Teaching Revision Part 2
This is a continuation of last week’s post about teaching revision…
After we’ve talked about the outside story’s first and finished draft and done a number of macro things to think about how we look at a story as a whole, I move my revision class into thinking about their own pieces on a more micro-level.
In my class over the weekend, I started this by mentioning the most common tip I heard back on from other writers and have told and been told myself: read aloud. We practice this by having everyone read aloud the first page of whatever they’re revising, which I’ve asked people to bring in beforehand (with copies for everyone). Before we do this, though, we talk about style and things to do on a sentence level, such as getting rid of introductory clauses or simultaneous clauses (“I closed my eyes and smiled” rather than “Closing my eyes, I smiled,” though of course neither are very interesting sentences), putting markers of information at the beginning of sentences (“At ten o’clock, I went to the store” rather than “I went to the store at ten o’clock), and so on. A further list can be found here. After we went over some style stuff (with a number of examples from craft essays and literature), we listened to each author read aloud and we made some marks for line edits, then shared what we marked and why.
Using these notes, I asked the writer to try another revision strategy, rewriting from one page onto another. The writer could incorporate whatever suggestions she wanted, but she couldn’t simply edit the open document or cross things out on paper. She had to rewrite on a blank page. Afterward, we reflected on how helpful or not this was. Usually my classes say this is hard but helpful. The blank page is always intimidating, and it’s always hard to let go of what we have already written.
From here, we talked about the order of information, the order of sentences, the order of paragraphs, and what that order indicates to the reader. I mentioned that readers (at least readers with a somewhat common American education) are taught to read content in a way that prioritizes the first and last lines of each paragraph and the first and last paragraphs of any piece of writing. This is how I was taught to read for comprehension. We talked about how we could use this to our advantage, making sure that we bury what we want to bury in the middles, that we emphasize what we want to emphasize at the beginnings and ends. I also talked about how the most common edit I make as a fiction editor is to suggest cutting a first paragraph or a final paragraph. I find the tendency even in very good stories seems to be to over-introduce or sum up. I asked my class to cut their first paragraphs and last paragraphs of the pieces they were revising and, if they felt they needed to, to rewrite them from scratch if they replaced them. I encourage them, if they have extra time in the exercise, to do the same for the first and last sentences of individual paragraphs.
After this, we looked at an essay about the concrete versus the abstract, and we talked about showing and telling. To me, the question isn’t what’s better, but when is showing better and when is telling better and why? One of the things I usually answer in my own work, to these questions, is that emotions are better shown, so as an exercise, we looked through our pieces and circled any emotions characters felt in words (e.g. “She felt sad”) and replaced them with shown emotions. I also mentioned how doing individual passes of a manuscript, say one pass for showing emotion, can help make the work more manageable.
This post seems to be going on forever, so I’ll just lay out a few more exercises the class might try:
For characterization (and plot): write a list of decisions the protagonist (and other characters, if time) makes. What do those decisions tell us about who that person is? About who is really the center of the story? How do the earlier decisions lead to the later decisions? Do they? What’s the causation?
For objects (and characterization): rewrite a description of a character using a significant object or mark (the obvious example is a scar for a bad guy). Then search the manuscript for places where this character object can come back up. The object comes to help characterize and is invested with specific, character-specific significance.
For indirect speech versus direct speech: look through and examine dialogue carefully for when information can be given more efficiently and with more characterization through indirect speech. Usually, I’ve found, my classes tend to rely more on dialogue than on indirect speech.
For backstory: look through the entire piece, focusing on backstory, and see whether you can fit any piece of it into the present story, say through dialogue, two characters talking about that backstory. Write that scene in a place where it fits in the story.
For metaphor: circle all of the metaphors in the story. Now examine them carefully and make sure something direct doesn’t work better and that the metaphor fits with the perspective.
Write a scene taking the protagonist out of the main plot, like a visit from someone outside of the plot, or an unexpected phone call, or going to a movie alone, or etc.
Change the POV. Try writing a few paragraphs, starting the story over, from the beginning, from a new POV. Switch from 3rd to first, for example. Share, discuss, etc.
The last two things we talk about in class are usually does the length match the reach and a sort of movie treatment for plot. If there’s time, which there almost never is, I like to have people describe their stories and the class can guess how long the story is. The idea is that the length of the story is set by the requirements of the story on plot, stakes, etc. For the movie treatment, I demonstrate a four-page treatment (all of action, only action) that separates the story into three acts, that students might want to try at home.
Lastly we talk about other revision strategies from other writers from the revision month. I try to inundate with information, with as many strategies and as much practice (as a start) for those strategies as possible, with the hope that the course will give students a lot to take with them when they sit down to do their revisions on their own.
Again, would love to hear from other people on how they teach revision: m [dot] salesses [at gmail etc]