Revising a 30-Year-Old Manuscript

A crossbred cow with her newborn calf struggling to stand for the first time.

Last week I presented this poem to a writers group I belong to.

The group liked the poem, so I decided to share a short story that was inspired by the same incident. I wrote the story about 30 years ago so I figured it would need some revision. When I went to work on it, I discovered it needed a lot of revision.

I recalled something I used to do when I was a journalism professor at the University of Tennessee. I taught a beginning news writing class in a room with 20 workstations. At first students worked at typewriters because it was a long time ago, but before my teaching career ended they had computers.

That meant students worked on their own with no help from friends and under time pressure. It was good training for students who intended to have careers in today’s fast-paced news media.

One of the first assignments in the term was designed to teach students how to write traditional newspaper leads. The meant they had to write a single sentence would grab readers’ attention and focus them on the most important aspects of a story. Each student was given a set of 10 unorganized fact sheets and told to write as many lead sentences as they could in an hour.

When a student finished a lead, they raised their hand and I came around to approve or disapprove their effort. Most students could manage three or four approved leads before the deadline.

Late in the term I passed out a similar set of fact sheets and repeated the assignment. Most students finished the entire set of 10 in less than an hour. This, I told the students, demonstrated how much they had learned over the intervening weeks. (I’m sure my teacher evaluations improved on the question that asks how strongly they agreed with the statement, “I learned a lot in this class.”)

Like those exercises, my revision of the short story indicated how much I have learned in the 30 years that I wrote it. It was a lot.

I made a list of the changes I made while I was working on the story. When I went over the list, I discovered I was using the same kind of comments I made on student papers way back when.

The list is too long to duplicate, but here are some examples:

I’m embarrassed to report the list is too long to duplicate, but here are some examples.

  • Use strong active voice verbs.
  • Use past, present or future verb tenses whenever possible. Avoid complex verb phrase such are “he would have been thinking” if “he thought” will work.
  • Avoid adverbs. If you have a lot of words ending “ly,” you’re probably using the wrong verbs. Instead of “the vehicle hit the tree really hard” make it “the vehicle crashed into the tree.”
  • And while you’re at it, use short concrete nouns that people can visualize. Make it, “The truck crashed into the oak tree.”
  • Then you might add back some adjective and adverbs. “The dump truck crashed headlong into the hundred-foot oak tree.”

I’m embarrassed to confess that I made such corrections — and others — repeatedly. The good news is that I’ve learned a lot in the last 30 years and the short story is much better. I hope the writers group likes it.


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