Revising Fiction by David Madden: Leading by Example (and with TOC Checklist)

(One version of the cover of the book; mine is green, but there wasn’t a good image online.)

I first discovered Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers by David Madden when I was 17 or 18, and it has been by my side ever since (I’m 40 now). I recommend this book at every workshop I’ve ever taught. Why? It changes as you change as a writer–sections that seem too complex reveal their meaning over time while easier sections that apply to any beginning writer provide a good refresher when you plateau.

But the truly wonderful thing about the book, besides the good advice, is that Madden has divided it into 185 sections that he calls “practical techniques for improving your story or novel.” And in each section, he provides not only the fruits of his own experience but examples from famous writers. Sometimes these examples are just samples of the technique under review. But he’s also done a great deal of research to unearth the rough drafts of various works, so that he can show you how someone iconic solved a similar problem, presenting both the flawed text and the final text. In so doing, Madden provides an invaluable service.

For example, under “123–Considering the context, should some metaphors be turned into similes, some similes into metaphors,” Madden writes:

In a version of The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane wrote “He saw that he was a speck, raising his tiny arms against all possible forces and fates which were swelling down upon him like storms.” “He was a speck” is a metaphor, but Crane wanted the effect of two metaphors, so he struck out the simile “like storms,” and substituted the metaphor “in black tempests.” In “Miss Lonelyhearts and the Dead Pan,” Nathaniel West wrote: “May 1932–And on most days I received more than thirty letters, all of them alike, as though stamped from the dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife.” West cut “as though,” thus converting a weak simile into a strong metaphor.

Sometimes Madden’s examples take the form of summary at a higher level, as in this paragraph about a Thomas Hardy novel, taken from “61–Are the relationships among the characters unclear?”:

An excellent example of the overall impact of changing and clarifying character relationships is seen in a comparison of Thomas Hardy’s early manuscript of The Return of the Native with the published version. For instance, the reddleman goes from very clear relationships with local characters to being a man of mysterious origins. The boy Johnny was originally not the son of Susan Nunsuch. The heroine, Eustacia Vye, originally lived with her father instead of her grandfather. Thomasin Yoebright was originally the sister of the hero, Clym. The shifting of relationships forced a massive reorganization, the cutting and adding of all types of passages, including narrative.

In the very next section, “62–Do you need to clarify the underlying motives of your characters,” Madden discusses James Jones’ The Pistol. Madden explains that in the second draft of the novel, Jones explains a character’s “motivation for struggling to keep his pistol and offers motivations for the efforts of others to buy or steal it” in this passage:

It was interesting to speculate upon just why everyone was desirous of possessing this particular pistol…Perhaps…he had not yet, at nineteen, acquired the equipment with which to speculate deeply enough to find the real reason. All he knew was that everyone wanted it, wanted it badly, and that he was having a hard time keeping it…The sense of personal safety it gave him, the awareness that here at last was one object which he could actually depend on, the almost positive knowledge that it would one day actually save him, all of these comforted him as he lay rolled up in his two blankets and one shelterhalf with the rocky ground jabbing him in the flanks or as he toiled backbreakingly all day long at the never-ending job of putting up barbed wire. The world was going to hell in a basket, but if he could only hold on to the pistol, remain in possession of that extra margin of safety its beautiful blue-steel pregnant weight offered him, he could be saved, could come through it. Obviously, a lot of other people seemed to feel the same way.

About the excerpt, Madden writes, “In having Mast ponder his own motives and speculate on those of the other men around him, Jones prepares a motivation for the behavior of O’Brien [another character] and an explanation of the conflict between O’Brien and Mast,” but makes some changes in the final draft:

It was interesting to speculate upon just why everyone was so desirous of possessing this particular pistol…Everybody had always wanted pistols of course, but this was somehow becoming a different thing, he felt…Certainly, a lot of it had to do with the fact that it was free, unattached…[here, Jones put other text between the remainder of what had been the original, now-revised passage–jv] All Mast knew was the feeling that the pistol gave him. And that was that it comforted him. As he lay rolled up in his two blankets and one shelterhalf at night with the rock ground jabbing him in the ribs or flanks and the wind buffeting his head and ears, or he worked with his arms numb to the shoulder all day long at the never-ending job of putting up recalcitrant barbed wire, it comforted hiim. Thy rod and thy staff. Perhaps he had no staff–unless you could call his rifle that–but he had a “rod.” And it would be his salvation. One day it would save him. The sense of personal defensive safety that it gave him was tremendous…The world was rocketing to hell in a bucket, but if he could only hold onto his pistol, remain in possession of the promise of salvation its beautiful blue-steel bullet-charged weight offered him, he could be saved.

Madden argues that while the two versions say essentially the same things, the difference in expression is crucial. “One way to make your characters’ motivations clear is to intrude in the omniscient voice of the author, saying, in effect, “Now here is why my character feels and acts he or she does.” In the first version, Madden finds Jones’ language stiff and formal, “even referring to Mast as an immature nineteen-year-old.” Jones also seems to call “attention to the fact that he is informing the reader of Mast’s motivations.” In the second version, “we see him trying to suggest that Mast is himself sorting out his motives: and such more specific images as ‘beautiful blue-steel bullet-charged weight’ (instead of ‘beautiful blue-steel pregnant weight’) help to eliminate the abstract language.”


Sometimes students who happen to write science fiction and fantasy do ask me how a book that does not include many examples of non-mimetic fiction can be valuable to them. The answer is simple: the core of creative writing is the same no matter what “genre” you’re working in; a fantastical element, for example, is often as much as expression of the writer’s view of the world as it is anything that differentiates that writer technically from non-fantasy writers.

Further, it’s arguable that Revising Fiction is more valuable to genre writers because it may expose them to examples and writers they have not encountered before. I strongly believe in Michael Moorcock’s advice for beginning writers saturated in genre to “Stop reading SF and fantasy at once and start reading everything else. The worst thing that can happen to a genre is that it starts to feed on itself and in my experience you can bring a lot more inspiration to your work if you read, for instance, the novels of Elizabeth Bowen, some Maigret (or other) fiction by Simenon and absorb yourself in, say, Walter Scott and Marcel Proust. It pays off a treat.”

Reading Revising Fiction as a teenager radically changed my perspective on revision, and the effects that could be achieved after creating the rush of inspiration and grit that is a first draft. In encountering questions that allowed me to test my fiction I grew immeasurably as a writer and began to exhibit more control. In encountering questions I didn’t even understand at the time, I also came to understand that there is no such thing as “mastery” in writing fiction–that there would always be more to learn, more to look forward to internalizing. These two lessons, and the presence of masters of fiction ghosting through the text, soon made Revising Fiction and me inseparable. And I still return to it every year to see what else I can learn from it.

To give you even more of a sense of the value of the book, I’m reproducing part of the TOC below, because the TOC actually functions as a kind of checklist. I would also note that the Introduction is brilliant, and will change many writers’ perspective on exactly what revision is and how you go about doing it.

Introduction: Revision Is an Act of the Technical Imagination
-What are the Sources of Ideas?
-What Happens in the First Draft?
-What Is the Role of the Imagination?
-What are the Stages a Writer Goes Through in His Mastery of Revision?


1. Considering the experience you want the reader to have in this story, have you used a point of view that is ineffective?

2. If you have used the omniscient point of view, have you realized all its potentials?

3. If you have used the first-person point of view, have you realized all its potentials?

4. If you have used the third-person, central-intelligence point of view, have you realized all its potentials.

5. Have you used the device of interior monolog ineffectively?

6. Have you used the device of dramatic monolog ineffectively?

7. What are the negative effects in style of the point-of-view technique you employed in your first draft?

8. Have you failed to imagine other point-of-view techniques and their possible effects on the reader?

9. Have you ineffectively mingled several points of view at once?

10. Have you not yet achieved the proper distance between yourself and your material?

11. Do passages that reflect your own biases or judgments intrude?

12. Are there inconsistencies in your use of point of view?

13. Does the point of view you have used fail to express, in itself, some major aspect of the experience you are rendering?


14. Has your style evolved out of the point of view for this story?

15. Considering your overall conception, is your style inappropriately simple or complex?

16. Have you failed to imagine your style, line by line?

17. Does your style generally lack a sense of immediacy?

18. Does your style fail to work upon all of the reader’s senses?

19. Have you failed to make your style as clear, concrete, and simple as the various contexts demand?

20. Is your style literal more often than it is suggestive?

21. Do you tell your reader when to show would be more effective?

22. Do you neglect to prepare contexts that will enable you to use the device of implication?

23. Do you fail to use the device of implication?

24. Are your verbs passive, as opposed to active?

25. Have you neglected to use impingement as a device for giving your style a sense of action?

26. Do you neglect to provide contrast to your general style?

27. Have you failed to use repetition as a device for emphasis?

28. Is your style lacking in the elements of reversal and surprise?

29. Are your sentences monotonous in structure for lack of such rhetorical devices as parallelism?

30. Have you used parenthetical phrasing ineptly?

31. Do you fail to use the question device where it might be effective?

32. Have you created ineffective phrases that may be refined into key phrases?

33. Is your style overloaded with inappropriately formal phrases?

34. Have you failed to make each sentence (or sentence fragment) a carefully crafted unit?

35. Do you neglect to play short sentences and long sentences off each other and vary the length of paragraphs to achieve rhythm?

36. Is your style burdened with empty words and phrases?

37. Do cliches dull your style?

38. Does your style lack a play on words?

39. Is your syntax awkward or contorted?

40. Have you used adjectives and adverbs indiscriminately?

41. Do you use too many vague pronouns?

42. Do you use too many mechanical conjunctions or connectives?

43. Do you dull your style in your frequency and use of prepositions?

44. Have you committed grammatical errors?

45. Are the verb tenses consistent?

46. Does your use of punctuation fail to serve a conscious and controlled effect?

47. Have you used a singular where a plural would be more effective?

48. Does your style lack economy?

49. Have you drifted too early into lyrical passages?

50. Are parts of your story overwritten?

51. Are parts of your story underwritten in the negative sense?

52. Do you overindulge in abstract statements?

53. Is the tone of your style inappropriate?

54. Is your style overloaded with archaic or Latinate words?

55. Does your diction seem unconsidered?

[the other sections of the book are as follows, consisting of subsections that pose a plethora of relevant questions and provide examples, solutions, etc.; I’ve just provided samples under each subsection…]


63. Do you present characters too much through description and commentary?

66. Do you need to combine two or more characters into one?

71. Have you given your readers the wrong impression about any of your characters?


73. Have you inadvertently created stock situations?

75. Have you presented the narrative line too mechanically?

81. Are there long dialog passages that should be compressed somewhat into narrative?

92. Have you in some way defused the impact of the climax.


98. Is there a lack of proportion among the elements of narrative, dialog, description?

99. Have you failed to make dialog perform secondary functions?

101. Have you overused dialect, slang, or colloquialisms?


108. Do you devote too much space to creating atmosphere?

109. Are your descriptions of characters, setting, and objects unrelated to a conception?

111. Have you neglected to present description indirectly?


127. Have you neglected to imagine uses for the device of anticipation?

129. Have you failed to imagine an effective use for the device of reversal?

153. Have you missed places where you might cultivate an expressive ambiguity that is appropriate to the overall conception?


157. Do you merely use devices mechanically or is technique an agent of discovery?

168. Have you limited your imagination in some way?

183. Do you assume too much or too little of your reader, creating confusion?

IX. REIMAGINING “THE DAY THE FLOWERS CAME” [a deconstruction and analysis of one of the author’s own short stories]

14 comments on “Revising Fiction by David Madden: Leading by Example (and with TOC Checklist)

  1. I love this book. So few good books on revision, and this has been my favourite for quite some time. Everyone kept recommending the Browne and King book (Self Editing for Fiction Writers – I think that’s the title, anyhow), but I was not impressed. Seemed like all the basic How To books except under the pretense of revision. Madden’s was far more interesting, and far more interested in digging deep into the process (that is, delving past the basics where most of the other books stop). And I’ve never heard anyone else talk about (or recommend) Revising Fiction, so this is nice. Good to know there’s another admirer out there. I remember having to do a lot of ferreting to find a copy…

    Should note, too, that I did like Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit. If I could choose only two books on revision… you know the old saying.

  2. Aidan says:

    I’m just in the middle of reading Revising Fiction at the moment. Finding it very useful.

  3. James says:

    This sounds eminently practical. I must say, Jeff, I find most writing how-tos fairly annoying and repetitive, but the ones you’ve posted have always wound up on my wish list. Which explains why I have high hopes for Booklife and its followup.

  4. Els says:

    This looks like an extremely useful tome, though I did feel reprimanded after having read through the checklist above. I reckon I’ve failed, neglected, limited, assumed, overindulged, lacked and drifted on an epic level of stylistic naughtiness…Whoops.

    Seriously though, I will seek this book out. Thanks. Looking forward to ‘Booklife’ too!

  5. Justin A. says:

    Yeah…I bought this a couple years ago! Great book. Can you recommend any other good books for writers? There is so much crap out there…

  6. I have a ton set out and described in my forthcoming writing book, Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st-Century Writer. Just too lazy to copy and paste that right now. Do recommend Carol Bly’s The Passionate, Accurate Story, though.

  7. I’ll definitely have to pick this up. I just pretty much scrapped my second novel, and now am jumping ahead to the third. Probably could use a little help.

  8. Trent Jamieson says:

    What a brilliant book, Jeff. And one I will have to hunt down.

  9. Lisabee says:

    Your review was so compelling I had to order a copy. This book is the kind of thing that would have made my head swim when I was younger; as it is, there’s a lot to take in. It’s really a book about thinking about your own writing in a profound way. Thanks for the recommendation.

  10. Ken Sabey says:

    I wrote my first novel this last year. My wife just happen to run across this “bible” at a thrift store. It is amazing. I can understand how I’ll be reviewing its contents on a regular basis as my skills continue to grow. I’ve been researching the internet to find a way to contact Mr. Madden, but to no avail. I guess he is in his early 70s now. Anyone know how to reach him or if he is still with us?

  11. David Madden says:

    You folks make me very happy after over two decades, to know this book is still regarded as one of the best, serious books on writing, which I taught for half century, at Kenyon, Ohio U., and LSU.

    I am trying to get REVISING FICTION reprinted.

    To see how I use those techniques in my own writing, take a look at my latest, published this April; ABDUCTED BY CIRCUMSTANCE. Go to Amazon for cheap copies and 7 reviews. Many people can write a first version. Published books are revised books. Every good wish, David Madden

  12. Jesse Dziedzic says:

    I dont disagree with this post..

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