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One of my favorite activities on how to revise involves photography and writing. It comes from Discovering the Writer Within by Bruce Ballenger and Barry Lane. It’s called โ€œ20 Ways to See an Elm Tree.โ€ This revision exercise is the next step after going out and taking pictures of an object for the โ€œBreaking Habits of Seeingโ€ exercise. I used this exercise many times in my teaching career at both the high school and college levels. Plus, when I need a creative boost, I give it a try every now and again.

So in order to attempt this writing exercise you need some pictures.


Picture of ducks swimming on pond.


My example photos will only focus on twelve 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.


What Photography Can Reveal About Writing

The link between photography and writing lends itself to a better understanding of the revision process. 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 Slide7

Write 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.


Photography and Writing: 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 yourself as a writer.


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




Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2013.