Harold Underdown On Craft: Sharpening Your Re-Vision

Originally Published: April 2014

by Leah Heilman Schanke

Harold UnderdownOn April 8, Harold Underdown began his presentation by introducing the importance of Reader Response Theory in writing and editing children’s books. The theory focuses on the reader’s experience. While editors and writers also have a response, they primarily analyze plot, characters, setting, etc. But what happens when a child reads? It’s simply the response. The response differs individually because of what each reader brings to the story.

Underdown stated that Reader Response Theory is “every bit as important as what literary critics do in analyzing what a story means and how the writer accomplished it.” Underdown demonstrated by reading an excerpt of The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats without showing the illustrations. The response was the feeling of wonder and excitement. Underdown pointed out that the illustrations were not needed to “fall into [the character’s] story.”

Picture book writers need to “leave space for readers’ feelings” as well as for illustrations. Underdown emphasized that “the reader’s feelings complete the story.” Once a manuscript is completed, Underdown recommends seeking out other people to get responses. In a critique group, members may find it helpful to explore the response before analyzing the writing.

After the response has been explored, writers essentially have two approaches to revision. One is big picture revision, looking at the entire manuscript as a whole and the other is analytical. Underdown advised, “Try to do both.” He also stated that the larger issues of plot and character need to be worked out before the smaller things.

Once the big items are fixed, the manuscript is ready to polish off. Underdown cautioned writers not to try to do copy editing themselves but just to do their best. Editors and agents do not expect perfection.

The main point about revising is to try different things. Below is a sample of recommended revision techniques. Further information on revision resources can be found at www.kidsbookrevisions.com.

Sample Revision Techniques

  • Writing a one sentence summary. If the manuscript can’t be summarized in a sentence, that may point to problems such as an overly complex plot.
  • Asking someone else to read the manuscript out loud to you; they won’t read it as you expect, and you’ll notice rough spots.
  • Summarizing chapters to get a sense of pacing.
    • Making the manuscript look different, e.g. change the font of the manuscript, then print it out to help spot issues.
    • Examining word choice – e.g. create a “word cloud” of your manuscript at www.wordle.net to determine words used most frequently.
    • Reading word by word backwards to catch typos.

When is revising done? Underdown said there is no simple answer. Two points to consider – the point where the writer can no longer see any big items to fix or finding oneself changing the same thing back and forth.

Underdown was asked what trends he sees in picture book word counts. He has heard people say the picture book is getting shorter, but he does not agree because the classic picture book is short. Longer story books are dropping out of the market, and easy readers are taking over. Underdown stated there is a market for longer picture books. What he sees is the increase in importance of the bookstore market while budgets for the institutional market have decreased.

Underdown recommends writers look at age levels and what kinds of books are published for them, then see where they fit in.

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Leah Heilman Schanke was a finalist in the 2013 PNWA International Literary Contest in the children’s book category. By day, Leah is a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR). Leah lives on Long Island with her husband and children.

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