Monday, March 5, 2012


Inspired by Mary Amato’s post on Sharing Mistakes,, I told students the story of a recent poem acceptance. In addition to a few stylistic changes, the editor asked if I would consider chopping off the last two lines. I was hesitant. The poem felt unfinished without the ending. Then, as I usually do, when an editor makes a suggestion, I examined those lines again. Did I really need them? Were they redundant? Could I rework the beginning so the new ending felt more resonant? I gave it a whirl and revised the poem, creating a version I liked better. In the end, I was grateful to the editor for pushing me to write a stronger poem. 

Art by Maggie D.
This is not the first time an editor has asked me to remove an ending, change a title, or even switch the point of view. Revisions at the request of an editor are part of any published author’s life.  Books rarely spring perfectly formed from the writer’s brain. They benefit from the suggestions of others. When someone gives me a good idea for fixing one of my stories or poems, they give me a present—an opportunity to write something better. In the long run, I am happier.  Of course, it can be hard to hear that writing you think is finished needs further work, but good writing requires hard work. At author visits, I often tell students how I expanded my original idea for Zapato Power from a 1,0000 word easy reader to a 5,000 word chapter book. Likewise, my Constitution book, Unite or Die: How Thirteen States Became a Nation began as a four page skit of 800 some words that I expanded to over 3000 words. Students are accustomed to hearing their teachers tell them they should add details or change things in their writing. It can be comforting (and empowering) for students to hear that all writers are asked to expand their stories. A frequent question at author visits is: “How many times do you revise?” The truth is I revise so many times, I lose track. Thirty times may be an average number but I sold a book last year that I’ve been re-writing in different formats for over twenty years. That book must have gone through at least one hundred revisions.

Teachers are often frustrated by a student’s unwillingness to go back and revise. Kids often feel they are finished the second they put the period on the last sentence. So it bears repeating as often as possible that revision is the key to good writing.  While not all students will be motivated to rework their pieces, some will be inspired with amazing results. A student recently came to me with a brief third person story about a father/son ski trip that ended in the boy’s death. I suggested that she fill out the story to make the reader feel more connected to the characters. I also commented on how the death of a child is very sad. The student said she wanted to write a sad story. I said, “That’s fine. Just make the reader feel the experience.” To be honest, I didn’t expect the student to pursue the project. About a week later, the student came back to me with a story written from the viewpoint of a daughter who lost her father during a skiing accident. I was blown away by the immediacy of the voice. A couple of ho-hum paragraphs about a nameless boy who died in a hole had been transformed into a riveting first person story. I felt the panic and pain of this new character as she realized her father was fatally injured. The young writer had added strong dialogue and vivid details one would never have imagined from her first draft. She proved to herself and her readers how much a new approach can enhance a story.  

Another example comes from a student who wanted to write a story about the day she overcame her fear of riding roller coasters. However, she got bogged down in the beginning and somehow ended up spending more time describing the breakfast she ate and the drive to the amusement park than the roller coaster ride. I suggested that she trim the beginning and add more details about her fear of riding coasters and how she overcame it. At first, she balked (as I did when the editor asked me to rewrite my poem). Then, she sat down to try again. The end result was a piece so focused the reader felt the queasiness in the girl’s stomach as she considered overcoming her fears.

As teachers, sometimes we are afraid to push our students to do better work. We don’t want to discourage them. But the delighted face of a student who realizes he/she has transformed a weak work into a strong one is an empowering gift for all involved.

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