Teaching Revision Part 3



This is a continuation of my posts on teaching revision. Earlier posts can be found here and here.

For 8 weeks this summer, I am teaching a revision-only workshop at a local community writing center. The students have been asking for a revision course for a while. I’m doing a few things that build on my posts here so far about the revision workshop I tried where I only allowed questions for the author and about who is centered in the workshop, so I thought I might write about what I am doing.

In case anyone is interested in trying something like this, or commenting on it, talking about this kind of revision pedagogy, I’ll give the general set-up and will return later to talk about how things went.

The course consists of five things:

1. Revision notes. Each student will revise two stories. One she has already workshopped in another course, and one we will write as a class (more on this later). Each week I assign revision exercises to do on their stories. As students revise, I’ve asked them to take notes. Here’s how I’ve put it in their syllabus:

These Revision Notes will be different for each writer. They should reflect your decision process as you apply the revision exercises. Which exercise did you choose to do and why? How did you interpret the exercise? Where did you add writing and why? Where did you make cuts and why? And so forth.

If it helps you, you might take notes both before you try the exercises and afterward. Some might want to take some notes during—as in, while you are actually writing—though others will not want to interrupt their writing practice. Some will only want to take notes afterward. Any of these approaches are fine. You should go into as much depth as you can—this will help you learn about your own revision process, but also about others’ processes.

You will submit your Revision Notes for your workshop revision with the copies of the story. Your Notes will help us workshop both your revision and your revision process, and will help us make further suggestions. Therefore the Notes are essential. On the other hand, they do not have to be formal or even grammatical. As long as your fellow students can get the gist of what you were thinking as you revised, in as specific a manner as possible. This, of course, means specific to your own writing.

2. Revision workshops. Each student entered the course with a story they’d already workshopped at least once. In other words, a complete story they were working on revising. Each week, they choose another assignment through which to change their stories (for example, I had them make a list of the decisions their protagonist makes and then restructure so that the decisions were causally linked and increasing in stakes–we are working on so-called radical revision for the course, not line-edits). For the workshop, I am asking students to prep the manuscripts by reading first without the Revision Notes and making a quick +/- list, which I have found makes the post-workshop experience easier on the writer, as the writer then can look over quickly what people have brought up often or not; and then to read the Revision Notes and read the manuscript a second time while only posing questions and making suggestions, based on the notes.

In the workshop we start in a common way, by having the author read a few paragraphs, and then we describe the story based on the Revision Notes and on what it is on the page–that is, based on the author’s intentions and decisions in comparison to how they read in the draft. At this point, the author responds and poses a question to the class. Questions are asked and answered on both sides, so that the conversation looks more like a conversation between the author and the readers, rather than a conversation among the readers. We talk about the draft as a draft, one in a succession of drafts, not as a final product, which means we discuss where it has come and where it is going, and what the author has done to move it from one thing to another. These manuscripts are especially in progress as we know that the author will continue to drastically reshape her story as the course goes on. At the end of any particular revision workshop, the author says one or two things she would like to try to do as she continues to revise her story, and I make up the revision exercises for the week from these stated things and from other options.

3. Partners. Everyone has a partner in the class who reads each revision (one per week) of the story. I set aside about a half-hour at the end of class for partners to discuss how the drafts have changed since the last week. So far, I’ve had them do specific tasks during this time–for example, I had the partners map each others’ stories, including where the natural breaks occurred on each page (where more could be added easily to what was there) and what themes showed up on each page and what work each section was “doing” for the story, then shading in the parts of the story that were in the past–they did this on a separate piece of paper, where each column represented a page of the story. The partners are there to keep everyone revising each week so that their partners will have something to read, and for encouragement and community. It’s also nice in workshop to have one other person (other than the author) who has seen multiple drafts of the story and can talk about its progress more specifically.

4. A “class story.” In addition to the story they come in with, everyone is writing and revising a version of the same story, which they started in their first week from an elaborate prompt. Each week, for this story, everyone has to do the same prompt to revise their story. We are using this “class story” in lieu of outside reading (for better or worse–I would assign more reading, but it’s already overwhelming them), and it’s a way for everyone to see how differently each person interprets the exact same prompt. How differently we solve similar problems. It’s a way for the class to be a knowledge-base for each other. We learn about each other’s processes and revision strategies as we discuss two versions of the “class story” each week. The Revision Notes for these stories help immensely, as we talk in class about how we all (myself included–though I’m not having them read my version, I’m doing the assignments along with them) executed the prompts.

5. Revision exercises. I’ve talked about these a little bit, but each week I give the class one prompt that everyone has to do to revise their version of the “class story,” and then a list of prompts (from which they can choose one) to use to revise their workshop story. The lists of prompts for their personal story builds off of the revision workshop and the work they do with their partners. Here’s an example from the week where they mapped out each other’s stories and we talked about what we each ask ourselves when we first start revising.

Start by asking yourself the following questions:
  1. 1. What is the story about? “Have I said something that’s mine?” (<–this came from class discussion)
  2. 2. What provides conflict? What is the central conflict?
  3. 3. What is extraneous?
  4. 4. What are the stakes?
  5. 5. What does the character want?
  6. 6. How does the character change or fail to change?
  7. 7. Where are the gaps where something could be added? What is missing?
Now take a look at the map of your story that your partner has made for you (or that you made for yourself). Ask yourself whether your story map seems to agree with your answers to the questions above. Now you have 3 options.
  • Look for any place you can add characterization. Just read through and put an asterisk or make a mark where you could add anything at all to characterize. After you’ve done that, go back and add characterization at every single point. Think about characterizing in all of the ways we talked about in class, but especially through decision and action. Your additional characterization should make your story much longer. You probably have too much characterization now. Cut at least half of what you’ve added.
  • Rearrange your story. Not only a little bit, though. Rearrange your story so only two sections that your partner marked are in the same place. Every other section should be moved. If that means you have to add or delete scenes, please do so. Do whatever you need to do to make your story work again.
  • Add a source of outside conflict to your story. That is, add something big that comes in and forces itself on the plot, something like a toxic spill or an earthquake or a war or a rabid dog or a serial killer or a rapture. Don’t make this a small insertion but something that truly changes the story. You might think about what large outside conflict might connect to your character’s arc thematically, if that helps.

So far the course seems to be going well. Have you taught a revision-focused workshop before? Would love to hear about it. As always, you can reach me at m [dot] saleses [at gmail etc].

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