Revision: Seeing Your Work Anew

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 08:03 min

For Margaret, revision is an opportunity to take a fresh look at your book and consider new possibilities. Learn the value of soliciting feedback from select readers, and the importance of a good line editor.

Margaret Atwood
Teaches Creative Writing
Learn how the author of The Handmaid’s Tale crafts vivid prose and hooks readers with her timeless approach to storytelling.
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There's something called completion fear. Completion fear is, I'm afraid to finish it because what if it's not any good? And you can get stuck in that for some time. And here I just say, barrel on through, get it done, and then you can see whether it's-- what else it might need. And remember, you can always revise. If you need a different sofa, you can have a different sofa, because nobody's going to see that until you allow them to. So overcome your completion fear and just finish. What do you do next? Pretend you're a reader. Start on the first page-- is it a good enough first page to hold your attention? Are you going to turn the page or not? If the answer is not, you need a different beginning. So revision means re-vision-- you're seeing it anew, and quite frequently when you're doing that, you see possibilities that you didn't see before and that light up parts of the book in a way that wouldn't have happened if you hadn't done that. So seeing the book anew, seeing into the book. More questioning yourself-- why did this person do that? So why else did they do that? And why else, in addition to that, did they do that? [CLASSICAL MUSIC] Once you feel there's nothing else that can-- that you can do to your manuscript to improve it, that's when you need to hand it to an outside observer. What I like to have is people who are dedicated readers, but who are not in the publishing business. You want somebody who can-- who can give you a true opinion, and it's better if it isn't your spouse. You don't want to have any of those frosty silences over the breakfast table, and you also don't want to have put themsel-- them into that position. So it should be somebody outside, not somebody who's in an agent or a publisher position towards you, but who is a dedicated reader. That's the best, and that allows you to step back, it allows you to see it through the eyes of another person. If there's something that you thought was quite clear but they find unintelligible, they will tell you that. If there is a piece of information missing that they felt they really needed to know, they will tell you that. They will also tell you, this chapter is too long. Or, you already said that, or, I got it the first time. There's only one real question-- is it alive or is it dead? And anything else can be fixed. The best thing is, how quickly did you read it? If the answer is, I couldn't put it down, then you're in really pretty good shape. If the answer is two years, something needs to be done. It's always a good idea to have more than one person. So Person A may say this, Person B may say that, and you consider. But-- but if they're wrong, you will probably know it, depending, of course, on how pig-headed and set in your ways you are. But just remember, when push comes to shove, the buck stops with you, so whoever's advice you may have taken, wherever alterations may have been made, what is on that page is going to be considered your work. [...

The art of powerful storytelling

Called the “Prophet of Dystopia,” Margaret Atwood is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In her first-ever online writing class, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale teaches how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction, that remain timeless and relevant. Explore Margaret’s creative process for developing ideas into novels with strong structures and nuanced characters.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I have long admired Margaret Atwood's writing. Her straight-forward approach was invaluable to me as I continue to attempt to resurrect my writing. What I most appreciated about her approach to this material was her realistic and honest delivery. By far, one of the best Master Classes I've completed to date.

A great way look at what thoughts get in people's heads when writing. It gives help about which of these are useful and which should be ignored.

I am now motivated to start writing, no matter how bad or good it is. I know that there is no shame in going back and revising my work.

I have identified my fear and now can look it in the face - it's only me and the page. A real treat to hear from such a master.


A fellow student

Here are two articles about anachronism which she mentions near the end of the video: https://www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-an-anachronism-learn-about-the-different-types-of-anachronism-in-literature-and-film-with-examples https://judeknightauthor.com/tag/anachronisms-in-historical-novels/ :)

A fellow student

The lesson given was inspiring and gave me the confidence to now finish my book. I have been revising and editing for so long now that I am so close to finishing. I have 3 books written 2 completed one nearly there. I just need to have enough courage to get it out there. I needed this boost and I’m going to get back on track. This was an invaluable lesson. Thankyou Margaret

Tom W.

Just a helpful tip...she mentioned using the Find function in electronic files. On Windows/Word, push Ctrl+F and type in the word you'd like to search and it will give you a count and allow you to jump to each instance. On a Mac, it is Command+F.

Oona G.

Great lesson! I especially appreciate the reminders to be specific using powers of observation. I can teach my 3 rd graders to look closely and report using their 5 senses. Masking a sense will be fun to try!

Tauna S.

You need three kinds of readers. Those who are bloodhounds for consistency and detail. Those who are nitpickers, who look for spelling, typos, punctuation, and grammar. Those who are avid natural readers, who understand your type of story with a sense of beginning, middle, end; a sense of pacing; a sense of your style; a sense of humor and irony. The first two types can be found to some degree in fans (once you have them) or in writer's computerized programs or paid services. The third type is Golden, and much better usually if not paid in coin, but in reciprocation. "I'll look at yours if you'll look at mine." Meaning a fellow writer, and the old adage works: It takes one to know one.

Andrea P.

Revision is essential. My challenge will be to find readers who will be honest and who will actually try to read my story. I have an issue asking people for help, but from this lesson, I understand that fresh eyes could make a huge difference.

Fleur B.

Absolutely loved this class. So much useful advice for revising any piece of creative writing,especially novels (not that I'm anywhere near a finished novel to try this out on!). I found Ms Atwood's way of describing re-vision really inspirational. And this lesson reminded me I have been meaning to read Oryx and Crake and must get onto that soon!

Suzanne B.

I completed my YA novel and am working on (what I hope to be) a final version. I've been away from these lessons for a while to reimmerse myself into the novel. I was in the midst of completion fear as well as knowing I needed a break from it. I'm now back into the thick of things and I feel re-energized. Everything you mentioned about revisioning, seeing into the work, was/is true to my recent experience. I now know for sure what my protagonist wants and what's at stake if she fails. Thank You.

John D.

This was a very inspirational lesson. It reminded of what my objectives are and what awaits when I reach them. Once again I tell myself, 'just get the first draft completed.'


I very much appreciate the concept of "barreling through" the work with the assurance that I can always revise. I can always go back through it. Believe me, I am trying. But I have a great deal of work to do personally on this front. I find myself going back and reading through a good chunk to catch myself up -- even the next day. And when this happens I cannot help but start editing at that point, then perhaps going back even further to fix more. It can be a roadblock for sure. I just need to allow myself to take Ms. Atwood's advice.