Revise, Revise, Revise

On November 22, I attended the National Council of Teachers of English Conference in Boston and participated in a workshop titled Reinventing Revision.  The amazing authors and presenters included Elizabeth Eulberg, Anne Urso, Gae Polisner, Hilary T. Smith, Geoff Herbach, Lisa McMann, Aaron Hartzler, and Andrea Cremer. They all discussed the positive nature of revision.  Most said it was a critical part of completing a novel and creating the best possible story. If you have not guessed, I am a high school English teacher.  I love my profession and my students, but, unfortunately, many of them do not appreciate the act of writing, let alone revision.  This makes me sad. (I want to put an unhappy emoticon here.)

Recently, one of my students asked me if I read in my spare time.  I told him how I completed two excellent Stephen King books – Joyland and Doctor Sleep.  These stories reminded me why I enjoy not only teaching others about literature and writing but also practicing the craft myself.  Even though I know I could never come close to King’s level of mastery, reading great stories makes me want to become a better writer.  This is what I want for my students too.

I often tell them something I learned from Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing.  The only way to improve the craft is to read, write, and then repeat the process.  Read. Write. Repeat.  As a writer, I follow the writing process.  I brainstorm, outline, draft, revise and edit. I want my students to attempt the same.  You can image how much my students love me when I tell them this.  It is hard enough to get them to read an entire novel or write more than a single draft.  Telling them to repeat and revise could cause a classroom rebellion.

My students often do not see the value of revision and I struggle with how to show them its worthiness.  Some of my students work intensely the night before their essay is due, spending many late hours and part of the morning rushing to put their ideas down with some coherence. For many students one draft is enough.

At some point in my early educational career, I might have agreed with them.  In college, I could crank out a five-page paper for class the night before and get a decent grade, but that all changed when I wanted to become a better writer. When I wrote Apocalipstick, my first novel, and submitted it for consideration to Eternal Press, I thought, for the most part, I was done.  I had revised the manuscript previous to submission. My daughter had read it numerous times, laughing at my errors, gleefully pointing out my mistakes, and finally making me promise to find someone else to read it.

I was wrong about being done.  Even after submitting it to Eternal Press, the revision process had just commenced.  I never considered that it would be after the book was accepted for publication that I would revise in such depth.  I am glad I did and, at times, still wish I had the chance to do more revision.

After an editor had looked at the copy, my once fluent prose seemed choppy, my witty sentences contrived, my vocabulary stunted.  I was flummoxed.  I spent such a long time getting the manuscript ready for submission that to see the need for additional changes was hard.

It was also liberating.  I had the chance to make the book even better. Thanks to the hard work of an editor, I was able to make my dialogue more life-like, describe my characters with additional details, and bring the story to life for my reader (I hope).

While I am happy with the final product and love the way Apocalipstick turned out, there are still things in the book I wish I could change.  I cringe every time I read certain paragraphs or see a comma where a semi-colon should have been.  There is always more to do.  That is the joy of revision. There are endless possibilities when writing, and through revising an author finds a way to show some of these.  While it is important to stop revising at some point and say “I’m done,” it is also liberating to know there is a chance to make a manuscript or essay better. I want to show my students how to take their paper to the next level through revision even if they never end up loving writing as much as I do.

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