Back and Forth: Using an Editor’s Mindset to Improve Student Writing

Back and Forth: Using an Editor’s Mindset to Improve Student Writing by Lee Heffernan

Editors are the crucial, unseen collaborators of published writers. In her new book, Back and Forth: Using an Editor’s Mindset to improve Student Writing, Heinemann author Lee Heffernan describes adopting that role in her classroom and how it helps student-authors dig in and produce dramatically better writing. Lee relies on both student-centered pedagogy and the experiences of numerous professional writers and editors. On today's podcast, we started our conversation with why students can be reluctant to revise.

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 See a full transcript below of our conversation:


Lee Heffernan:    Well revision's hard, it's hard even for adult authors, for published authors, but I think students avoid it for several reasons. Some kids just get really attached to their drafts, and they love it, and they just think, I just love it the way it is, and they don't want to change a thing, and it's really hard for them to even think about doing that. Some kids avoid it for an opposite reason, they're done with it, they've lost interest in it, they don't really care about it that much anymore. They want to move onto something else.
    Kids in school don't have the experience a lot of times of working with someone to really pull their draft apart and revise it extensively. Maybe a little revision there, a detail there, but they don't have the experience of watching it develop and change through revision. They're not really expecting it, because they don't have the background knowledge of it. Also, I think we're a little bit unclear with kids about revision sometimes. We say, "You know, this lead doesn't really pull me in. You know, here's some ideas." If they say, "Well, I don't really feel like doing that." Or, "I like it the way it is," that's the end of the story. It's a little confusing for kids I think because we're like, "You should change this maybe," or, "I thought it could use a little more exciting part at the beginning." Kids are like, "Well, are you going to make me do it?" If I don't have to do it, I'm probably not going to do it.

Lee Heffernan:    I think there are a lot of reasons, but mostly I think revision is tricky, and it is hard for people.

Brett:    During the writing workshop, you had a sense of hesitance that your students picked up on, as yourself as a writer. Tell us about that and how it affected your approach to working with your students.

Lee Heffernan:    I've been teaching for over 30 years in elementary schools, and I fell in love with writer's workshop and process writing in the early 80s when I was a young teacher. I listened to advise about really honoring and respecting student writers, and to kind of pull back a little bit and listen more than suggest, and to phrase your questions very open ended way, so as not to lead them into your ideas, and to kind of stay away from the draft. I did that for a long time, but then I started reading more about editors working with authors. There's one editor that I love, his name is Gerald Gross, he said, "It is true that the author owns the text, but during publishing the author leases it to the editor for a little while." I love that image that you're going to let me have it for a little bit, and I'm going to be involved too. Then, when we're done, the lease is over and it's yours again. That gave me a lot more confidence about making lots of suggestions, and instead of worrying when I had a conference with a kid, like how can I phrase this question so they kind of come up with the idea and I don't seem overbearing. Now, I just sit down and it's much more natural. 

Lee Heffernan:    I'm like, "I read your draft, I loved it, I think it needs some dialogue here, and here. What do you think?" Often kids will say, "I wanted to do dialogue but I wasn't sure how to start it off." You know, so it really generates the conversation. It just seems more natural like, "I read your draft, I have ideas about it, because I'm your editor and that's my job."

Brett:    This is definitely a part of writer's workshop. This isn't something that's separate or outside of it. It's a part of the process that you put into it.

Lee Heffernan:    Exactly. Writer's workshop has been the exact same format in my classroom for 30 years. We start off with mini lessons and we take a status of the class. We have writing and conferring time, and we end with sharing our pieces. It's really always been a favorite part of the curriculum for me and my students.

Brett:    You talk about in the book that you're inspired by author Roald Dahl, and his relationship with his editors; tell us a little bit about that.

Lee Heffernan:    I read this article about Roald Dahl and what a difficult writer he was for editors, and he had many during his career. Then, I read a biography of Dahl. I was really fascinated by this, because I thought, how can they ask Roald Dahl to revise his-

Lee Heffernan:    Writing, and I'm scared to ask a child to change their lead, you know. But, Roald Dahl is, people are telling him to get rid of chapters and they're rewriting parts of it and saying, "What do you think of it this way?" I thought, something's going on here that I've missed the boat on. He had a reputation for being very contentious, but also very grateful when he worked with an editor that he really enjoyed the collaboration. I started thinking about this, well Roald Dahl gets this professional service while he's publishing a book, how can I give something to my students that's more involved and will help improve their text? I started showing them different … We started collecting stories of writers working with editors. Some writers are very forthcoming about their relationship and they'll even put drafts online of their successive drafts with their editor feedback.

Lee Heffernan:    Kate Camillo does that, Tommy Depollo does that in a biography by Barbara Element, and it's fun for the kids to see. We started kind of … It was kind of like an inquiry, like what is publishing really involve? It gave me a lot more confidence about this mindset of working with kids during writer's workshop.

Brett:    You of course, you had an editor from Hynamen as you worked on the book.

Lee Heffernan:    Yes.

Brett:    You were able to sort of work that in … Sort of a meta thing, you were able to work that into the actual book itself. Talk a little bit about how you managed that.

Lee Heffernan:    At first when I started working with Holly Pricecam, I was a little bit nervous because I'm like sending her chapters where like, well this is what editors do. I hope she agrees. She did, you know, because there are many patterns in literature about editors. These patterns played out in my relationship with Holly, and some of the things that were different with working with an editor that I could see in the literature and I could see come to life in my own relationship on my publishing journey with Holly is that Holly really stayed committed to a positive relationship with me. Editors talk about that a lot, that there's nothing gained if the relationship goes awry, because you need a book at the end of this. 
    There's really a lot of suggestions about being tactful and being respectful and there's negotiation and there's emotion for sure. That really can't be denied in publishing. It's real, and so I always felt like when Holly made a suggestion that I always knew she was going to check in, "What did you think about that?" Or, "Do you want to talk on the phone?" Or, "How's it going?" if she hadn't heard from me for a while. She really was committed to the relationship. Editors also say they have a commitment to the text and they almost become an advocate for the text. That was really new for me to think about when I started with kids, I have to speak for their text, because they said they were going to write a text about friendship, but there is no friendship in this book, or it's really only about one kid winning a hockey game. If we agreed that you're going to follow this theme, how can I help you develop this text so that it's true to your theme?

Lee Heffernan:    Holly did a lot of that, where she said, "You know, your text, you're talking about the editors and you're talking about writing research and how these things connect, and how do you show how this plays out in a classroom?" She kept making suggestions about that, and it was good. I was grateful for those suggestions. She also always kept the reader in mind, and that's something that was new for me too as a writing teacher. It's like, we write these things, and kids read them in the classroom, but to really think how you can get kids writing out there in the world more. Holly was always saying to me, "What do you want readers to get from this? What do you think teachers need to know in order to do this?" She really helped me bring more classroom application into the book.
    It was fun towards the end, I said, "I kind of think I need to write about us a little bit." And she said, "I know." We were both kind of nervous around that, but I think it worked out great and it was a great way to wrap up the book. I worked on this book for years with Holly and I was teaching full time the whole time I was writing it, and I'm kind of a slow writer. You know, I have this relationship with her during the publishing of the book for a long time. Last week I wrote to her, I'm like, "I'm really missing our back and forth," and she's like, "Me too." It was fun to see the stuff that I was learning about and researching with kids really did play out in my publication journey too.

Brett:    Yeah, I mean you kind of had to at a certain point. As a reader, it's sort of like, well what about you?

Lee Heffernan:    Right. People were asking me that a lot too. "You're working with an editor, right?" I'm like, "Yes." It's true. I would say that to kids when I talked to them about editors and authors and I would do mini lessons on publishing and small presses, how editors have a really specific role in publishing with authors. I'd say, "I know this for a fact to be true, because I'm going through it right now with my editor. My book has been changed a lot and it's been revised a bunch of times." The kids kind of were excited about it.

Brett:    You write about how your students were surprised by what an editor actually does, and in that relationship you just talked about. What were their reactions like?

Lee Heffernan:    They're mostly very positive, because at the beginning of the year, I teach a lot about what editors are for writers and the services they provide for writers. We do a lot of activities around researching, publishing houses, looking at texts that have been many drafts of texts that authors have put online. We watch some interviews online with editors, we do publishing house scavenger hunt where we look through the books in our own classroom library and who publishes them. We talk about the difference between small presses and big presses. The kid even write and perform these little skits that are, lunch with your editor, which is an author and an editor and they talk about the issues that might come up.
    By the time they've submitted a manuscript and I've given them feedback, they're ready for me to be a little different. It's very playful, like they're ready to have this meeting with me. They get very excited about it. You know, it's still, sometimes they'll say, "I disagree with that suggestion," and I'm very respectful of that. I'm like, "That's fine, and I know you can come up with something better, but right there in that text, it's very confusing, and I'm kind of the first reader here you. So, what are we going to do about it?" Then, often kids will say, "Now, what do you think?" I'm like, "Well, you don't like this idea?" "No, I do not want to do it that way." I'm like, "Okay. What about this other idea?" "Hmm." I'm like, "Okay, it's your gig and tell me, I'm here, but why don't you experiment with some of these things?" I said this to a kid, Ethan, in my class last year and he goes, "But, you're my editor." I said, "I am, but that doesn't mean I'm just an idea factory for you today, so let's talk once you look at the ideas we've already talked about.
    They get very involved, they like having an editor. Most kids this year acknowledged me in their authors notes. I want to thank my editor, Lee Heffernan. It's very sweet, they enjoy it, it's very playful. You know, it really kind of … I have a new identity and they really have an author identity.

Brett:    That's neat. It really sounds like they don't see revision anymore as something that they have to do, but something that's just a part of the process that allows them to keep going.

Lee Heffernan:    Yes, and they see it improving their text. Now, I used to have like you'd hand in the rough draft, you'd do the revision, then we publish. Now, I really slow down the writer's workshop and we might pass it back, every kid is different, so we might pass it back and forth two or three times with one kid. Another kid, maybe eight or nine times.

Lee Heffernan:    It's just reminding the kid and me, how can we make this text the best it can be. So, there are moments where a kid who's revised eight times is like, "It's done?" You know, I'm like, "Yeah, it's done." They see, they're very proud of their text and at portfolio conferences at the end of the year, most kids say that their stories are their favorite parts, and they tell me I should do more. They like the work. It's very project based, you know, they're really involved with an important project, so it's fun. 

 


You can follow Lee on Twitter @Lee_Heffernan. Her book is Back and Forth: Using an editor’s mindset to improve student writing. You can also read a sample chapter of her book: http://www.heinemann.com/products/e08982.aspx#fulldesc

 

 

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