Making the Cut: Revising Memoirs by Detecting Clutter and Confusion
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Rather than extending a two-page paper to five pages by restating facts, philosophizing aimlessly, or simply making things up, students engaging in this revision lesson learn how to make the cut. In Zinsser's guide for nonfiction writing, he states, “The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components” (7). Students begin by improving a slide presentation by removing pictures. They translate their reasons for cutting pictures into reasons for cutting unnecessary words and sections from their own memoirs. Experiencing revision instead of memorizing the rules of revision helps students move beyond head knowledge of Zinsser's clean-and-cut advice to individually adopted practice.
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well (6th ed.). New York: Harper Perennial, 1998. Print.
From Theory to Practice
Flower et al. suggest a cognitive process model for writing, which is based on hypotheses and research regarding the differences between novice and expert writers (21). Flower et al. and Hayes describe revision as a process that depends on the writer’s initial ability to detect problems in the text. Because novice writers often struggle to diagnose areas for revision, they resort to basic proofreading rather than revising word choice, organization, and content for meaning. This lesson is designed to help students detect revision needs by using visual literacy knowledge as a scaffold for identifying revision issues in their own writing.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
Materials and Technology
- Zinsser Quotes
- Graphic Design Notes
- Self-Assessment Reflection
- Narrative-Cutting Rules Examples
- Sample Memoir: “The Unexpected Dangers of Roasting Marshmallows”
Student writing models are organized by grade level and genre; see memoir examples under the “personal writing” category.
Student writing models are organized by genre; see memoir. This link connects to the critics’ picks; you can also click on “memoir” on the right side of the webpage to access additional student examples for revision practice.
Teen Ink provides electronic access to the student-created memoirs in their print magazine. These could be used as mentor texts or for revision practice.
- Use one of the sample slide presentations (Vienna or Amusement Parks) or create one using a set of pictures that includes a few imperfect shots (blurry, off center, random subject, duplicates, and so forth).
- Make copies of the Graphic Design Notes handout for use during the slide presentation.
- Print the Zinsser Quotess (on the board or one per student).
- Make copies of the Sample Memoir or write a memoir to model revision.
- Make copies of the Self-Assessment Reflection.
- The revision tool explained in this lesson is particularly relevant after students have written and revised rough drafts using revision tools designed to expand detail. The memoir chapter from Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle or one of the following ReadWriteThink resources provides helpful preparation:
- Memories Matter: The Giver and Descriptive Writing Memoirs: Lisa Gaines provides seven lessons using The Giver as a scaffold for teaching the personal narrative writing process.
- Bio-graph: Graphing Live Events: Susan Spangler integrates math and writing to help students brainstorm possible memoir topics.
- She Did What? Revising for Connotation: Traci Gardner helps students actively engage in word choice as a revision tool.
- Show-Me Sentences: Lawrence Baines scaffolds instruction for the revision tool “show, don’t tell.”
- Having My Say: A Multigenre Autobiography Project: Scott Filkins uses a published autobiography as a model for weaving students' memoirs with larger real-life events.
- detect two areas for revision in their memoirs by translating principles of revision from visual medium to written text.
- apply two revision skills in order to make the cut and improve their memoirs.
Session One: Slide Show Revision
- Ask students to write or talk with a partner about their favorite commercial and then write down the commercial’s purpose and intended audience.
- As they share their observations with the class, explain that graphic designers employ numerous techniques to communicate visually and that in this lesson, they will focus on one aspect of graphic design—choosing the visual images to include in a slide presentation for a specific audience and purpose.
- Hand out the Graphic Design Notes printout and focus students' attention on the concepts of audience and purpose.
- Show the slide presentation (Vienna, Amusement Parks, or a personal collection) once so that the students can establish an overall theme for the presentation and choose a specific audience.
- Sample themes: architecture in Austria, my favorite things, a walking tour of Vienna
- Sample audience: small group of friends, potential travelers for a tour, art students
- Introduce the table portion of the Graphic Design Notes printout. Read the sample reason for cutting a slide.
- Invite the students to view the presentation a second time through the lens of a graphic designer. Using the Graphic Design Notes printout, have them keep track of which slides they think should be removed and why. Consider beginning with an invitation to critique, such as, “In order to stick with my Austrian theme and present an audience-quality slide show, which pictures should be cut?” Possible discussion questions include
- In your opinion, which pictures should be removed or cropped in order to prepare my show for the audience?
- How does erasing/changing this picture improve the presentation as a whole?
- Show the pictures one final time and have the students share their opinions and supporting reasons for deleting individual shots. Possible discussion structure:
- Show a slide and ask the students to raise their hands if they chose to cut this slide.
- Randomly choose a student to share his/her reason for cutting the slide.
- Ask students to raise their hands if they wrote a similar reason.
- Allow one or two students with different slide-cutting reasons to share.
- On the board, record the students’ reasons for making the cut. Help students understand that if a slide does not seem to relate to the topic or to meet the audience's needs, an alternative to cutting might be to make the relationship clear in the presentation language. If this process takes too long and engagement wanes, two options for accomplishing the task in less time include the following:
- After modeling slide-cutting for one or two slides as a whole class, have the students work in small groups. Give each group a printout of the PowerPoint presentation and ask them to talk about the pictures that they cut and why. As a group, choose the three top pictures to cut. Ask each group to write the picture number along with the slide-cutting reason on the board. As a class find themes among these reasons and create a short list of slide-cutting guidelines.
- Identify the top five or six pictures that students cut and only show these during the final showing of the presentation to promote discussion. (Technology option: Nearpod, Socrative, and a variety of other participation apps provide instant and anonymous results from class votes.)
- Transfer the slide-cutting rules to narrative-cutting rules by asking, “How can you transfer your reasons for cutting slides in a presentation to cutting words in writing?” Model by choosing one of the slide-cutting rules that the class generated and write a corresponding narrative-cutting rule (see the Narrative-Cutting Rules Examples handout for ideas). By the end of class, aim for a list of three to seven revision guidelines.
- Using the Zinsser Quotes handout, show students the following quotes from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well:
- “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”
- “The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”
- “If the reader is lost, it is generally because the writer has not been careful enough to keep him on the path.”
- Ask them to respond individually to the quotes in one of three ways: draw a picture that illustrates a quote, agree or disagree with a quote and provide reasons for your position, or create a narrative-cutting guideline based on a quote. After giving the students a few minutes to complete the task, have them share with a partner before facilitating a discussion about the revision process. If students struggle with identifying narrative-cutting guidelines that correspond with the list of slide-cutting rules, consider providing a revision guideline (for writing) and ask the students to talk about which slide-cutting rules share similar characteristics, and so forth.
- Ask students to reflect on today's learning through a journal or exit slip: Describe or sketch one picture that you chose to cut from the slide presentation. How did cutting it make the presentation better? Which revision guideline for writing does this help you remember?
Session Two: Memoir Revision
- Ask students to think of a movie they have watched that included deleted scenes. They should discuss with a partner one deleted scene and their best guess as to why it did not make the cut.
- Show a short deleted scene from a recent movie that many students have probably watched. (Search on YouTube by the title of the movie and “deleted scenes.”) Discuss the director’s reasons for cutting the scene from the final movie. Compare these reasons to the narrative-cutting guidelines from Session One.
- Explain to students that they will use the narrative-cutting guidelines (and associated slide-cutting reminders) to detect problem areas and revise their memoirs.
- Use the first paragraph of a memoir to demonstrate revision using two or three of the “cutting clutter and confusion” guidelines. Consider practicing applying the slide-cutting guidelines to a teacher-crafted memoir, which allows for insertion of certain types of clutter to the draft for students to find and If students are hesitant to critique the teacher’s paper, offer a disclaimer such as, “Writing can always be improved. Even professional writers begin with rough drafts that sometimes look like ours, but they don’t stop there. Your suggestions will help me see my paper from a different perspective and help me improve mistakes that I would never notice.”) Other model memoir options include
- Provide students with a hard copy of the memoir and have them spend a few minutes finding and marking words/phrases that should be cut throughout the rest of the story. As a class, revise the memoir and make further connections between visual and written revision. It helps to number the revision guidelines and then include the number next to the words or phrases that are being deleted.
- After practice on someone else's text, have the students highlight words or sections in their own memoirs that need to be cut—mark them with the numbers of the corresponding revision guidelines.
- Have students choose two or three narrative-cutting guidelines and complete the Self-Assessment Reflection handout.
- Students can participate in peer revision conferences using the Peer Conference Record as a map and checklist. (Use the Memoir Rubric that is provided with this lesson or another rubric that you have created for narrative writing.)
- When teaching correct breathing and posture in choir, some teachers have students show the “wrong way” and then the “right way.” This is an effective memory tool to help students identify and remember the key concepts. This could be applied to Zinsser’s clean-and-cut advice by having students participate in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.
- The goal: to write the opening sentence to the worst possible novel—as inspired by the opening line to Paul Clifford by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” (Project Gutenberg Online Reader)
- Have the students purposefully break the narrative and slide-cutting guidelines to help them write the worst opening sentence.
- The website also includes past winners (preview before sharing)—if you are looking for short and entertaining opportunities to practice making the cut.
- Students can practice higher-level thinking by comparing/contrasting the characteristics of Zinsser’s revision approach to the ideas in the poem “Revision #101” by R.G. Cantalupo. Cantalupo, R. G. "Revision #101." English Journal 94.3 (2005): 106. Print.