National Writing Project

On the Experience of Writing Action Strategies

By: Jeffrey D. Wilhelm
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2
Date: 2004

Summary: Jeffrey Wilhelm shares a few words about the process of writing and publishing Action Strategies.

 

Whenever I write, I go through a process of conceptualizing, collecting, and cooking the data, then composing, and eventually cutting. This process mirrors a series of intense relationships: with an idea; with my informants, students, and other teachers; with the data; with my imagined audience; and last but certainly not least, with my editor.

I've worked with many editors over my career, and I've found this relationship to be very important to the quality of the resulting text. An editor is a long-term dance partner with whom you go to competitions. A good editor is a kind of manager, coach, trainer, partner, and first reader all wrapped into one.

My Scholastic editor is the talented Wendy Murray. Now the way it works for Wendy and me is that my first drafts tend to be 175–200 percent of the length of the final product. This drives Wendy crazy. Whenever I start a new book, she tells me to keep it short! Of course, we both laugh, because that just ain't gonna happen. It's not my process.

Because the first step of my writing involves nurturing and collecting data, usually in my own classroom, with my own students, or through my work with other teachers in their classrooms, I badly want to tell all their stories. You see, somehow I fall in love with all the kids and all the great experiences and all the techniques that we try together. I want all of it to go into the book. Trying to get rid of anything is like trying to discard well-loved books or to throw away favorite T-shirts that are living memories and that you just know have some more wear in them.

That's what happened with Action Strategies. The first draft was twice as long as my number of allowed pages. Wendy started in with the suggestions to shape and cut. Although I didn't want to give up any stories or ideas, I had to. I cut some and put some back. Slowly we got closer to the allowed page count.

With this book, Wendy had to take over. It looked great when she was done—and we were within the page count.

I asked her to save the stuff she cut in a special folder. Maybe Scholastic will let me put these techniques on a website, or maybe I will write a sequel. In any case, the book is a svelte 192 pages. But it should be 400! I know those lost ideas are good and need a home. I'll find them one. I'll keep looking until I do!

About the Author Jeffrey Wilhelm, former director of the Maine Writing Project, is an associate professor of English at Boise State University, Idaho.

See related book review by Pamela Fong.

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