What happens when a bestselling children’s book author teams up with a nationally known writing teacher? Well, you get the new book Teaching Nonfiction Revision: A Professional Writer Shares Strategies, Tips, and Lessons. On today’s Heinemann Podcast we’re talking with Sneed B. Collard III about Teaching Nonfiction Revision. Sneed Collard is an award winning children’s author who has been working on revision strategies for years. Now, along with Vicki Spandel, they’re helping educators make nonfiction writing more meaningful and more enjoyable for the reader. We started our conversation with Sneed about what his spark of inspiration was for writing a professional book for teachers?
See below for a full transcript of our conversation
Sneed Collard: I began writing, probably … Let me calculate, about 34 years ago. And when you write for that long, you have to gain a certain amount of experience at doing what you're doing. A certain amount of expertise. And I was editing a book about three or four years ago, and I was just working through a scene, or a couple of paragraphs, and I had this flash of insight that,"Gee Sneed. You're pretty good at doing this. You can really tear apart something and put it back together." I didn't think of that with any sort of pomposity, or anything like that, but it just was a simple fact.
Now I'd been thinking already that I would love to write something that would help young people write. Just a set of tips, something like that. I start getting serious at that point, after having that realization, and I started making inquiries about whether publishers might be interested in this sot of thing. And they were, but when I contacted Heinemann, I was informed that they actually don't write books for a kid. But they do write books for teachers. At that point I was already talking to my coauthor, Vicki Spandel, and I knew she had a lot more expertise at coming up with exercises and questions, specifically that teachers could use, so we agreed I would write the main text and she would come up with all of these amazing teacher suggestions and exercises.
And we brainstormed on both of them. She helped me with the main text and I helped her with the other things, but basically, that's how it all happened. I just had this inspiration and decided to keep going with it.
Brett: And throughout the book, you have inspiration. You write about inspiration from your daughter, from your dad. There's all kinds of things, especially right at the beginning of the book, you really get a sense of establishing for us how you saw what revision is, or isn't.
So what is revision, or isn't it?
Sneed Collard: Writing this book really forced me to take a hard look at that. In fact, to help me, I asked what some other author friends of mine what they thought revision was. And they had some great answers that we include in the book, but to me, revision is not editing. Editing to me, is very mechanica usually. It's fixing mistakes in grammar, in convention, in spelling. It is just making the manuscript look good. Revision to me, is making the manuscript meaningful. It's making it flow smoothly. It's making it enjoyable to read. It's conveying deeper meanings. So revision is actually about the content, not so much just the structure and convention.
So when I'm revising something, sure I'm fixing spelling. I'm correcting mistakes. But I'm trying to make sure that what I'm saying is presented in the clearest, most enjoyable, most inspirational way that I can.
Brett: Within that, you talk about revising from big to small. Can you describe what you mean by that? And along with that, how do we help students build stamina for revision?
Sneed Collard: Well, I'll take those one at a time. The big to small came just out of my own process of doing revision. I thought when I started sitting down to write this book, "Okay how do I tackle a manuscript?" And it was a very logical thing to work from big to small. And what I mean by that is when I look at a big manuscript, I look at the big pieces first. I see, " Okay. Are there chapters that don't need to be here? Am I telling a good story? Am I presenting information in the proper context? Have I developed characters enough?" So those are big picture things and often at that point I'm removing huge chunks of the manuscript, throwing them away. I'm also adding big chunks of the manuscript. And whenever necessary, and it usually is necessary at this point, I'm doing additional research.
Once I got the manuscript in a rough shape that I want, then I start getting finer and finer. And the book's organized like that. From the whole manuscript, I go down to scenes. And scenes are not something that educators come across much. They don't think about them. We think about scenes in movies and plays, but rarely do we think about scenes in, especially in non-fiction manuscripts. But writers, good writers of non-fiction, are writing in scenes too. And I like to encourage teachers, if they want to learn about this, to pick up a picture book, a non-fiction picture book. My book, A Platypus, just happens to work really well with that. You know, you pick it up and it just goes scene by scene through different aspects of a platypus' life, whether it's how it feeds, or how it builds a nest, or how it takes care of its young, or defends itself. These are all concise scenes, so I work on the scenes of my manuscript next.
Then I godown to paragraphs. And paragraphs I have to say, are my favorite part of revision. Why? Because you can look at a paragraph all in one glance and you can get a feel for what it's trying to do, and whether it's doing that or not. And then you can just start ripping and tearing like crazy. If you totally destroy a paragraph, you can put it back together in a matter of minutes if you want. Also, I love paragraphs because, I fell that if nay person can write a good, non-fiction paragraph, they can write anything. Because everything that applies to a paragraph applies to scenes, and applies to a manuscript as a whole. And so, paragraphs to me, are really the heat of revision. You still have to have those bigger chunks in place, or revising your paragraphs isn't going to help you. Once you're down to the paragraph level, that's where you really start to make a manuscript sing. And so that is my favorite part of the revision process.
And from there, we just go down to sentences and words, and then we have some final thoughts on the book, about what to do after you're done with your revision.
Brett: What about building stamina for students, because sometimes, students really hit a point where they need a little convincing about revision. Sometimes students just want to write something and move on. How do you face that?
Sneed Collard: Again, I come back to the paragraph, because the paragraph is not overwhelming. A paragraph is one thing. You can write about almost anything, and once you got that paragraph, you can just tear it apart very easily and rebuild it rom scratch. And what's very important, and we talk about a lot, in the book, that teachers model this whole process for their student. Because many students look at revision as a sign of failure. They think, "Oh. I'm being asked to revise. That means I messed up." Well, of course, that's not true at all. Revision actually, is just the most important part of the process of creating a manuscript that works. It's very important for a teacher to model herself writing upon a board, or on a document projector, showing the students, "Oh. This really isn't working. I'm going to tear it out. I don't like my thesis sentence. Let's look for another one. Do you think this is in order? I'm not sure. Is there any part of this you don't understand?"
So all of this models for the student that yeah, revision is a very healthy part of the writing process.
Brett: It's not always easy turning non-fiction writing into something that everyone will want to read. What would you say is the secret to doing that?
Sneed Collard: Well, if you look at the really great non-fiction writers out there, they have a couple things in common. One, they tell stories. In fact, most people don't think of non-fiction as storytelling, but the best non-fiction writers are storytellers and that is absolutely, I think, the heart of great non-fiction writing.
But related to that is they're also developing good characters. We people, we humans, we're very species-centric. We care about our own species more than anything else. We want to hear about other people's trials and challengers and what they're thinking and feeling. Mostly, we want to hear how they face the challenges in their lives. And so, good writers are telling stories complete with characters. Hey. That's not so different than fiction writers is it? No. In fact, it's the same kind of thing, but we're using real materials and real stories from the world.
Brett: Throughout the book, you have a lot of sections called A Note to the Teacher. Explain how we should be using those.
Sneed Collard: A Note to the Teacher is one of about four different kinds of special features that are in the book, and most of these were written by Vicki. And along with Note to the teacher, she's got Something to Try. She has In Conference, and one or two other things. Now A Note to the Teacher, and all of these are designed to help the teacher actually take what's in the book and apply it directly to the classroom. A Note to the Teacher is kind of fun, because it's just a teacher to teacher conversation. For instance, in one note to the teacher that Vicki has, she's talking about the importance of reading aloud, to teach voice. And so, these are just things that help a teacher transmit this knowledge in a real practical terms.
Brett: Early on in the book, you reference a specific issue about vague and confusing. And then later, there's a chapter that says make sure it all makes sense. Why is it so crucial to highlight the clarity?
Sneed Collard: Well the clarity, and that's something I come back to again and again when I'm teaching revision workshops. The first thing I focus on is helping students make sure what they write, or teachers, what they write, to make sense, because that is the absolute minimum bar for any piece of writing. If it doesn't make sense, you're nowhere. You're out in the middle of the Gobi Desert. There's no water and there's no hope in sight. You have to make it make sense. Even if the writing is terrible. Even if it's crude. Even if it's not perfect, it's got to make sense. When you make it make sense, you do something very useful. You're putting it in a logical construction, that serves as the foundation for actually making it readable and enjoyable.
Brett: When is it enough revision?
Sneed Collard: In fortunate cases, it's when you have a deadline and you've got to that deadline and you have to stop right? Then there's nothing else you can do. You got to turn it in. But, for other writers, I like to finish an intense revision and then let the book sit for a couple of weeks. And then I reread it with fresh eyes. And if at that point, I'm still happy with it, then I will turn it in. Now, I'm never totally happy with it. I'm always making edits, but I would say, when you feel like you are 98% accomplished what you set out to accomplish, it's probably time to show it to somebody else.
The other case is when you feel like you are going to end up in the ER from a mental breakdown. That's also a good indication that you should stop there too.