Friday, July 8, 2011

Never Right the First Time or How I Learned to Love Revision

Mary Ann Rodman
When I was in school? Writing = grammar. Since creative writing was not part of the curriculum, I invented my own ways to sneak it in. The “make sentences with your spelling words” assignment became short stories. Science reports became episodes of Mr. Wizard or Wild Kingdom. Writing, I was in The Zone even before there was a “Zone.”

What was not to love about writing?


Just as writing = grammar, revision = correction. A “corrected assignment” was perfectly spelled and punctuated, contained only complete sentences, with all the nouns and verbs agreeing.

Teachers also wanted tidy work. My papers looked like grey Swiss cheese, with streaks of partially erased words, and holes where I had erased, too hard. No one cared what I wrote. No one ever suggested revision as a way of making my writing more concise or interesting. Once I mastered the dictionary and erasing with less vigor, I was done.

My No Revision Policy continued into high school, where I won several local and national writing contests. I was a real writer, and real writers always got it right the first time.

Then I met The Famous Southern Writer.

One of my contest prizes was lunch with The Famous Southern Writer. I was fifteen and had zero Idea of who he was or how gifted. I was much more interested in the prize check he would award me at the end of the meal.

The Writer liked to talk, mostly about the Agony of Writing. Of how he tore up five pages for every one that satisfied him. “I lose track of how many revisions my current book has gone through,” he moaned over his iced tea.

Gee, I thought, he must not be that good if he keeps writing stuff over and over. So when The Writer stopped talking long enough to take a bite of salad, I chirped right up. “You know, I never write anything but once.”

The Writer put his fork down. “Is that so?” he drawled. “Only once?”

I nodded modestly, trying not to blush.

“Well, my dear,” said The Writer, “some day you will learn to re-write and re-write and after all that, the d*** thing still will sound awful to you. Then you’ll be a real writer.”

You would think such honest and direct advice would’ve been my big “Ah-ha!” moment.

It wasn’t. Fifteen-year-olds often think they are very wise.

Not until the Vermont College of Fine Arts Program did I learn the how and why of revision. Then-faculty members Phyllis Root and Ron Koertge gave me an instant lesson in my first workshop. (Workshop is the heart of the VCFA program, where students share their work in small groups, critically assessing with praise as well as questions.) I listened in awe as Phyllis made rapid-fire suggestions.

“Have you thought about making it a short story? Or a picture book? Maybe the story belongs to another character?”

Then it was my turn. I stammered that the first twenty pages of my novel didn’t seem to be working. “I don’t know what to do with it,” I said, feeling very much not a real writer.

“I can tell you exactly what to do with it,” said Ron. Carefully, he counted out fourteen pages and thunked them into the trash can. “There,” he said. “Your story really starts on page fifteen.”

I looked at page fifteen of what ultimately became Yankee Girl and heard my old friend, The Southern Writer chuckling, “Told you so, girl.”

To quote William Zinsser’s book, On Writing: “Re-writing is the essence of writing well…We all have emotional equity in our first draft; we can’t believe it wasn’t born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 per cent that it wasn’t.”

WRITER’S WORKOUT: Here are a few revision tricks I use. One is to emotionally distance yourself from the piece, especially if your characters are based on people you know. Another (a la Phyllis Root) is to change a basic element: write it in third person instead of first. Change the tense. Change the point of view. And if all else fails, put it away for awhile, then look at it again.

Keep an open mind. What you think is a picture book (which was the case with Jimmy’s Stars) might really be a novel. Or vice versa. You can’t force a story into a genre, any more than you can force size 8 feet into size 6 shoes (even if they are really cute and on sale).

Mary Ann Rodman is a VCFA grad. Her first picture book, My Best Friend, won the Ezra Jack Keats and Charlotte Zolotow Awards. Her middle grade historical fictions books: Yankee Girl and Jimmy’s Stars, have won or been nominated for over a dozen awards, both here and in the UK. She is one of the six teaching authors featured on the blog 


  1. Thanks for this post. I will be sharing it on twitter because all writers have been at this stage which is where I feel I am currently at. Trying to revise. It's not easy and I feel I may have to tuck it away for awhile. Thanks for the much needed wisdom. :)

  2. "Carefully, he counted out fourteen pages and thunked them into the trash can." 'There,' he said. 'Your story really starts on page fifteen.'”

    Jeepers, if I did that in my critique group, they'd burn me.

  3. Actually...I thought I did that with one of your ms's. I know I did it with my own.
    Great post Mary Ann. Thank you so much for the advice.

  4. Thank you so much, what a fantastic and insightful post. Revising does my head in, I am not a natural sub editor, and it feels like I could keep rewriting forever.

  5. Loved this! thank goodness for those who tweet fabulous things!! Just the stage I'm at and giving me the proper push to finish what I started.

  6. What a funny and wonderful post! So many good and take-away things said here. Thanks!

  7. Nice to meet a fellow VCFA grad! I graduated in summer of '04 in MFA in Writing (Poetry). I am following your blog. Feel free to visit mine and follow me too! We also could do guest blogs for one another... gets you more followers I hear.

  8. Great post. I always say that getting the rough draft done is the easy part. Revising is work. I love it though, but it often takes as much time or more to revise--to get it perfect. And several run throughs. Thanks for the tips.

  9. I surfed over casually from the SCBWI link, thinking, "Not another revision post..."

    I ended up churning through this well-written post, gobbling up the delightful Susan Berger's first line posts (Hi Susan! Remember me from kidlit drinks?) and now I'm a follower and a believer. LOVE this blog!

  10. Wow, what a wonderful compliment. Thank you, Sophia and, yes, I do remember you from Kidlit. I wish I could have stayed longer.

  11. What great practical suggestions. Thank you, Mary Ann. It's easy to get too attached to a first draft to be able to evaluate it clearly. These are all clever approaches for gaining a fresh perspective.

    I'm really looking forward to featuring more VCFA articles Tuesdays in August, on my blog, On Beyond Words & Pictures

  12. Great post - it made me laugh. Fifteen year olds do think they know it all! Great revision tricks also.

    Karen Cioffi Writing and Marketing

  13. Thank you for such a well-written post, Mary Ann. I had a good laugh as I read, for I teach a room full of spirited seventh graders who also subscribe to the "write it once" philosophy! You always offer great writing strategies, and I'll soon be using these revision tricks with my students and in my own writing.

  14. I love this post of Mary Ann's, too. I think all young (and many not-so-young) writers hate revision. In the summer writing camps I teach for grades 3-8, getting them to revise is like pulling teeth. What sometimes helps if when I show them all the editorial on not one but TWO drafts of my novel before it was published. :-)

  15. I apologize for not commenting sooner, because my computer has been suffering from "linkage-itis" so I didn't know y'all were over here saying nice things about my post until Carmela emailed me just now. Thank you, everyone (especially Carmela!) who works with kids. So many students are afraid to put anything on paper at all, that you really have to put the old "positive spin" on revision.(I don't even use "the r-word" with some groups.) I tell my students is that "this is a good story, but I can see some ways you can make this a SUPER story." Who doesn't want a SUPER story?
    I am a verse novel right now. (Have I ever written one before? No!) Since I can't make myself write in chronological order, I write whatever is clearest in my mind at the moment. When I get it all put together, I can see where the holes are. I think of my fellow Mississippian Eudora Welty who, in the days beforecomputers, would spread her typewritten pages across a large table, cutting the pages into scenes and paragraphs. She would then re-arrange the(m by straight pinning them in order--which reminds me so much of my junior high home ec days of cutting and pinning dress patterns. (I have had much better success with writing than dressmaking)
    So as I am sorting through six different versions of the same scene, I find myself doing sort of the same thing, cutting the best lines from all of them, and rearranging them (with moveable glue stick on colored paper). If it was good enough for Miss Eudora....


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