Teacher to Teacher: Revision, the Heart of the Matter
by Lynne R. Dorfman
We all want our students to revise but in order for them to be willing to do the work, they must first understand its value. After you have a writerly discussion about why we should revise, then we can start to talk about how to engage in the revision process. When I talk with writers about revision,
I always suggest that they begin by looking at the content to see if they have developed their ideas. Elaboration is key to good writing. Ask students to work with partners. As each writer shares her piece, ask the partner to listen for places where more details/information can be added. Mark these places with small sticky dots or a light pencil mark. Try for two different kinds of elaboration. Here are some suggestions:
Character: Flesh out the individuals in your piece of writing. Select a key feature of the character and develop him/her like a cartoonist or portrait artist would. How do her hands look? How does her mouth work when she smiles or talks? In The Witches Roald Dahl writes: With each word she (The Grand High Witch) spoke, flecks of pale-blue phlegm shot from her mouth like tiny bullets. (1983, p. 72-73) What about the character’s hair, eyes, clothing? Close your eyes and try to picture the character in a specific location
Dialogue: In a narrative, dialogue is a key element. Readers expect that talk will be scattered throughout a story. Let the characters talk instead of telling what they say. Show the character’s personality – what he is thinking and feeling. If your writers are not sure how to punctuate conversation, forget about that for the moment. Ask them to skip a space or indent every time a different character speaks, and concentrate on creating a voice for each character. From The Witches: “You may rreee-moof your vigs!” snarled The Grand High Witch. (1983, p. 69)
Setting: Look for places in the narrative where places are mentioned but there are no specifics about what those places look like. Add details – use your senses – to develop them in greater detail. Try to create a picture in the reader’s mind. From The Witches by Roald Dahl: At the back of the room there was a large folding screen with Chinese dragons painted on it… I tiptoe to the back of the room and settled myself on the thick green carpet behind the big screen. (1983, p.57)
Center of Gravity: (For older writers) Find the best part of your story – the place where you believe everything is working well. Begin writing right at this place. Forget about the other parts. Spill your words here as quickly as possible. See if your piece wants to continue in that direction. See where your writing takes you, and then decide if it works for you – if you are happy with it.
Write More: What else do you know about this character? Place? Particular story? Is there a sequel to this story? Is this piece really two stories?
Revision responses should help the writer, not the writing, move forward. It is valuable to write in front of your students and let them see you engage in revision. Talk about your process as you revise. Make the invisible process visible for your students. Allow your students to help you revise your own writing to model the process. Ask them these questions:
- What stayed with you?
- What did it make you think of?
- What questions do you have?
Encourage students to write comments on sticky notes as you read their writing aloud to them. This practice of reading aloud is so useful to student writers. It helps them to develop a writer’s ear for the music of the words. The following list is filled with some suggestions to try out when engaged in revision. Happy writing to all!
- Reread to discover the “inside story.” What are you really writing about?
- Write a different beginning.
- Write a different ending.
- Write the piece in a different tense.
- Use a multi-genre approach.
- Write in the third person instead of the first person.
- Write for a different audience.
- Find your center of gravity and begin there.
- Write the piece in a different format (a poem, letter, or feature article).
- Look at your verbs and nouns – are they specific?
- Try adding some dialogue.
- Write descriptions that appeal to a sense you have not evoked in this piece.
- Try to collaborate with a peer who is writing on the same theme or subject and rewrite.
- Read it aloud to see if the voice is working. Listen to the rhythm of your words.
- Check for unnecessary words (economy of expression).
- Step away from your work for several hours or wait until the next day – even the next week – to tackle revision again.
Lynne Dorfman is a co-director of PAWLP and a 1989 fellow. Lynne co-authored Welcome to Writing Workshop: Engaging Today’s Students with a Model That Works (2019). She is an adjunct professor for Arcadia University and a PAReads editor. Lynne will serve as president for her local reading council, KSLA Brandywine/Valley Forge, for June 2019 – June 2020 year.