If you have a sensitive writer, you know revision can be tough. This is part four of my series on the writing process, with four techniques for pain-free revision (Want to catch up? Here’s part one, part two, and part three.)
I don’t start writing until I’ve been pondering an idea for days. Usually it’s a background hum beneath never ending loads of laundry, messier-than-I-intended science projects, and near death experiences of a certain, very-much-a-boy toddler. Other times, it’s all I can think about.
That’s when the socks turn up in the dishwasher.
My process of writing is definitely just that – a process.
I’ll go through eight or nine revisions of a piece before it finally gets posted here. Each read through is nerve wracking, especially if I’ve had a friend or family member look it over. When I share my writing, it’s as if I’m handing over my first born child: “Here. I made this. What do you think?” I am prideful and fiercely protective, desperate for praise despite being aware of the need for commentary.
Because so much of a person’s sense of self can be invested in a piece of writing, it’s easy to take an editor’s comments personally. It matters not whether your editor is professionally contracted or one of the people you feed dinner to every night – the dynamic between writer and commentator can be a painful one.
How can writers, teachers and editors ease the discomfort of critique and make the most of the process?
First, writers must be their own advocates
Strong writers come to the revision table with a clear idea of what needs attention. To do this, identify areas that feel shaky or off. Develop a list of questions that should be answered: How would you describe his character? How would you refute this point? Present the questions along with the draft so that the reader has an initial direction. This puts the revision process in the hands of the writer: it is a self-initiated exercise in which the writer has contracted an outside opinion. It’s easier to approach the writer/reader relationship when the writer has control over the process.
Second, readers should try these four techniques for pain-free revision
Try two stars and one wish:
A writer needs to know what works as much as she needs to know what doesn’t. Consequently, effective revision approaches weakness with empathy while highlighting the writer’s strengths. I like to use two stars and one wish for this. Highlight two positive aspects of the piece and tell the writer why they caught your eye. For sections that need work, frame the criticism in the form of a wish: “I’d love to see more of this….” or “I wish I knew more about that….” You can use this as technique as often as needed, but be sure to keep the compliment to criticism ratio at 2:1. It goes a long way toward building a reluctant writer’s self esteem.
Go on a gallery walk:
A technique that works best in small groups, a gallery walk allows writers to receive commentary on a chosen section of text. The exercise begins in the writer’s hands, with the writer choosing a paragraph or passage in need of attention. The writer pastes that section onto an unsigned piece of paper, then hangs the whole thing on the wall. Writers become readers for the other members of the group, providing signed commentary on each displayed piece. The original writer remains anonymous unless he desires a follow up.
Give it a label:
Ensuring the effective communication of mood, tone or voice is just as important as verifying strong content. Descriptive phrases help communicate the mood a piece conveys. Does the piece strike you forcefully, like a strong wind on the shore? Or does it feel more like your grandmother’s hand-stitched quilt; cozy and comfortable? Comparing the voice of a piece to something concrete not only gives the writer an opportunity to determine if her intention is clear, but it also frames a critical statement in a positive, affirming light. Rather than be told their piece of writing has completely missed the mark, writers can identify and address discrepancies on their own when the reader’s impression doesn’t match the writer’s intention.
Find the golden line:
Every piece has it: the line or phrase so strong it strikes the reader more than anything else. Moving the location of that line will breathe new life into the piece. Find the line that carries the most weight and underline it, then ask the writer what would happen if he started over from that point. This technique encourages playfulness, allows the writer to look at the piece with fresh eyes, and reliably results in a much stronger, more interesting opening than before, all without a single, negative comment from the reader.
Writers shouldn’t be afraid to share their work, and teachers, parents or friends who act as editors shouldn’t have to worry about hurt feelings. This is why writer-initiated, positively framed feedback is so important to the dynamic between a writer and editor. Techniques like those described above facilitate the writer/editor relationship and make the revision process more comfortable for everyone.