Maybe this worked so well for me because it was a speech that I needed to deliver — in other words, it was going to be read aloud in the end. I’m not so sure. But reading my piece aloud helped me to see where I needed to smooth things out. It highlighted places where my grammar and syntax were just a tiny bit funky and confusing. I suddenly noticed that I stumbled in a few places. Those were the places that needed some revision.
This revision work was very different than the other revision work that I’ve talked about thus far. The previous revision work was huge, structural work — sort of Extreme Home Makeover for my piece of writing. This work was more like a bathroom renovation within a pretty solid house. It still required some major effort and work, but it didn’t rip apart the very foundation of my piece of writing like the other work did.
Early in the work I did some reading aloud of my piece as well. It helped me to know that I wasn’t happy with the piece at all and that I needed to engage in some serious Extreme Home Makeover type of revision. But later in the work, reading aloud let me play with the specifics of smaller pieces of the writing. I could hear what sounded funny or was awkward to read aloud.
Hint: This strategy required that I walk away from the piece for a few days. Otherwise, my mouth read what I “thought” it said, not what I’d actually written.
I’m all out of order now in telling about my revision process, bear with me. Remember that I used the familiar quote/passage to create the sections of my writing. I put one part of the passage at the top of each page and then wrote that part of my speech, keeping my focus on just that part.
This was a vastly effective revision strategy even without the quote to support it. Writing one section at a time, taking breaks and walking away in between sections, really supported my writing. I had time to think about what I really wanted to say in each section. I had space to decide what were the truly important points for that part of the speech. I could jot onto post its or little note paper (or the back of receipts) to hold onto ideas. I could focus on the turn of phrase or the specific word choice that I wanted.
Holding onto just one section at a time freed my mind to really do the work on that section. I wasn’t trying to hold onto all of the other ideas or onto the need to keep things connected (remember the repeating structure ended up doing that for me). I could do the work that was needed for that particular section of the speech. It was very freeing.
At one point, I simply HATED what I had for a draft. This was fairly far into the writing and revising process. In retrospect, I think I had over-revised it. You know, this happens to kids all the time. They follow our revision direction (especially if we are doing more of the revising work than the child is actually doing). At some point, the writing doesn’t even sound like them anymore. It sounds flat and lifeless and just plain, old, wrong. That was how my piece sounded at this point. I had lost my voice in the piece and it sounded awful. Since I had to deliver this orally, having strong, authentic voice was really important. I couldn’t just ignore this problem.
My solution was to keep the structure that I had borrowed and to toss out that draft and almost “start fresh”. I didn’t actually throw my draft out! That would have been way to scary. But I created a new document and started over.
This time, to get my voice back, I “talked” my speech, section by section. I used the free Dragon Dictation app on my IPhone. (True confessions, I was in the car — this works wherever inspiration strikes!). I opened the app, talked out a section, and then emailed it to myself. The Dragon app forces you into smaller chunks (it will only hold so much). I numbered each email to myself so that I could put it all back together again on the computer.
Back at my desk, I opened each email and cut and pasted the dictated text into the new document. It didn’t flow, there where places where Dragon did not understand me and wrote gibberish, but I had a draft of my thoughts with my strong, clear voice back again. Since I had done SOOOO much work with the piece already, I lost almost nothing in content during this process. I knew very well what I wanted to say in each section and it came out my mouth when I was talking to Dragon. The huge benefit was getting back the rhythm and flow of my own natural voice.
After I had struggled with a few drafts that really didn’t work, I recalled something that I often tell my young writers when they are struggling. “If you can’t find the words to make your idea sound powerful, try on someone else’s words a few times until you get a feel for it.”
I’m careful not to encourage my young writers to plagiarize, but trying on someone else’s words is a little like playing “dress up”. You get to experience what it will feel like to use those powerful kinds of words and that powerful kind of a voice. Its an effective strategy when young writers are struggling in exposition or opinion writing. In this case, it wasn’t so much the words that were confounding me, but the “putting it together”. So, taking a cue from my young writers, I decided to “try on” someone else’s words for structure. I took a well-known passage and allowed it to structure my piece.
In my next revision, I literally cut apart that well-known passage/quote into smaller chunks. I separated each chunk into a new paragraph or section of the piece I was writing. Then, I drafted for each chunk. At this point, it was a bit like when I ask young writers to put a moment from their story timeline on the top of each page. They, then, draft within that moment for the duration of the page. It isn’t perfect, but it creates something worth revising from. (And it slows them down).
I let the quote slow me down. Having one chunk at the top of each “page” kept me focused and thinking about that one part. (I’ll confess, I wasn’t drafting in my notebook nor on paper. The computer screen “page” was my tool of choice here.) The revision strategy gave me a much better draft. Still not one I was happy with, but a MUCH better draft.
I was invited to be one of the speakers at the ordination of a good friend recently. This was a huge momentous event in my friend’s life and I wanted to make sure that I did a really good job. The problem was: speaking in church, in front of an large audience of grown ups is not my comfort zone. I was nervous and, frankly, scared.
I started my outline and my first draft several weeks before the ordination date. I was seriously unhappy with that draft. I re-drafted several times before I had something I found even marginally acceptable. I continued with major revisions and changes as we moved closer and closer to the event.
As a writer, I realized that I had very little in my toolkit for strategies for making these kinds of huge revisions. I began scrambling frantically for revision strategies that would actually help me and make my piece better. I tried anything I could think of. In the process, I learned some things that I think will make me a much better teacher of writing and, more specifically, of revision.
Over the next few weeks I want to share the revision strategies that I used and that WORKED for me — and more importantly WHY I think they worked.