Teaching Nonfiction Revision

By Vicki Spandel

In the years I’ve worked with teachers, the question that comes up most often is, “How do you teach revision?” As a new school year begins, it seems like a good time to revisit this fundamental question that gets to the very heart of how we teach writing. Good writing teachers recognize that unless we teach revision, we’re only teaching quick drafting. Not the same thing at all. (Quick drafting, by the way, is what most writing assessments call for—but that’s a discussion for another time.)

What Is Revision Anyway?

Teaching revision well requires us to define what it means to revise. As my friend Sneed Collard and I discovered in writing our book Teaching Nonfiction Revision, almost every writer out there has his or her own personal definition of the process. Taken together, these definitions boil down to refining original ideas or seeing things with increasing clarity. Most of us would agree that revision involves reshaping, rewording, and reworking first thoughts. But at the foundation of all this is something even more fundamental: taking control of your writing. Why is this important? Because it’s a whole paradigm shift. Instead of teaching revision as a chore—necessary, mind you, but a chore all the same—we can show students that revision = power. You get to revise. You’re entitled. It’s a privilege granted only to the original writer of a piece. A privilege that goes with owning your writing.

Revising Is Caring

Why do people revise their writing? Simple. They care about their readers and want them to understand and enjoy what they’re reading. Equally important, they care about their message. They want it to be heard and remembered. How do we ensure students will care deeply about what they write?

Choice. Choice. Choice. Beginning with the most important choice of all . . .

Choosing Your Own Topic

The most important choice a writer makes is what to write about. It’s no secret—or at least it shouldn’t be—that students do their best writing when the message comes from the heart. This is nothing more than common sense, isn’t it? Writers are investigators, exploring the world for ideas, for evidence, for details. It simply isn’t as exciting or inspiring to investigate a topic someone hands to you as it is to come up with your own questions to answer. Details explode and voice shines when students decide for themselves what their message will be. But—does choice have an impact on revision? Absolutely!

At one point in my writing career I helped write a textbook on economics. With apologies to any economists who might read this, it was not my favorite topic. I struggled to make concepts clear and to use words like balanced budget, commodity, collateral, devaluation, and diversification correctly. But was I inspired to make that text fun to read? Un-put-downable? Um, no. Clarity and accuracy were my goals; readability was far down the list. Voice? Out of reach when I couldn’t be myself. I like to think that those who read the book were able to make sense of it, but I imagine they found putting it down not only possible, but a big fat relief. Why would they have fun reading what I had no fun writing?

Fast forward five years. My mom—whose health and mental faculties had been in decline for quite some time—finally needed round-the-clock nursing care. We took her to a facility that was about as nice as such facilities get but still felt like jail to me. I helped her pack. She thought we were going to Las Vegas, and carefully chose each item she would wear on this grand venture. As I folded her things, I kept turning away so she wouldn’t see my tears. When we entered the “home,” as such places are euphemistically called, it struck me how Vegas-like it was with bright flashing lights and non-stop noise. I was jolted back to reality when she asked me, “Why on earth did you pick this hotel?” Even as I felt my heart crack, I had to stifle a laugh, and I later wrote about this episode, thinking how many people have lived a similar nightmare and how much I wanted, for them and for myself, to capture the complex truth of it. It took me several weeks to get the insoluble mix of darkness and comic relief right. I was paid well for my brief stint in the world of economics. But it was that bizarre world of nursing homes into which I poured my heart, and the response of teachers to whom I read the piece aloud meant more to me than any fee.

If you’ve ever reworked a garden, patched up an over-hugged stuffed toy or favorite pair of jeans, remodeled a house, brought a neglected pet back to health, or fixed up an old car, then you know what it means to revise what you love. Let’s give our students a chance to do just that. Help them in finding topics that work for them, but let the choice be theirs.

Student-Controlled Conferences

Donald Graves often said that nothing important happens in the conference until the student speaks. I agree. But we have to keep in mind that this is only true when the student is in charge of her writing. If the purpose of the conference is for the “expert” to critique the writing or lay out what needs to happen next, then the student’s voice is about as meaningful as that vacuous voice in a robo call.

A conference offers us an exceptional opportunity to help students feel the power of being in charge. We can start by inviting students to come to the conference with questions of their own that will guide the discussion. We can let them choose whether to read their writing aloud, read just a portion of it, ask us to read while they listen, or skip the read-aloud bit and simply chat about process. In addition, we can acknowledge their ownership by asking such things as—

  • What’s your topic and how did you choose it?
  • How’s the writing going? Are you finding it easy—or a bit of a rocky road? Do you know why?
  • Do you find yourself thinking about the piece even when you’re not writing?
  • What are you hoping people feel or picture when they read this?
  • Have you felt stuck at any point? What do you do when that happens?
  • What are you loving about this piece? Is anything bugging you?
  • Is it turning out the way you thought it would when you started—or are you finding some surprises?
  • Are you revising as you go? Or do you feel like getting a whole draft done before you make any changes?
  • Are you reading your writing aloud to yourself? How do you think it sounds?
  • What’s your next step in working on this piece?

The point of the conference isn’t for me, or any teacher, to identify problems and then come up with solutions. And if we think this way about conferences, we won’t hold many because it’s extremely stressful and exhausting to play the oracle all the time.

A good conference should be a conversation between two writers. It gives students a chance to ask pressing questions, to share how writing process is going for them and where they’re encountering speed bumps, and to clarify what they hope to accomplish. Students who need specific help will ask for it—if we model how to do this.

Modeling the Need for Help

Owning your writing doesn’t mean you can never ask for help. On the contrary. It means you get to decide what sort of help you need. This doesn’t always come naturally to students because they’re so used to thinking of themselves as “the person whose work is being assessed.” This, if you think about it, is a precarious position. Should you really ask for help from someone who’s judging how well you’re doing? Won’t that just reveal that you don’t know what you’re doing?

Well, guess what. No writer does—all the time. But students usually don’t know this.

Many teachers are shy about modeling because they’re afraid their work isn’t good enough. Ironically, this is the very fear that inhibits their students, and it’s a great comfort to students to know that we are sometimes unsure about our writing too. In truth, writing that needs work is the perfect thing to share because it offers a chance to model what students need to see: a writer who is looking for answers and needs help finding them. It gives students a chance to be problem solvers—which is excellent revision practice for them. This kind of modeling is easy to do, and fun for both the teacher-writer and the student coaches.

My suggestion is not to write in front of students when you want to focus on a specific question or problem. It simply takes too long. You won’t have enough time for discussion.

Start with a draft you’ve already written—double spaced so you have room for additions or notes. It doesn’t have to be long or finished. A rough paragraph will do nicely. You need to project it so students can read it as you share it aloud. Ideally, use a piece you haven’t revised much yet, preferably one you haven’t looked at for a few days. That way, you will also see it with new eyes. Before you share it, read it to yourself so you can come up with at least one specific question to ask your students. Here’s a piece from a story I’m writing about cats, and it’s one I would use for this purpose. In this scene, a highly intelligent, crafty cat is leaving home, but senses she is threatened by a circling eagle:

Keeping the big oak between herself and the raptor, she scaled the trunk with ease, emerging on a low branch that barely overhung the fence. Her belly skimming the bark, she crept down the length of the bough, pausing just where the overhead leaves began to thin, her body still camouflaged beneath their canopy.

The question I have for students is this: Is crept the right word here? This is a bigger question than you might think, and can lead to a whole lesson on word choice. I would have students brainstorm some alternatives: e.g., slinked, sidled, sneaked, skulked, slithered, crawled. Then I might ask them to confer with partners or in small groups to choose a favorite or come up with some other possibilities. I’d also share with them some strategies I’d use as a writer in finding the right word for this moment—starting with closing my eyes to picture the cat and almost feel her move. In addition, I’d talk about using an online thesaurus. Or a resource like the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. My favorite of all time is The Synonym Finder by J. I Rodale, wildly expensive to buy new, but available used for less than ten dollars—far better than a thesaurus. I can also do an online search for “words describing how cats move.” This kind of search is something students don’t always think to do, and it can be very helpful.

It’s important when collecting synonyms to ask students what sort of image comes to mind with various options. For example, what does a slinking cat look like? What does a word like slinking suggest about an animal? How about skulking? This word has connotations of lurking and prowling that might be more appropriate for a cat on the hunt than one being hunted. But students may not know this without a little research. What about a slithering cat? Too snake-like? Can a sneaking cat be heroic—as this particular cat needs to be? As you can see, a simple choice about one word can launch a 15-minute discussion about how language influences imagery, mood, and even meaning. It can be eye-opening to students to discover how one decision affects so many things about writing. More important, as you search together for a word that works, you’re helping students understand how writers think—and revise. You’re making revision visible.

Of course, over time, you’ll want to discuss many things in addition to word choice. The possibilities are infinite, especially if you write yourself and always have a text to share. Here are some sample “need-help” questions I might raise with regard to different passages. As you read these, think of revision lessons you could build around your own writing:

  • I tried condensing this. Did I go far enough, or is it still too wordy?
  • Did you notice how I inserted a question after several statements? Do you like that kind of shift?
  • Did I provide enough detail about the capture of the rattlesnake? Can you picture what happened—like a movie in your head? Or do you still have questions?
  • What does my title make you think the piece will be about? After I read the whole piece to you, I’d like to know if you think the title works.
  • I’ll ask you to please pay particular attention to the ending. I want to know if it’s too abrupt or if it feels about right.
  • I wrote a very short passage describing the nurse tending my mother. After listening, give me some words that show what you think the nurse is like.

Modeling Choice with On-the-Go Writing

Writing on the go—writing in front of students, that is—works wonderfully well if you’re focusing on something short, such as a title or lead. It’s great fun to write several versions, of a lead, let’s say, and ask students to not only choose a favorite but also discuss the very different directions in which alternate leads could take the writer—and reader.

Recently I did a book review for a book I’d expected to love, but didn’t. In fact, I became quite frustrated and even enraged while reading (very rare for me) because the writer constantly allowed himself to get so bogged down in detail that I felt we were wading through a veritable swamp of data, factual muck threatening to drag us under. “Get to the point!” I wanted to shout. Actually, I am pretty sure I did shout this, more than once. I should add that the book received accolades from numerous credible sources, and was highly recommended to me by well-educated friends who are voracious readers and whose judgment I trust. Or did. Just kidding.

I don’t want to mention the title or author, for obvious reasons. But think of all the usual gushy clichés—award-winning, internationally acclaimed, highly revered. You’ll find every one on the front cover. Award winner or not, this book didn’t work for me, and I can only say the editor must have been taking a giant snooze. Probably fell asleep reading the manuscript.

Let’s say I hadn’t written my review yet and wanted students to help me with the lead. I’d write several in front of them—like these:

  • How many details can you process in an hour? If your answer is under 1,000, this isn’t your book.
  • I used to love detail. Then I read this book.
  • Research makes for good writing—as long as you don’t feel compelled to share every last fact you dig up.
  • Danger! Don’t read this book in bed!
  • Did you ever read a book that made you downright angry?

I would ask students to tell me which lead they preferred and why. I might also invite them to write some alternatives of their own, and we’d read a few aloud and discuss them. As a follow-up, I would ask students to write three leads for a piece of their own writing, then share these in a writing group and invite responses from peers. Students learn a great deal about the value of reader response from this simple activity. They also learn that revision isn’t always an after-writing activity. You can give things a trial run as you go. Let’s look at some other ways to do this.

Having Fun with Revision—or “Playing” with the Writing

Revision is a series of choices. The thing is, though, you can’t always make them spontaneously. Sometimes you need to think things over, giving your mind a chance to reflect and process. When I can’t decide on a particular word, for example, I write all the alternatives into my text. Using the previous example with the cat, here’s how my sentence would look:

Her belly skimming the bark, she crept/slipped/stole/slinked/sidled down the length of the bough, pausing just where the overhead leaves began to thin, her body still camouflaged beneath their canopy.

This approach ensures I won’t forget the words I want to consider. Later, when I review my story, I can read each one aloud to see which one calls up the image of the cat that lives in my mind. If the “right” word doesn’t jump out at me, I’ll keep looking, or get out of this sticky wicket by writing the sentence another way. I love sharing strategies like this with young writers because it lets them see revision in action.

Sneed and I both use a tactic I love for revising longer pieces. Thank heaven for computers, which make this simple. It would have been drudgery in days gone by. If you aren’t sure whether you love a section—say a paragraph—or would like to revise it, make a copy of just that paragraph into a new file. Or make a couple copies. That way, you can tinker with revision, changing one or both of your copies, without losing the original (which you might decide to keep). Nifty, eh?

One more idea. You’ve probably heard the expression “Murder your darlings.” I know Stephen King said this, but I’m not sure he was the first. It’s excellent advice, and like a lot of excellent advice, difficult to follow. We all include favorite words, phrases, or passages in our writing that we’re later reluctant to delete or change. A niggling voice in our heads says, “This ought to go, and you know it,” but we just can’t do it. This happens to me all the time—and to every other writer I know. I just draw a line through the text, but leave it in place for the time being:

Her belly skimming the bark, she crept/slipped/stole/slinked/sidled down the length of the bough, pausing just where the overhead leaves began to thin, her body still camouflaged beneath their canopy. Her claws flexed and released in sync with the raptor’s rhythm.

When I come back to this passage, I can read it aloud both ways. I nearly always cave in to the wisdom of that nagging voice in my head, but I don’t like to surrender too quickly.

Saying No to Advice

I like to think my advice on writing is pretty good. So when Sneed and I were working on our book together, and routinely reviewing each other’s work, it was sometimes hard for me when I’d make what I thought was a brilliant suggestion and Sneed would respond, “Thanks, but I think I’ll keep it the way it is.” Say what?

Actually, this is a fine lesson in how give-and-take should go when the writer is in control of his writing. I could come up with a zillion revision possibilities, but ultimately, it had to be up to Sneed to decide how he would express his own thoughts. That’s what ownership is all about.

Your students need to do this, too. They may not feel bold enough, though, unless you model it. And this one’s a little tricky, make no mistake. The key lies in striking a balance: open-minded on the one hand, confident on the other. When you ask for your students’ advice, listen carefully (Sneed always did this, or so he told me), be openly appreciative, but let students know you reserve the right to do any of three things: 1) heed their advice as given, 2) agree in part but come up with a compromise, or 3) keep the status quo. Why is it so important for students to consider advice, reflect, and then make up their own minds? Because if someone else is choreographing all the changes, the writer is not the one doing the revision. She might be the one moving the pencil or hitting the keyboard, but she is not the one doing the thinking. In the end, students only learn to revise by thinking through what works and making their own choices.

Taking Your Time

Revision is reflective, thoughtful, relaxed, unhurried, deep. It simply will not be rushed. I’ve been working on my cat story for just over a year, and I revise it twice a week, sometimes more. I’m just not totally happy with it yet. And not sure when I’ll get there. I’ll know when it’s done.

Yes, when I worked for Willamette Week Newspaper, I had to revise more quickly. I had deadlines. And a demanding editor. I made the most of late nights and early mornings, squeezing in every minute I could to get the details, the flow, and the voice just right. Given a choice, I’d have loved one or two more days on most of my stories.

If we’re serious about teaching writing, we need to provide in-class time for revision. What better opportunity is there? In class, students have access to a dictionary, thesaurus, and with luck, a computer. They have partners or peer groups with whom to share writing. They have you. No, it isn’t perfect. Classrooms can be noisy. And you don’t have the luxury of three-hour writing periods (which is about the amount of time I like to spend each day). But for many students, writing at home during the evening or over the weekend isn’t perfect either. And they won’t have you to remind them what revision can look like.

Provide as much time as you can, and keep deadlines flexible. Encourage students to write several short pieces versus just one or two long pieces during a grading period. That allows for more than one revision per piece—which may sound overwhelming to students, but feels completely natural once it becomes a habit. Suggest ways to make the most of revision-at-home time. At home, students can—

  • Look for a place they feel comfortable (kitchen table, basement, quiet room, even outdoors)
  • Play music if it helps them relax (I never revise without it—I like Celtic, but I think anything that’s not distracting to the writer works)
  • Set a schedule (When I sit down to write, I commit to two or three hours minimum, but urge students to set a goal of 15 or 20 minutes, then gradually add more time)
  • Keep a dictionary, book of synonyms, or other resources handy
  • Read aloud (I read everything I write aloud)
  • Remind themselves that they are in control—all revision choices are theirs

Knowing When to Revise—and When to Quit Revising

Telling someone when to revise is like telling them when to comb their hair. How would I know? It’s your hair! You look in the mirror and you smile and shrug like the Fonz or you reach for the comb—right? You look at your writing, and listen to your writing, and you know. How? Because maybe, like mussed hair (or these days, overly neat hair), it doesn’t please you. Not yet. Something’s off.

This question of when to revise reminds us why writers need to own their writing. No one but you can know when your writing sounds right to your ear. Your students have to make that judgment call too. Will they miss some things we think they should catch? Undoubtedly. That’s not important. It really isn’t. What matters is the writer’s growing capacity to assess her own work. To say, I like the sound of this. I like the voice. I like the points I made and the words I chose to make them. If the writer cannot do this, it makes no difference how adept we are at assessing her work because she cannot work independently. And in writing—and revising—independence is everything.

Knowing when to stop is always hard, no matter how experienced a writer you may be. Proficient writers tend to love revision, and may work a piece to death given the chance. There’s always a little something—a word here, a deletion there, an addition to this scene, one more sensory detail, a bit of tweaking on that chapter lead, a clarification, a joke you just have to make, a comma where a dash used to be. It never stops.

A deadline comes in handy for putting a halt to this kind of nonsense. But barring that, this is my rule of thumb: I leave the piece for three days and then read it aloud. If I can’t find anything important to change (something more than changing gleam to glisten), if I like the sound of it, if I enjoy reading it, if it sounds natural and like me, I call it good. You can come up with your own criteria and so can your students. “Knowing when to stop revising,” by the way, makes for a great classroom discussion.

A Final Word: Revising with Primary Students

A lot of people don’t believe in teaching revision to primary students, but we can be totally comfortable with it if we don’t associate the “need for revision” with criticism. We don’t want our youngest writers to feel they need to revise because they did something wrong—or they’re just not very good writers. We do, however, want them to know that they can revise if they want to. If they feel a need to add or change something to suit themselves. They’re the owners of their writing, and writers have power. Help them think of revision as the writer’s right—like the right to hang a new picture in your own room.

We’d be less afraid of teaching revision to primary students, I think, if we refused to be revision snobs. We’re conditioned to think that revision is by nature big and sweeping, all-encompassing. You have to slash whole paragraphs, add pages of dialogue, create new scenes, jazz up the action, cut that boring final chapter in half. It can look like that, yes, but at primary level, take it easy. Hang up your Samurai sword. For our youngest writers, revision might be adding one descriptive word. Or one sentence. Changing big to huge. Tinkering with a title. If we acknowledge these small but important transformations, students will see revision for what it is: opportunity.

We honor their revision efforts by saying things like this:

  • When you told me the butterfly was blue, I could see it more clearly! Great revision!
  • The word flying is much more vivid than going! You sure know how to revise.
  • I love your new title. Writers don’t always think to do that kind of revision. Good for you.

 

Have a great year of writing and revising. And to learn more revision strategies, check out that great little book Sneed and I had so much fun cobbling together (even if he didn’t take all my advice).

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