How to Revise: What Photography Can Reveal About Writing

Posted by in Writing Tips | 27 comments

One of my favorite activities on how to revise comes from Discovering the Writer Within by Bruce Ballenger and Barry Lane. It’s called “20 Ways to See an Elm Tree.” This revision exercise is the next step after going out and taking pictures of an object for the “Breaking Habits of Seeing” exercise.

So in order to attempt today’s writing exercise you need some pictures.

Picture of ducks swimming on pond.

My example photos will only focus on 12 of the numerous shots that I took on a spectacular spring day at the Wilson Ponds in Nampa, Idaho. My husband got some fishing in and I had a blast playing with the camera.

How to Revise: What Photography Can Reveal About Writing

Lay all your pictures out whether on your desk or on your computer screen. Discard pictures that show obvious technical issues.

Now move your images around from left to right so they are ranked favorite to least favorite.

20 Ways to See and Elm Tree Bruce Ballenger Discovering the Writer Within

Do a five-minute freewrite about what made you choose your favorite photograph. Be specific.

Re-order your photos and this time start with the ones that seem to show your subject in the least obvious way. Consider angle, distance, and lighting.

Duck Slide7Write for five more minutes and explore your answer to this prompt: How did my experience with the process of taking these photographs seem similar to the process of writing?

Were your two arrangements markedly similar or different? Which particular photos inspired you to see your subject in a new way? Was it relatively easy or difficult for you to take so many pictures of the same thing? Could you take even more pictures of the same thing? Why or why not?

The ability to play with words is often what draws us to the writing process, but it can also become what repels us when we allow various factors to close us off to that gift. The same can be said of imagery. We are surrounded by images and too often fail to appreciate the craft of manipulation that is required to arrive at truly unique and great work.

How to Revise: Follow Through

Much like writing often leads to more writing in order to better communicate what you are trying to say, photography (and many other creative endeavors) also go the same route. So get your camera out again. Return to your subject. Snap more pictures that begin to get at what the imagery is unlocking. Challenge yourself to narrow your efforts to just one image that will express something deeper without the need for you to describe its significance.

Picture of duck wing reflected on water.

Like arresting images that make us pause and ponder, so too should good writing.

Please visit Revision Project: Ways of Seeing for even more ideas of how to use photography to inspire and challenge you self as a writer.

Do you think you’d like to try this exercise? What do you think you would take pictures of?

Permission must be granted by JeriWB to use the images in this post.

Article by Jeri Walker-Bickett aka JeriWB

Jeri Walker-Bickett
JeriWB writes short stories, creative nonfiction, and psychological suspense. The rough Idaho mining town she grew up in populates her literary landscape. She also works as a freelance editor.
Jeri Walker-Bickett


Author of short stories, creative nonfiction, and psychological suspense. Blogger of writing tips and lit chat. Freelance editor.
Travel Inspiration: A Chicago Trip #findinginspiration - 14 mins ago
Jeri Walker-Bickett
Jeri Walker-Bickett
Jeri Walker-Bickett
I offer a variety of freelance editing services. Previously, I served as an editorial assistant with The Idaho Review, Boise State's literary journal.


  1. Great exercise. These are very helpful- sometimes we need forced to look outside the box.

  2. Thanks. I’ll have examples of a student project related to this project posted in a couple of days.

  3. This sounds like a great exercise, Jeri! I wish I had time. I’m in the middle of a 500 mile move – packing up this week. Would love to do this in the future.

    Look forward to the post of your student’s work.

  4. I like this. It is a great way to bring new vision what you see as merely mundane. We spend so much of our time pushing through life that we forget to look closer at the world around us.

    As writers/ artists/ craftsman it is a major part of our craft to focus in on the mundane scenes of life, real or imagined, and show them for the truth of what they really are.

  5. Good exercise. As a photographer, I’d never thought of combining my photography and writing like this.

  6. Love this! Another great exercise to help us writers. :)

    • Cheryl, this is one of the most creative exercises on revision that I’ve come across. Bruce Ballenger is great at coming up innovative exercises.

  7. This exercise seems to relate to the importance of “place” in a story. I’ve never done it, and might try it out with new photos. But, my mind immediately goes to the myriad old photos I have of people, places, events etc. Revisiting them, you often discover something that has been invisible to you for years and years. People in your constellation of family and friends go in and out of focus as events in their lives revise your thinking about them or you perception of them. A place, like your first home for instance, holds a special place in your memory, but until you take out an old photo or series of photos of the homestead you fail to see something that has been there all the while, but you just never saw it before.

    • Larry, this project does convey a sense of place in what seems to be a Steinbeck-eqsue style. He tended to go big and give the reader the picture of the setting from afar before getting really up close and personal, which is precisely what a camera lens allows us to do. Over the years, I’ve found all sorts of great ways that photography tips and techniques can inform writing.

  8. How cool. This would be such a great thing for me to do. I am always using my camera to capture an interesting perspective. I take a large amount of pictures and settle on a just a few. Using what I take in this way could offer and different use for my photography. :-)

    • Susan, I know you would find such great inspiration if you tried this exercise. Plus, all of the photos could also come in handy for a future podcast.

  9. What a great exercise Jeri. I think there’s def. a close link between how we arrange visual information and writing. The close attention to detail is essential. I like the comparisons you suggest. Thanks for the post.

    • A.K., I also used this activity with students more than once with great results. If I get the chance to go back to Montana I should try this activity again as a way to generate ideas for my novel.

  10. Interesting prompt. I would love to do it sometime. It might get my brain flowing.

    • Krystle, I find that I need such activities from time to time to jump start my creativity, and this one is so much fun.

  11. Jeri — I’ve experienced doing just this in creating a photo album on Shutterfly. I created one for my brother’s “big” birthday party and another for my grandson’s graduation. I began to see how the sequence of images and how I resized them began to tell a story just as if I was using words instead of images.

    • Jeannette, I often get the same feeling when I’m working with photo albums. I’ve been meaning to experiment with visual essays on this blog, but it hasn’t quite happened yet ;)

  12. I find that my writing for my blog posts is often informed by the photos I’ve taken. Occasionally, I’ll have to go find a photo that compliments my writing, but more often than not, my photos help (prompt) my writing.

    • Suzanne, I can related to what you way about your photos helping to prompt your writing. Most of the ideas I get for my short stories start with an image. From there, my writer’s brain starts to fill in the gap and weave the story that wants to be told from the image.

  13. This post was enlightening. There are times when I draw a blank on what to write about. This should help get the mind going.

    • Glynis, it’s good to see a new face at my blog. The possibilities really are limitless with this photography exercise.

  14. Cool exercise! I could see how it would get the creative juices flowing. I wish I were better at printing out more of the pictures I take…or at least organizing them better on my laptop. Sometimes, I choose a picture to post on the blog and it helps me remember little things I want to elaborate on.

    • Karen, I feel the same way when it comes to printing photos as well as keeping track of where I put them on my computer.

  15. I’m a video editor by day (er, rather night) and I was sitting here thinking about a particularly troubling shot and decided to take a break and give a little blog love that might trigger something. So funny that I read this, because I had been capturing stills earlier from the same scene so i went back and did the exercise.

    So very cool how much of a different perspective it gave me. The two looks, for me, were very different. But the point is, the difference gave me some great ideas on leaving the subject and coming back to her, adding some real weight to the scene (bollywood film).

    So thanks for that. lol.

    I guess it was fate this night. (or maybe luck.)

    • Dan, how cool that you find this at what seemed to be just the right moment.

  16. What a good idea Jeri! There is definitely a link between how we process visual information and write.

    • Catarina, the writing process contains so many parallels to other more seemingly creative endeavors, which I suppose is why this is one of my favorite exercises. At it’s heart, the writing process is all about curiosity and invention, but too often it ceases to feel that way.

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