"Ultimately, the quality of a good piece of writing is determined by the amount of revision a writer is willing to do." —Marcia S. Freeman, Teaching the Youngest Writers: A Practical Guide.
Personally, I enjoy revision. It’s writing the first draft that feels like cutting the lawn, one blade at a time. Lots of authors agree with me on this. However, many students find revision extremely painful. How can we help? In my last post, I shared two famous revision stories and one of my own in the hopes of encouraging young writers that revision is well worth the effort. Now, at the beginning of the school year, I’d like to share some advice about revision from my summer reading. I read three books: Reflections by Ralph Fletcher from the Richard C. Owen Author at Work series, Drop Everything and Write: An Easy Breezy Guide for Kids Who Want to Write a Story by Linda Leopold Strauss, and Teaching the Youngest Writers: A Practical Guide by Marcia S. Freeman.
Ralph Fletcher in Reflections readily admits that sometimes he gets defensive when editors suggest revisions to his work. He wants to shout like a four year old, “I’m not going to change a single comma!” But after he settles down, he tries to find a way to “own the advice” as he works on the suggested changes. Fletcher says that more often than not, “seeing my story through another person’s eyes has helped me untangle a tricky plot or story structure.” Calling his editors “co-creators” of his published work, Fletcher says that his editors have strengthened his writing and taught him many things. Page 44 of Reflections has a nice example of an edited page from Fletcher’s memoir, Marshfield Dreams, complete with crossed out lines, suggestions, and sticky note that would be great to show to students.
Drop Everything and Write by Linda Leopold Strauss has a number of exercises that can help young writers add sensory details to their writing. One activity is a “Listening Walk,” in which the writer records all the sounds heard on the street such as shoes on the sidewalk or a car driving over a manhole. Her example of her own “Listening Walk” would be a great read aloud model in the classroom. With entertaining anecdotes, Strauss warns against letting subplots or minor characters overrun a story and distracting the reader’s attention. She defines many important writer’s terms such as flashback, transitions, black moment, and voice. In a chapter entitled, “Show, Don’t Tell,” Strauss explains the advantages of including details rather than summarizing the action. She encourages young writers to spice up their writing by describing an angry character’s actions rather than simply saying he was angry or setting a scene with images from all five senses. Finally, she says that stories benefit from “drawer time” and gives a checklist for polishing a draft that teachers and students should find very useful.
Marcia Freeman’s Teaching the Youngest Writers addresses the kind of revisions done on the primary level. She provides concrete advice on what teachers can reasonably expect from kindergarteners and first graders, accepting that emergent writers are more capable of adding material than reorganizing a narrative told out of chronological order. Young students are encouraged by the opportunity to share their work. This in turns leads to a consideration of the reader and incentive to revise. “A writer’s first responsibility is to his reader,” says Freeman. Teachers can word compliments with this in mind. For example, “Your readers will like the way you told about your sister.” Reinforcing the reader’s needs can also be used in suggested revisions, such as telling young students that the repetition of a word “puts the reader to sleep.” Freeman defines the important distinction between revision and editing. Revision helps the writer make sure his message is “clear and interesting” while editing is focused on conventions like grammar and spelling. But the reader is still important in the editing process, since punctuation helps the reader understand the text. Finally, while Freeman advises teaching the youngest writers to avoid seeing their work as something that can be finished in one sitting, she cautions against expecting perfection.
All three of these summer reading books enriched my own approach to teaching and writing. I hope they will be useful to you as well.
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