Friday, March 27, 2009

Cutting the Fat

For many young writers, revision is the most dreaded step of the writing process. Over the course of the last few days, I have been exploring revision with some fourth and fifth grade students. We have been investigating how decisions about what to take out can have as much of an impact on improving writing as adding details or descriptive language.

One of the pieces we tackled read, “We were getting ready for school when we heard the bus squeaking down the street.” Squeaking is one of those words we teachers love. Isn’t it wonderfully descriptive?

Not according to my fifth graders.

As I circulated the room, checking to see which words were getting the ax, I noticed nearly all of them saw this word as “fat” destined for the chopping block. I didn’t get it. “What was wrong with the word squeaking?” I asked. I wanted them to justify their decision.

It was simple in their eyes. Buses do not “squeak” as they are going down the street. They “squeak” when they stop. When a bus moves, it is more like a “rumble.” The word “squeaking” was not right. This writer needed a more precise word.

Now I saw their point. I marveled at the shortsightedness of my own thinking. I couldn’t believe how a strong action verb lured me in to make me believe the writing was solid.

As I sit here typing this, I find myself wondering if the problem is not in teaching revision inasmuch as it is in the WAY we teach kids to revise. The extent of much of the teaching about how to improve a piece of writing never gets past “add detail and description.” By starting with “what should we take out?”, my students began asking questions like: Does it make sense? How does it sound? Is this detail important? Is this confusing? Does this tell instead of show? Is this specific enough?

When they asked these questions, they had no trouble going back to their piece with fresh eyes. Their pencil points were sharp, ready to eliminate the fat. The impact on their writing was immediate and profound.

Never again will you hear me say, “add description, add detail.” The better question seems to be “What can you take out?”

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