Shaping a Piece of Writing: More Revision Tips

This week of Christmas, I’m thinking of the trees we used to cut in our woods on the farm, cedar trees that we’d carry to the house and put in a stand at the window in our front room. Those trees were unruly, left to grow the way nature would have it, so unlike the nicely shaped trees for sale at tree farms or nurseries or grocery stores or lots to benefit the Jaycees, the Boy Scouts, the Lions Club. I can only remember one time when my father bought a tree at one of those places, and then our Christmas tree looked like the ones I saw on television.

I had no thought of the people who worked to make sure those store-bought trees had that perfect shape, but years later, when I was a teenager, I became one of those people. I spent two summers working on a local Christmas tree farm, spending my days shaping red pines, white pines, and Scotch pines. Looking back on those days now, I realize I was acquiring skills that would one day contribute to my life as a writer. More simply put, shaping a pine tree can help us think about revising a piece of writing.

The first thing I learned was that pine trees, when left to grow naturally, don’t have that single leader at the top, the one we eventually use for the star or some other type of topper when we decorate. Instead, the tree can have a number of possible leaders. My first step, when I was working on the tree farm, was to choose the leader that would be the best one and to cut the others away. When revising something we’ve written, we should think about the very last move of the piece. Where does it land? What gives it its resonance? What surprises does it contain? What rises at the end? The final move usually conveys the intention of  the piece. That’s your leader. That’s the thing you’ve come to the page to say. If there are competing leaders, cut them, so the single thread of the piece will have more space to stand out.

The second step in shaping a pine tree is to, as my boss always said in his Cajun accent, “Make it look like an upside down ice cream cone.” To do that, you have to stand to the side and cut away—sometimes with shears, sometimes with a machete—anything that doesn’t fit into the shape you envision. So it is with what we write. Once we know its intention, we can cut out anything that doesn’t contribute. Once we know our landing place, we can ask ourselves how everything that comes before is making a resonant end possible. If something isn’t helping that end rise, we can get rid of it.

I understand that even the big Christmas trees that stand in Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, often need additional greenery added to fill in some of the empty places and make the tree look full. Similarly, when we revise, we need to ask ourselves what’s missing. What still needs to be written to make our landing place seem surprising and yet inevitable. Are there new scenes waiting to be written? Does the setting need filling out? What about your characters? When it comes to them, have you missed a necessary layer? What about the pace? Are there places where the piece needs to slow down or move more quickly? And the language? Could the dialogue be more artful? Is the tone appropriate? Have you taken full advantage of details and images? Have you created the right atmosphere from which your end can rise?

I offer these questions to help you revise. You’ll probably want to add your own to the list. Here at Christmas, I think of how my own early drafts, like those cedar trees I remember from my childhood, are often disorderly. I also remember how I spent hours in the heat and humidity of summer shaping those pine trees so come Christmas families could enjoy them. Revision takes a similar effort as we do what we must—identify, cut, and fill—to create something that will resonate with a reader. I wish you all the best this holiday season.



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