This is the second post in my series about revision. Today we feature the wisdom of author Bruce Hale. Bruce is the author of over 20 books for kids, including the Chet Gecko Mysteries and Underwhere. He is also an accomplished speaker at schools, libraries, and conferences. I had an opportunity to hear Bruce speak at our local San Diego SCBWI meeting and I was truly inspired.
The following information is an excerpt from his March 2009 newletter:
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT REVISION
Story revision can seem unending. You tweak a character’s
motivation, and then her actions need to change. You get the plot
all ironed out, and then the dialog sounds flat.
It’s a lot of work. But as Hemingway said, “writing is rewriting.”
Make revisions easier by taking them in stages. The first time
through, do an “afro-pick” revision. Remember those afro picks
that were so popular back in the ’70s? (No? Before your time?)
With their widely-spaced teeth, they were ideal for fluffing your
curls and removing leaves and twigs from your hair.
Similarly, your afro-pick revision concentrates on the big chunks —
inconsistent character motivation, plot holes, overall flow — not
the smaller details.
I’ve discussed this first stage of revision in an earlier issue, so
today, let’s examine how to handle your story’s second pass.
This time through, break out the pocket comb. You’re still not
zeroing in on the nit-picky stuff like spelling and grammar, but
you’ve moved one step closer, focusing on issues of voice and
Here’s how you do it…
1. READ FOR VOICE
First, read your story aloud. Yes, even if the cat gives you
strange looks. As you read, underline in red any words or phrases
that trip you up, without slowing down to fix them just then. And
jot down any extra words that naturally pop out. (This makes your
story more conversational.)
While reading, circle bits that you particularly like. This helps
identify where your voice is strongest. Later, you can go back and
replicate that distinctive voice in areas where it’s weaker.
2. IDENTIFY DIALOG PROBLEMS
The pocket comb revision is a good place to tune up your dialog.
We addressed dialog in-depth in the Fall 2008 issues of this
newsletter, but here are a few things to look for…
“You can’t be serious,” she said in astonishment.
“Keep going until you’re finished,” he said harshly.
(Both lines would be stronger without the “in astonishment” or
“harshly.” Use vivid verbs instead – “gasped” and “snapped.”
“Is it the only one?” she inquired.
“So you came back,” he chuckled.
“Do tell,” she smiled.
(Remember, you can’t chuckle something or smile something, but you
can say it. When in doubt, stick to “said.”)
“I would not do that if I were you.” (Change this to a contraction,
unless the speaker is pompous.)
“Have you contemplated the consequences?” (Use simpler words.)
3. CHECK YOUR EXPOSITION
Avoid unnecessary exposition wherever possible. If you can trim or
eliminate background descriptions to bring us closer to the action,
do it. A good rule of thumb: Give the reader only as much
information as she needs to figure out what’s going on at the moment.
And remember, awkward exposition crops up in dialog, too. It’s
called “feather-duster narration,” after the scenes in bad plays
where the maid chats on the phone, filling in the audience as she
“Hello? No, Master Faversham isn’t here. He’s gone with Lady
Bucknell-Thwaite to the races, where he hopes to meet his sister
Fanny who ran off with a jockey over five years ago… No, Miss
Terwilliger isn’t here, either. She’s off in the woods no doubt,
pining over her forbidden love for the vicar’s son.”
4. SHOW US, DON’T TELL US
True, it’s one of the oldest bits of writing advice. But it bears
When you tell us readers what you want us to know, you don’t trust
our intelligence. When you show us, you let us draw the conclusion
Martha was a real tightwad. Of all the people in that town, she
was the one most concerned with money. Which was funny, because
she had so much of it. People always treated her politely, maybe
because they thought she might remember them in her will.
Martha squinted at the receipt. “Are you sure you counted my
“Yes’m,” said the clerk.
“All ten of them?”
“I did, ma’am.”
Martha broke out her pocket calculator, while the rest of the folks
in line waited without comment. She did some quick figures,
grunted, and marched out of the store.
“Every danged time,” said the clerk to her friend.
And now it’s time to put the pocket comb away. Next issue, we’ll
look at the third phase of revision — you guessed it — the nit pick
comb. Until then, may all your edits be swift and painless.
This is a great way to think of revision. I am currently at the “afro-pick” stage of my revision. I am moving things around adding and dropping characters and events and it is nice to know I don’t have to worry about the grammar, spelling or dialog until the pocket comb and nit pick phases.
Writing on the Sidewalk
P.S. Special thanks to Bruce for letting me share his wisdom, be sure to check out his books, tips and website. SLS