Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The "R" Word: Revision (with a Tie-In to our Current Giveaway)

One of the greatest challenges writing teachers face is helping students understand that a first draft is only the beginning of the writing process. As TeachingAuthors, we often talk about the  "R" word: Revision.  Two weeks ago, Mary Ann shared her memories of being a young writer who hated revision. (You can read her post here.) I meet many young writers (and some not-so-young ones) with a similar attitude. They feel that after struggling long and hard to complete that first draft, they're done. That's it! Convincing these writers to revisit and revise can be next to impossible. Today I'll share three points I emphasize with such students to help them appreciate the value of revision. I hope these ideas will help you and/or your students embrace revision:

1. Revising a story doesn't mean it isn't a good story, only that it can be better.
In Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for Young Poets, compiled by Paul B. Janeczko, award-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes:
"If a teacher told me to revise, I thought that meant my writing was a broken-down car that needed to go to the repair shop. I felt insulted. I didn't realize the teacher was saying, 'Make it shine. It's worth it.'
Now I see revision as a beautiful word of hope. It's a new vision of something. It means you don't have to be perfect the first time. What a relief!"
To emphasize this point, I tell young writers about the process I went through to write and eventually publish my novel, Rosa, Sola. I wrote the novel as my creative thesis while pursuing an MFA in Writing at Vermont College. The first draft took me three semesters to complete. By the end of my third-semester, my adviser was pleased with the manuscript. She was even willing to sign-off on it as my thesis, but she suggested I hold off and have my fourth-semester adviser critique it first. Or, as I tell young students, she was ready to give me a "B+," but she knew my next teacher could help me make it an "A."

My fourth-semester adviser did provide wonderful feedback, especially regarding some weaknesses in the plot. However, one of her suggestions was rather daunting: she wanted me to rewrite the entire 125-page novel from third-person point of view to first-person. I resisted the idea, in part because I liked it in third-person, and in part because of all the work such a change would require. In the end, though, I gave in and did the rewrite. At the same time, I revised the plot issues. When I was done, my adviser loved the first-person voice of the new draft. She signed-off on that version as my official thesis.
This is a picture of my thesis draft, which I show students when I talk about revision.
There was only one problem--I still preferred the voice in the earlier, third-person draft. The first-person narration didn't ring quite true to me; it felt too mature and thoughtful to come from an average ten-year-old struggling with complex emotions. After graduation, I decided to go back to third-person viewpoint before trying to sell the manuscript. Of course, since I'd changed the story's plot in between, I couldn't just go back to the earlier draft (which I had saved on my computer). I had to do another FULL rewrite. Knowing how much work that would take, I procrastinated for a long time. However, I eventually bit the bullet and did the rewrite. To my surprise, the revised third-person draft was MUCH better than my earlier third-person version, and it wasn't just because of the plot changes. The process of rewriting the story in first person had given me a better understanding of my main character, and that new understanding now made the third-person version  much richer .

This is the third-person draft that was accepted by Candlewick Press.
My revision story doesn't end here, though, which leads to my second point:

2. Published authors typically revise again (and again and again), even after they've sold their work.
January 2003, I received a call from an editor at Candlewick Press who wanted to buy Rosa, Sola. I was ecstatic!  She mentioned on the phone that she had some revision suggestions she'd be sending me. Fortunately, I knew enough about publishing to know this was common. However, most of my students (even the adult ones) are surprised when I tell them this. I point out to them that the editor obviously thought I'd written a good novel or she wouldn't have wanted to buy it in the first place. Or, as Naomi Shihab Nye would say, the editor didn't think my novel was a broken-down car wreck; she simply wanted to help me make it shine.

First, the editor sent me a single-spaced, three-page letter filled with questions and suggestions for improving Rosa, Sola. It took me several months to work through those changes and send her a new manuscript. She then read through the story again and marked the pages she still had questions or comments on with yellow sticky notes. When I show that version of the manuscript to students, they usually gasp:   
Unfortunately, this photo only shows the sticky notes on the LEFT side of the pages. There are as many, if not more, on the right side.

I fixed those issues, sent the new draft back, and my editor replied with more yellow notes, though not quite as many this time:
Again, students are usually shocked to see all the pages that still need revision. However, by this time, the students usually begin to see my point--a first draft is only the beginning of the writing process, especially if you want to create something that really shines.

If you or your students aren't convinced such last minute changes are common, then I encourage you to read our Guest Teaching Author Sarah Campbell's blog post about revising her latest book, Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature. And don't forget to enter for a chance to win an autographed copy of the book here.

Finally, the third point I remind students of to help them appreciate the value of revision:

3. We are constantly growing as writers.
The more we read and write, the more we grow as writers. While this may seem obvious, at least to adults, we often forget it. And for young writers who are learning and maturing at a tremendous rate, the passage of a month or more can make a tremendous difference in their writing skills. The following Writing Workout is a way to help you take advantage of that growth, whether you're a writer or a teacher.
Writing Workout:
After submitting a draft of Rosa, Sola to my editor, I sometimes had to wait months for her feedback. While that long wait was often frustrating, it did have some benefits: by the time I looked at the manuscript again, I could read it more objectively. It was almost as though someone else had written it. The "cooling off" period, combined with my ongoing growth as a writer (mentioned in #3 above) made it easier to see how I could improve the story.

You can create a similar effect. After you or your students have completed what you believe is a polished draft of a piece of writing, try the following:
  1. If the work is on a computer, print it out in a font you don't typically use. For example, if you usually print in Times New Roman, try an Arial or Verdana font, and maybe change the font size to slightly smaller or larger, too. If you're working with students who have written something by hand, have them type up and print out their work. (Addendum 3/15/10: I recently came across a blog post by Sharon Creech where she discusses using different colored paper for different drafts. I may try that some time. See her post here.)
  2. Put the work aside for awhile, preferably, at least a month.  No matter how tempted you are, do NOT look at the manuscript at all during this time.
  3. While the work is "cooling," keep reading and writing. Read the kinds of things you like to write and/or books about the craft of writing. At the same time, start a new writing project, brainstorm future writing topics, or write daily in a journal, even if for only a minute. (See April's post about this.) This step is VERY important--you want to continue your growth as writer while your story cools.
  4. At the end of the month, pull out your "cooled" draft. When you read it, pretend it was written by someone else. What do you like about the piece? What don't you like about it? What would make it better?
Happy writing (and revising)!


Tara @ A Teaching Life said...

Thank you for this thorough look at the process. I am currently working on my first draft...and it was a revealing view of all the work my manuscript and I face.

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Thank you, Carmela, for sharing your revisions of your novel ROSA SOLA!
Your post refracted our writers' eyes so we can return to our drafts and see our stories with new, fresh eyes.
SEEING another writer's efforts is true Show, Don't Tell.
Last night I shared Brenda Ferber's chapter drafts of JULIA'S KITCHEN with my U. of Chicago Writer's Studio novelists, courtesy of Sandy Asher's WRITING IT RIGHT! (Institute of Children's Literature, 2009).
I posted about Sandy's book on our blog on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2009.
I'm hoping this link works so readers can revisit the book review:
As Nancy Thayer writes, "It's never too late in fiction, or in Life, to revise!"

Sarah Campbell said...

I love the idea of using a different font. I will try it. It sounds like a great way to trick your eyes and brain into seeing it fresh.

Carmela Martino said...

Tara at Teaching Life: I hope I didn't scare you off! Enjoy crafting that first draft. :-)
Thanks for the feedback, Esther. I forgot about Sandy's book. This link should be a more direct one to your review:
Thanks for stopping by, Sarah.

Stasia said...

Love this post. As a writer, revision has been the hardest process for me to get a handle on. Your point about "cooling" a draft is so essential. I also think that each author has to answer for herself how long the "marination" process will take and develop strategies for coming back to the draft in a positive and productive way. The printout in a different font is a favorite of mine, too!

StrictlyTopSecret said...

Those pictures of the manuscript avec post-it notes are VERY encouraging.

They resonated with me and brought back not-so-distant memories of my quest to complete my dissertation. My husband and I joke that my beloved committee chair was born with a red pen in his hand, and he'd edit the Bible, given a chance.

Thank you for the visual reminder that, whether academic research or fiction writing, editing is not a *personal* attack. It's simply an invitation to polish and hone your diamond-in-the-rough.

Carmela Martino said...

Great comments, SWK and Michele. Thanks so much for sharing!

Unknown said...

Great advice Carmela!

mary ann rodman said...

Great post, Carmela. I have used all of the above, at one time or other. I particularly like changing first person to third and vice versa in revising picture books. I naturally write in first person...and it doesn't always work for the book.
I was in the same MFA program with Carmela, and wrote MY first book, YANKEE GIRL through four semesters.
After at least five revisions, I mailed it off. I had an interested editor right away. HOWEVER, her comment to me was "There is a story in here somewhere...and we'll find it!" Find it? After three years of writing and revision
I still had to "find" my story. After I calmed down and listened to her suggestions, YG became a MUCH better book. After that, I learned that editor's notes are a great way to learn even more about writing. Carmela, thanks for bringing that memory we share.

Kym Brunner said...

Awesome post - thanks for sharing. Oh the work! Oh the joy! Guess you can't have one without the other!