a longer line.” So I put it in 12 syllable lines—but then it looked too much like a short story or long prose poem, so I put it in 10 syllable lines and 6 line stanzas.
- Then I tried it with 4 line stanzas.
- Then I tried it with 3 line stanzas.
- Then I decided to make the first 3 stanzas the last three stanzas.
- Then I decided to drop the middle 2 stanzas.
- Then I decided to make all the lines skinny with 6 syllables each.
- Then I decided to change the title.
- Then I decided to flip around the last 2 lines.
- Then I decided to….
If you want to see the finished poem, it’s online at
(just click on the above)
(just click on the above)
This is a pretty typical process. It happens in poetry and it happens in fiction. Things change between the moment of writing and the moment of publication, and even beyond that.
My recent poem Brief History of Sorrow started out as a sestina called What is Sorrow: 39 lines long, 6 6 line stanzas and a three line stanza. The end words in the 6 line stanzas get repeated according to a particular order, and these 6 words then appear in a certain order in the last three lines. And if that’s not enough, the sestina had 10 syllables in each line.
Where did it end up? When it was published it was called brief history of sorrow and it was a free verse poem (no form) –
first stanza – 7 lines
second stanza – 2 lines
sixth –5 lines.
The longest line is 7 syllables, the shortest is 3. There are no repeated words or rhymes.
What I was doing with my poem was experimenting. I didn’t know what it would finally look like, but I needed to see it in a variety of “poses” so that I could decide which pose (which look) I liked the best.
And the more you know about poetry and the more poems you’ve written and read, the more ways of experimenting are going to be available to you.
It’s the same thing with fiction. I wrote a novel about a German soldier in World War II. The novel focused on his trying to get back to his lines after getting lost behind enemy lines. There was a lot of action in the novel, lot of shooting and killing and running and fighting. When I revised the novel, I ended up with a novel about a german soldier separated from the woman he loved. The novel alternates between a chapter about him in the war, and a chapter about the woman he loves living in Berlin during the same time period.
It’s a much better novel and it wouldn’t have been written without my experiments with the book.
No work of art is ever finished, and that's true of poems. There are a million things you could change in any poem or any story.
- Poems without stanzas can have stanzas put in them.
- Poems with short lines can be made poems with long lines.
- Poems with long lines can be given short lines.
- Poems with 6 line stanzas can be converted to poems with 2 line stanzas.
- Stories without a sound track can be given a sound track – just add a CD player
- Stories without a sense of the past can be given a sense of the past
- Stories with one major character can be given a second
- Stories filled with paragraphs and paragraphs of descriptions can be broken up with dialogue.
There really are a lot of possibilities.
So, when you start doing revisions for this unit, try thinking of them as experiments. What writers do is experiment with their own poems. They try it one way and then they try it another way--just to see if they can do it differently. And maybe doing it differently will spark some kind of idea! And that idea will help the poet create the poem that will stop the world or make someone love someone a little better.
The 3-Step Process of Experimentation
- Step One: the actual experiments:
When I do revisions, I usually do them in 2-steps. The first step is the actual experiment step. I do a lot of different things to the poem to see what kind of things are possible with that poem. I change so many of the things in the poem just to see if I can spark something that will help me see the poem clearer, help me see what my poem is capable of.
Here is a list of some of the things I do. Other poets do other things, and as you keep writing and growing and changing as poets you will find your own list of things you do when you revise.
Guzlowski’s 22 Commandments of Poetry Revision
- Remember: Revision is experimentation. You don’t know what the poem will look like until you’ve looked at what the poem can look like.)
- Try the poem in 2 different forms (If it’s got 4 syllable lines, try it as 10 syllables or 6 or 8)
- Change the position of a stanza (For example, make the third stanza the last stanza)
- Cut out three lines
- Take out all the adjectives
- Cut out 10 % of the words.
- Cut out 10 % more
- Try the poem in a different tense (if it’s present tense, try it in past, for example)
- Try it in a different pronoun (if it’s all in first person singular “I,” try it in second person singular “you.” Or if it’s all “she,” try it as “he.”)
- Turn a free verse poem into a formed poem
- Turn a formed poem into a free verse poem
- Write the poem backwards (I’m not kidding—start with the last stanza and end with the first.)
- Take stuff from one poem and stick it in another (Got some great stanza in a weak poem? Try it in another poem)
- Take a stanza with lots of particulars and double it
- Make 1 line break change
- Make 1 stanza break change
- Add 1 particular
- Add 1 metaphor or simile or comparison
- Add 1 near rhyme
- Add 1 disconnected detail (a lot of times you can get something interesting going in a poem by just throwing in something that is completely unexpected.)
- Add 1 internal rhyme
- Do 1 crazy thing to the poem
Guzlowski’s 18 Commandments of Fiction Revision
- Recopy your story — open a new word doc file and start retyping your story. you’ll immediately realize that you are changing stuff as you go.
- re-write the first sentence – most important sentence try it a different way.
- Take a paragraph of description and change it into dialogu
- Pause the story – have the main character think about something that happened long ago that has some relevance to the story.
- Cut out the first paragraph of the story
- Cut out the transition paragraphs that get you from one place to another
- Add a description of some object that doesn’t seem important to the story—make it important
- Add a paragraph at the end
- Summarize a dialogue scene into a single paragraph or Take a longish description from your story and present it entirely in dialogue
- Introduce a new character
- BOUNCE—description of action, description of place, characters thoughts, dialogue—are the 4 elements you usually see in a story—too often one will go on for too long—bounce it. Introduce dialogue into a block of description, thoughts into a action etc.
- Cut out a scene
- Change the title of the story
- Re-write the story from a different point of view—my World War II novel was written in the third person. After I finished the first chapter, I re-wrote it in 2nd person and third. Went back to the first.
- Rearrange the action. Try out the story starting it in the middle. Or starting with the ending and working your way back. drop the first paragraph
- Re-write the first sentence – the most important sentence.
- Choose a character from your story who is the least developed right now. Write a list of everything your character resents or is ashamed of in the entire world.
- Write in the voice of this character twenty years later, describing the events in the story that’s being told in the present. How does the character feel about these events now? How important was this day in the context of his or her life?
- Step-two: Looking at what you have
Once you do a bunch of the sorts of experiments that I describe above, take a look at what you have and see if it works.
Normally, what I will do is take all my versions of a poem or story and spread them out in front of me. Sometimes I’ll have 10 sheets of paper, sometimes 15 sheets with variations of the same piece of writing. Sometimes, only 2 or 3.
What I do then is decide which is the versions that works best for me. Different poets do this differently. What I look for is the sound of the poem. So I read each version out loud, and determine in that way which is the version I’ll go with. If I’m comfortable reading it out loud, if it sounds like something that comes easy to my lips and throat and speech rhythms, then it’s the one I take.
What I also do sometimes is go through the various drafts and circle what seems to be working best in a draft, and then I work up a super-draft, that is, I work up a draft that tries to bring together the best things from all the drafts.
- Sharing your Experiments:
Most of this experimenting happens when you’re sitting at your desk. Writing alone.
But there’s a part of the revision process that’s public. And should be public.
I don’t know if Barry Koplen mentioned it but every writer needs a writers’ group to run things by.
Sometimes getting involved with writing and revising is so overwhelming that you really can’t tell what’s working and what’s not. I’ve written and rewritten poems and have come up with 15 different versions. My head’s spinning by that time.
I need somebody to look at the stuff and let me know if it’s working.
That’s where a writers’ group is essential.
I’ve never known a writer who didn’t share early drafts of his or her work with friends, other readers.
Different ways of doing this: you give the friend a draft and wait for comments or you read the thing and get comments.
Either way – it helps.
Conclusion: Here’s an important thing to remember: don’t think of any draft as your final draft. I’ve never met a writer who didn’t change something in a draft even if that draft was already published. Sometimes we make decisions about a poem and realize later that that decision was the wrong one—and we go back to an earlier draft or even try something new.
Our writings are fluid, they are a thing in flux, alive and growing and changing as we think about them and work our experiments on them.
In fact, I think poems and stories like to be experimented on. It’s like when you take your dog out for an unleashed run or a walk: it loves being out in the free air and moving across the countryside like a furry bolt of happiness, seeing what it can do—seeing what miracles of movement it’s got in it.