Monday, May 5, 2014

Deadliest Animals: Revision

Ah, revision. Kids hate it. And honestly, I don’t blame them.

The truth is that I’m not crazy about it either, but I’ve been through it enough times that I KNOW it will be worth it. I KNOW it will make the manuscript better.
But kids don’t have the same confidence in the process. Why should they? They don’t have experience that proves the point. IMHO, that’s the best thing a visiting (or Skyping) author can do while talking to kids—reassure them that revision is worth the effort. Students may not trust teachers who espouse the benefits of revising, but they’re very likely to believe the authors they love.
I belong to a wonderful writing group and am a big proponent or buddy editing (peer editing), but I think self editing is a crucial first step. The problem is that after doing all the hard work of writing a draft, writers aren’t likely to see the faults in their manuscripts. That’s why I always let a manuscript chill out.
I learned this trick while reading On Writing by Stephen King (which I highly recommend even though I’m not fan of his novels). After writing a draft, I don’t look at it for as long as possible—a few days, a few weeks, even longer if possible. Stephen King writes his whole next book before going back to self edit the previous one. I know time is at a premium in American classrooms, but really think students should have a chance to do this.
So how do I revise? First, I ask myself a few big-picture questions:
--What was my goal in writing this manuscript?
--Did I accomplish what I set out to do?
--What can I do better?
--Are there places that are confusing or underdeveloped (lack details)?
--Are there places where I get off track?
--How can I make the information and ideas in this manuscript even more interesting?
Once I’ve addressed these big-picture questions, I look closely at my word choice. I consider every word on its own merit. Can I choose stronger verbs? Can I add comparisons to help make unfamiliar facts or ideas more relevant to kids’ lives? Can I enrich the text with sensory details? What kinds of literary devices (alliteration, assonance, opposition, rhythm, internal rhyme, etc) might strengthen the voice?
After going through the manuscript as a whole (big picture) and word-by-word, I take it to my critique group and try my best to listen to their criticisms with an open mind. It’s not always easy. All writers have a natural tendency to defend their manuscripts, but that’s counterproductive.
When author Alexis O’Neill leads revision retreats, she gives participants one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard:
“The more you talk. The less you hear.”
I try to remember that advice when my manuscript is being discussed. Sometimes I have to pretend I have a piece of duct tape over my mouth.

After revising based on my critique group's suggestions, I send the manuscript off to my editor and cross my fingers. Then I wait. Patience is another skill that writers must have in spades.

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