Whenever I do a school visit, the teachers invariably ask me to be sure to mention the editing process. Seems children are almost unanimously resistant to changing the golden words they write once they have put them down. My interaction by videoconferencing with third graders at Bogert School in New Jersey for Authors On Call was no exception. I thought long and hard about a way to address this problem beyond just saying it had to be done. Could I think of an analogy that would work, something that might crack the shell of resistance to revision and editing?
Then it came to me—the Summer Olympics are coming up. We look upon Olympic athletes as the epitomy of perfection of their craft. When we watch them they make it look easy, as if what they’re doing just comes naturally. Yet even the most elite athletes have coaches and trainers working with them right up to the last minute to help their performance become ever closer to perfect. There’s my analogy! When we read good writing, it flows along so easily and the stories are so compelling we don’t even think about the effort that went into making them that way. But the truth is that even the very best writers, just like athletes, work hard to make their work better, closer to perfect. If those athletes aren’t perfect, shouldn’t the kids realize that their work isn’t perfect right from the start? Here’s what I said to the students:
“We writers have learned to welcome comments and suggestions from other people. At first, it’s hard not to feel you’re being criticized when a teacher or another person suggests that what you’ve written needs work. But remember that even those of us who are experts need help. Writers are like athletes. Just think about all the training that athletes get to prepare for the Olympics. Their coaches and trainers work hard with them to improve their performance so they have the best chance of doing well. And even the athletes who know they don’t have a chance of winning medals strive to improve their performance so they are the best they can be. So think of yourselves as “writing athletes”, with your teachers and others whom you get help from as your coaches and trainers. That can help you when it comes time to revise your work.”
I hoped that the students could internalize this metaphor, and perhaps at least some of them did; teacher Danielle Andersen wrote this in a follow-up email:
“The athlete analogy was perfect, as was the rest of yesterday's Skype session. The suggestions that you gave were fantastic, and we already are implementing some of your strategies in our writing.”
I know there’s no magic bullet that can get young people to look askance at their own work and improve it, but I feel that I may have helped the teachers at least a little in their struggle to convince their students to take the revision process as a challenge rather than an odious chore. And we writers can also keep these ideas in mind. If athletes keep at it and sweat the small stuff, so should we, to make our work as appealing and compelling as possible.