Big Picture Revision

Essentially, revision comes in two stages: 1) What I think of as “Big Picture” Revision; and 2) All the little details, which is really better understood as “copyediting.”

I think kids groan whenever revision is discussed for many reasons, and probably the most basic is that they want to be done; revision translates into “more work.” Who wouldn’t groan at that? But also it’s the work itself, because for so many revision overwhelmingly represents the second stage, all the boring little details; the fun is definitely over. These kids want to splash bright, bold colors on a wall . . .

. . . and we’re asking them to paint the trim. Nothing wrong with that — you’ve got to paint the trim — but I sympathize with the groans.

Sometimes when I meet with students, and we talk about revision, I remind them of the root meaning of the word, re/vision. Literally to see, again.

It’s why so many writers talk about needing to step away from the work, like a painter backing from the canvas, in order to see the work from a new perspective.

How can the story be funnier? More exciting? Of course, the essential element is that you’ve got to care, you’ve got to take pride in your work. Not every student has that feeling about his writing — and I’m not at all sure you can teach that — but I’m certain that revision is a hopeless process without pride in one’s finished product. Which is equally true for house painters.

Back in the day when I was a copywriter, I’d often send out these thirty-page packets to as many as fifteen different readers. They were all invited to make comments, criticisms, suggestions. Then I’d get all those packets returned, many covered with heart-breaking scribbles, unfriendly remarks, sentences crossed out, hacked at, sometimes improved, sometimes ruined. I’d take all those comments and have to consider each one . . . and revise.

The mental trick I learned was to intentionally try to save energy for that stage, even to the point of holding something back in the first draft; because once you think it’s perfect,Ā  once you think you are done, after you’ve given 100% and all the creative energy is spent, then all those comments will crush you. So it’s important to understand the process — to know from the very beginning that, toward the end, you are going to have to paint the trim.

One quick example I like to give kids, because it always generates lively discussion when I ask them to revise with me: I tell them how I once wrote a scene in a Jigsaw Jones book, where he’s in the art room and needs to search someone’s desk. I wrote the chapter and it was okay enough, though maybe a little flat. In revision, at my editor’s suggestion, I tried to think of how I could make it funnier. It was a scene set in an art room. Did I have any memories of funny things that happened in school? Did I know someone who had a funny memory? And what about an art room, anyway? There’s glue!

Glue is funny. And there’s paint — paint that can spill or splatter. The comic possibilities unfurl. The paint spills on whom? Jigsaw? Big Maloney? Maybe the teacher! See: We’ve circled back, we’re brainstorming; we’re throwing around paint again.

In the end, my revision to that scene was minor, and not really hysterical; it just added an extra beat to the rhythm. But the thinking process behind the revision was fun. I enjoyed it. How do you make a scene more scary? Or move it along faster? How do you make this thing . . . better? That’s the heart of revision, an opening up of possibilities, before that final narrow focus of copyediting.

NOTE: I’m going away for a few days to visit friends. Maybe we’ll even take pictures!


  1. Karen says:

    We’re so excited to see you Tuesday, and I guarantee we will DEFINITELY be taking pictures, and blogging about our experience together! Can’t wait!

  2. Maria says:

    Ditto Karen’s comment- my 5th graders can’t wait to talk to you about Six Innings and share their bulletin board with you. See you Tuesday!
    We (teachers and students) are all excited šŸ™‚

  3. rachel rincon says:

    I have never in my 44 years posted a comment on a blog before, but you really inspired me with your writing about revision. I have been trying to think about how to talk to my 10 year old son about the editing process. He’s fabulous at splashing color paints on walls but needs a little work on the trim. We came to your site because he’s a big fan of Jigsaw Jones. Thanks for the insights.

  4. jimmy says:

    Thanks for the comment, Rachel. See, it wasn’t so hard after all. When it comes to teaching writing, I can’t pretend to know much. On my sidebar, there’s a site called “Two Writing Teachers” that, for me, is a consistent source of inspiration and insight. I recently read Ralph Fletcher’s book, “Boy Writers,” and thought it was wonderful. But I’m limited: I can share my experience, my thoughts, but I really don’t know anything about teaching. Even so, over the years I have grown to enjoy painting the trim — but definitely not when I was ten years old.

  5. jimmy says:

    Rachel, I forgot to mention: What a good Mom you are!

  6. Hey there! I am in the middle of revisions (picture book) right now AND preparing to lead a workshop on it. I stumbled across your site and wow! This post is fabulous! I am going to share your blog with the attendees!

    p.s. we enjoy your books at our house very much. šŸ™‚

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