Slice of Life: Pickles, Owl Moon, and the Hard Work of Revision

sols_6Last spring, during a poetry writing unit, a 5th grade student asked me to read a poem she had written. “I’d love to,” I told her as she handed me her notebook with pride. I knew this girl to be a good student and a strong reader, so I was quite surprised to read what she had written.  It was mostly about pickles, but her poem was full of forced rhymes and then no rhymes. I told her that her love of pickles was coming through loud and clear. Then I asked her about some of the more questionable rhymes.

“What do smelly feet have to do with sweet pickles?” I wondered

“Nothing, but sweet and feet rhyme,” she said matter-of-factly.

“I wonder if  there are any other words that rhyme with sweet that have more to do with pickles than feet.”

“Probably, but today I just feel silly and want to write a silly poem.”

“Fair enough. Let’s look at it again tomorrow and see if you still feel that way. Writers often see their work differently after a day or two,” I said.

She wasn’t convinced, and she didn’t change the poem.

Over the years, I’ve had plenty of students who were unwilling to revise their writing. It seems as if getting anything down on paper is torture enough. Then to have to make changes is just insulting. Part of me empathizes with them. I know it’s hard to get our thoughts down in the first place. But I also know how much better writing can be after the second or third revision.

january2014cover_FAKE_200x300I wish I’d had Jane Yolen’s article from the current issue of The Horn Book to share with my reluctant reviser. In it, Yolen muses over different forms her Caldecott-Award winning picture book, Owl Moon, might have taken. A sonnet? No, too short. What about as a rap? Definitely not. She states that “a writer has to make choices [about] how to tell a story. But when a writer finds the right voice, everything comes together.” (pg. 46)


Writers do make choices. But I feel that our students don’t really understand that this means more that just thinking of words that rhyme. As Yolen goes on to say, finding this voice for our writing takes “hard work, inspiration, even perspiration.” (pg. 50)

So why did my young poet short-change herself and her poem? In this case, I think she just needed more time. Time to build the habit of writing every day so being asked to write didn’t feel like punishment. Time to experience the joy of finding just the right word, the perfect expression of her feeling. Time to play with different versions of her poem to find out if silly really was the right tone. Sometimes we may get lucky and stumble onto the right form on our first try, as Yolen feels she did with Owl Moon. But in most cases, we need to sweat over our writing before sharing it. Only then can we sit back and have a pickle.

Thank you to everyone at Two Writing Teachers for hosting the Slice of Life every Tuesday. Be sure to stop by to read the hard work of many devoted writers.

11 thoughts on “Slice of Life: Pickles, Owl Moon, and the Hard Work of Revision

  1. I love Jane Yolen’s “Owl Moon” and I can’t imagine it being written any other way. I wonder how we might help children love “red ink” – suggestions for changes…or to play with their words, to write the same story in a different way? Lots to think about here. You do important and wonderful work!!


  2. ‘ll have to hunt for this issue of the Horn Book – but, your post says all I need to make me rethink the way I speak of revision with my kids. I, too, love the part Stacey shared – one has o work for that pickle!


  3. I really, really agree with this post…that is why I am considering in March to go back and take a stab at revising many of my posts from the first two years. When I am writing every day, and teaching/testing it is a difficult thing to do….it has to be our best first draft. I do need to work for the pickle. xo


  4. I love Owl Moon and her thoughts on making choices and finally coming together is right on. I just wish I had a better way of teaching that my students. (I love pickles and my mouth waters thinking about them…including reading this post)


  5. Love that ‘pickle’ line, too, Catherine. What a good story about student struggles with revision. One thing I’ve had students do is to cut up the lines in their poems and rearrange them, gets them away from the rhyme & looking at each line’s meaning. I don’t know what age you’re talking about-mine were 11-13. Thanks for the reference to the Horn Book article too.


  6. What a great slice and a great resource! I love how she wanted to write about pickles and then being just silly once you ask her to put more into it. I have that same reader/writer in my classroom. In some ways I feel like students are comfortable in the seeming ease of poetry. It looks easy. Fewer words. But finding those perfect words for the just right meaning that don’t necessarily rhyme, that takes sweat. I think you are right about time devoted to writing. Just like reading we need to get out the way and let them do. Thanks for this.


  7. We all have a great new expression for revision that has to do with pickles. I think that when students write a lot, they are more apt to revise because they are less in love with what they wrote in the first place. They understand the pace at which writing can be created and the whole task isn’t as daunting.

    This is a wonderful post, Catherine. Thank you.


  8. I love the thinking you do about this issue of pushing positively for the next draft and getting shut down and then reflecting… I loved reading through with you and to the conclusion that kids need regular writing experiences so that they see themselves as writers over time.
    I remember those conversations 🙂


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