Practicing Revision with Telescopic Text

Thanks to StumbleUpon, I recently discovered a site that has been around for several years, but it was new to me; perhaps it is new to you, too. It’s called Telescopic Text [telescopictext.com].

Here’s how it works. The website starts with a simple three-word sentence:

1-I made tea.

Clicking any one of the three highlighted words expands the sentence. Here, I’ve clicked the word “tea.”

2-clicked on teaClicking “I” provides more detail…

3-clicked on I…as does clicking “made.”

4-clicked on made

As the user continues to click, additional words and phrases appear, with new highlights.

5-a few more clicks in

The creator of telescopictext.com, Joe Davis, has made this clever little tool freely available at a companion site, telescopictext.org. Users may create their own telescopic text, using their own starting sentence.

Teachers and home schoolers use the tool to encourage young writers to add details and description to their writing. Hey Milly’s lesson plan is particularly well-described.[1] She uses the tool as a fun way to encourage her students to write about what they did over school vacation. For example, a ten-year-old might write “I went to the beach” and leave it at that. Telescopic Text motivates the student to add details, resulting in a much richer description, such as, “I strolled over to the stormy beach. The humungous waves crashed madly along the sparkling sand.…”

It makes sense to use the tool to encourage more descriptive writing. But when I discovered Telescopic Text, my mind was on reducing a 110,000-word first draft of a YA novel down to a lean, tight 60,000 words or less. As I clicked through Telescopic Text the first time, I grinned at all the unnecessary words appearing before my eyes, and thought about how important it is to choose only those details that advance the story, character, or setting.

Here is how the original text, “I made tea,” reads when it is expanded fully.

6-fully expanded

If this paragraph appeared in the draft of any novel or short story, it would have to be revised. So many unnecessary words! The telescopic text tool does not allow you to edit as freely as a word processor, so as a quick writing exercise, I typed the paragraph into a Word document and went to work.

Before editing Joe Davis’s “I made tea” piece, I had to decide on the purpose of the paragraph. Why is this here? What is it meant to evoke? I decided that the intent is to depict a character waking up the morning after some dismal event, which he or she is trying hard not to think about until fortified by a strong cup of tea. The character prefers to be meticulous, and is doing the best he or she can to gird against the day ahead, while surrounded by the disorder of yesterday.

Here is the same paragraph with my edits. It is still fairly long, but what remains does a better job conveying something about the character, without belaboring the details of the action. At least I hope it does.

8-edits with changes accepted

You may disagree whether my revisions accomplish the intent, or you may think the paragraph could be more concise.[2] That’s fine; this exercise is for demonstration purposes. My point is that it’s fine to “pants” through the first draft. But when the time comes to revise, it’s important to consider the intent of each piece, whether the piece is as large as a chapter or as small as an individual word. Ask yourself, “What does this chapter, this paragraph, this sentence, this word, contribute to the story as a whole?”

Sometimes it may turn out that all you need is, “I made tea.”

What’s your process for revision? What tools and approaches do you find helpful? Let us know in the comments.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] I disagree with Milly about “said” being an overused word, but that is a different discussion.

[2] You may also disagree with the character’s method of brewing strong tea. My husband certainly would. Add the milk before the tea has brewed? Recipe for disaster!

19 comments

  1. Excellent post. Getting that balance, the correct amount of detail and the right words to convey exactly what you need to, is of course the key objective; and ten writers will probably come up with ten different versions of that passage. Which is what makes it so interesting.

    BTW, agree about not adding milk before the tea has brewed. The water has to be boiling. Being British, I was probably born knowing that.

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    1. Christopher, thanks for reading and commenting! Yes indeed ten writers will come up with ten different versions of the passage. Or perhaps 20 or 30 if they write like I do, and keep all the alternate versions tucked away just in case they decide later that the alternates are better. 😉

      Brewing tea is not genetic in the states! I drink coffee; my husband and daughters mostly drink tea. They tell me that it’s difficult to get properly brewed tea in a restaurant here in the U.S. Either the water is brought to you in an open cup with the dry teabag, and it is too cool by the time it arrives, or the hot water and milk are added to a cup at the same time, back in the kitchen. Once in a very great while, you are brought a proper lidded pot with the steeping tea already in it, and an empty cup to pour it into. We assume that means the chef is a tea drinker, or British….The exception to this is Asian restaurants. They get tea right.

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  2. That is a clever tool, which I was not familiar with. It is analogous to a camera lens zooming in and back out. Deciding how much or how little to show of a scene or image is the tricky part. Strunk and White, of Elements of Style fame, would have voted for the simplest text that conveyed the message. As you said, a writer needs to begin with what the core of the message is, then decide how concise to be. It’s good to know that this tool exists.

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  3. Really interesting thoughts about the process of revision. Makes you take a good, hard look at each and every sentence in your own writing. In revision, I tend to lean more towards adding descriptors, rather than taking them away; I will now more consciously consider my intent when doing this. Thanks for the post!

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    1. Hi Alyse, I’m in the middle of a six-week revision workshop–it’s really making me think! I’ll probably be eliminating at least one whole character who has a lot of visibility, but isn’t necessary to the central story. Eliminating words seems like small change, by comparison. Best wishes for mindful writing!

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  4. I don’t have a specific process, except that when I leave time between taking another look at a manuscript, I notice things that need fixing. So for me it’s important to go back often over time to revise a piece. It seems I always find something I can do to make it better! Interesting post, Marianne!

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  5. Marianne- Thanks for sharing this. It’s a kind of hilarious site — and idea. Especially when you look at it with the eyes of a PB writer… Still: I can see that there really could be value in expanding (with or without the tool) and the re-contracting, as an exercise, to understand a character/setting/motivation/etc. better.

    It reminds me of when my daughter came home, in 3rd grade, and told me about all the other (kinda florid) words they’d been offered to replace the word “said” with — while there I sat trying to cleverly eliminate dialogue tags entirely…

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  6. I’m not familiar with telescopic test, so I found this quite interesting. It looks like a fun play thing. I can’t wait to plug something in and watch how it evolves. 🙂

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  7. This is a really interesting tool and exercise, Marianne! Gosh, I wish there was a tool that went in the reverse direction – taking longer text and distilling it to its most basic form! Ah well. I guess that’s still the job of the writer. 😉

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