An axiom from the world of sales: If you give someone two choices, they’ll probably pick one. If you give them three choices, they’ll say, “I have to think about it.” If you give them four choices, they’ll say, “Forget it, I’m fine with what I have.” Our point: Considering too much at once can be paralyzing.

That point is valid for revising, too, which you may know if you’ve ever tried to “fix everything” in a single pass over a manuscript that needed a good deal of work. But how else are you supposed to go about it?

When the poet Tom Lux revised his own work, he used an approach he referred to as “lenses.” He took multiple passes over a poem but only focused on one aspect per pass. If he was reading the poem through the “cliché lens,” for example, he only looked for clichés. Then he might take another pass with the “verb lens,” looking for passive voice and questioning every verb ending in -ing (e.g. the dubious “looking” and “questioning” in this sentence). Then another pass with the “line break lens,” and so on.

Lux’s approach can be useful for nonfiction writers, too, because it gives you a specific and limited job for each pass. As an added benefit, your understanding of your manuscript and its architecture will deepen with each reading draft, so that after several passes with different lenses, you’ll see the bones of the manuscript more clearly than you could after the first or second read.

Ready to try? Here’s how:

Sometimes writers abandon a project because they don’t know what to do next in revision. Other times writers abandon a project because they’re overwhelmed by how much they need to do. Here’s the magic of this approach: Lenses can help with either problem. If you don’t know what to do next, lenses give you an entry point. If you feel swamped by the too-muchness of revision, this approach breaks it down into manageable tasks. Because lenses allow you to keep moving, they are one path toward improvement—for your project, and for you as a writer.


This essay is adapted from The Invisible Art of Literary Editing, co-authored by Bryan Furuness and Sarah Layden and forthcoming from Bloomsbury Academic in March 2023.


Bryan Furuness is the author of a couple of novels: The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson and Do Not Go On. He lives in Indiana, teaches at Butler University, and believes that breakfast burritos are the perfect food.

Sarah Layden is the author of the forthcoming story collection, Imagine Your Life Like This (University of Wisconsin Press, April 2023); a novel, Trip Through Your Wires; and a chapbook of flash fiction, The Story I Tell Myself About Myself. She teaches creative writing at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.