Sunday, September 18, 2016

Radical Revision: Verbs

78º ~ big storms a-comin' with some much-needed rain, skies laden with gray, one cricket cricketing

I am still running around, juggling as fast as I can, and these days my response to friends and family alike tends to be "sorry, I have no minutes left." Yet, as I said before, I'm also happier than I've ever been, and all of the "work" taking up those minutes is work to which I said "yes!"

Still, I know the blog is here waiting, so today I want to share one of the most successful revision exercises for poetry that I did with my intro to creative writing students. After explaining how it works in class, I'll provide an adaption for those working from home.

Most of us learn early that verbs can make or break a piece of writing. The proper verb, with just the right zing or slouch elevates ordinary writing to extraordinary. However, it's one thing to learn this and another to be able to overcome the inertia of ordinary writing, pluck those verbs out of our minds, and translate them to the page.

With this in mind, I thought up a way to demonstrate this to my students by way of a bit of MadLib. Students come to class with typed up rough drafts of a set of poems. Before we begin the revision, I ask them to open their journals and write a list of the most creative verbs they can think of. I give them a few to prompt them: squish, catapult, lounge, etc. Then, I prompt them to think as outside the box as possible. After about a minute, we go around the room and each student provides one verb from their list while I create a catalog on the board. Going around the room twice provides 40 verbs, plus whatever each student has on their private list.

Next, I ask the students to pick one of their rough drafts at random. Then, they have to underline all of the verbs (in any form or tense), including the "to be" verb (the biggest culprit of inert writing).

Then, to spice things up and get really radical, they have to pass their draft two or three to the left or right (far enough to get it out of their direct line of sight). As this passing is happening, I make a huge point that students should NOT read the poem that arrives in front of them. Instead, they are to mark out every underlined verb and write in one of our "creative" verbs from the board or from their own list.

With the substitutions made, we pass the poems back to the original writer who then reads and checks to see if any of the changes will work. Of course, 90% of the new verbs won't make sense, but a few will, and, more importantly, the student will be shaken enough to re-see the poem via the verb choices. (As a side benefit, the class tends to laugh and bond over some of the more outrageous suggestions.)

Here are a few of the changes that worked in our class recently.

Original line: "The way I look at you is a curse."
Revised line with one of the verbs changed:  "The way I look at you blossoms a curse."
Original line: "Whispers fade."
Revised line: "Whispers levitate."
Original line: "The car came to life."
Revised line: "The car fumbled to life."

By and large, most students were able to change several verbs in the draft to "up the ante" on the action and on the readers' interest levels. As beginners at revision, this is a huge lesson in the power of re-casting lines and images, and it is one that hasn't failed me yet in making an obvious impact.

After class, I contemplated how I could do this at home, alone. Creating the verb list is easy, as is identifying the verbs in a draft. However, without a partner, there needs to be a way to randomize the verbs and really distance one's writer self from the original draft. Perhaps the simplest way would be to number the verbs in the original draft and then create a numbered list of random "creative" verbs to substitute. For distance, I'd recommend waiting at least a day before making the substitutions so there is less affinity with the original.

Until the next free minute...


Mary Alexandra Agner said...

I like this idea about switching up the verbs a lot! Thank you for sharing it.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, MAA!