This idea came from my good writer friend named Lori. She uses it with her college English classes, and I used it with seventh grade Writers’ Club gifted students yesterday. It worked as well as Lori predicted it might.
This is how it goes: Writers have hard copy of their stories in front of them and are given highlighters. Instruction: Ask them to find the first mention of their main character/ narrator/ protagonist and highlight it. Continue throughout the first three pages, looking for subsequent m/c descriptions.
Step two: Choose a second color highlighter. Use it to mark words and phrases that reference the main character’s problem or conflict. Continue by finding further development of that conflict and highlighting those words or phrases.
Step three: Choose a third color highlighter. Use it to identify descriptions of the problem’s solution or resolution.
Step four: This is where the soup gets thick. Look at what remains, unhighlighted, and locate additional characters and settings and events or scenes. Determine if they are essential to understanding the main character, identifying the problem, or enhancing the solution. If not, they most likely can be cut. Wailing and groaning and doubled-over stabs of pain describe what happened when the seventh graders grasped the possibility that some of their “darlings”--words, sentences, paragraphs, or scenes--might be sacrificed in the name of a good story. Their teacher and I assured them they can copy and paste into another document to save the precious, hard-earned writing for future stories. They started breathing again. But more agony filled the room when they realized they had dealt with three pages only. They are prolific writers, overachievers really, and they didn’t relish the idea of continuing the cut.
This is what really happened. The seventh graders, motivated as all-get-out, began their radical revision process on their own volition. They said things like, “Can I start revising now?” “Boy, do I have too much stuff.” “I don’t have as much description about my main character as I do about my secondary character.”
The beauty of this idea—thank you, Lori—is the ease with which you, the instructor, have just avoided editing eighteen stories—multiple pages—between now and the next time you meet. It really works, and I can’t wait to apply it to my own writing.