Teachers Write 8.2.16 Tuesday Quick-Write with Nanci Turner Steveson

Good morning! It’s time for your last Tuesday Quick-Write of the summer, and our guest today is Nanci Turner Steveson. Nanci is the author of SWING SIDEWAYS, a great new novel for middle grade readers, and she joins us today to talk about “spit poetry.” 


Let me start by saying I am a novelist, not a poet. However, I am on the Board of Directors of Jackson Hole Writers, and we have a very active group of poets who meet monthly. I was just starting to work through revisions of Swing Sideways when I decided I should attend one meeting so I could get to know that side of our organization.

I am a very organic writer. Everything I write in a first draft is, as we say, “puked onto the page.” You will see shortly that the quality of loveliness in this puking process is non-existent. It’s during revisions that I take The Ugly Duckling and work toward creating something I hope will be beautiful. I like to think of this as sculpting.

This process changed after listening to the poets dissect one person’s work at a meeting I attended. They discussed (for 20 minutes!) how the placement of one word changed the magnificence, or clarity, or subtleness of one line. I started going to their meetings to learn, because it was clear I had a lot to learn from them.

My most active takeaway has been an exercise I challenge you to try with a piece of rough draft work you may be fretting over. Below you will see the extremely ugly, spit-it-out-on-the-page paragraph I tried this with the first time. I took that mess of thoughts and words and plunked them onto separate document, in a different format, to create more white space: double line spacing, and sentence breaks so at first glance it looks like it could be the makings of a poem.

In this format it was easier for me to see the words that needed to come out. I began cutting and, with each pass, the beauty of the real message began to shine. After I got rid of all unnecessary words, I was able to put it back into prose form to flesh out the rest. The paragraph at the bottom is the actual result of this process.

ORIGINAL MESS: Ahead of me, about one hundred yards away, was an area that looked darker than the rest of the night. I looked at the sky and saw how it was changing from dark to light. I was still crying, hiccuping away the tears I couldn’t control, looking for something, but what? Something to tell me where I was, and to show me what we’d been searching for all summer. The wooden oars of the rowboat burned my hands when I picked them up again, my hands were weak, achy, they hurt as much as my heart. But I rowed on, toward where I thought land might be, where I thought there might be a willow like the one we’d seen in the picture. Maybe if I found just the willow, maybe that would be enough for California, maybe then I could take her home and we could forget about everything and hopefully it all would be fine. But I had to find that piece of land, that part of the shore that could be were Dad said I would find the willow.



Ahead of me,

about one hundred yards away,

was an area that looked darker

than the rest of the night.

I looked at the sky

and saw how it was changing

from dark to light.

I was still crying,

hiccuping away the tears

I couldn’t control,

looking for something,

but what?

Something to tell me where I was,

and to show me what

we’d been searching for

all summer.

The wooden oars of the rowboat

burned my hands

when I picked them up again,

my hands were weak,


they hurt

as much as my heart.

But I rowed on,

toward where I thought land might be,

where I thought there might be

a willow

like the one we’d seen

in the picture.

Maybe if I found just the willow,

maybe that would be enough

for California,

maybe then I could take her home

and we could forget

about everything

and hopefully

it all would be fine.

But I had to find that piece of land,

that part of the shore

that could be were Dad said

I would find the willow.



Up ahead, a ribbon of sky changed, ebony to silver. I rubbed my arms and hiccuped away the last of my tears. When I reached for the oars again, the first hint of peach was beginning to mingle with the gray. The border of the lake took on a real shape. I could make out the tops of the trees and the bottom, where their trunks met the ground—black against green. Wood in hand, I rowed harder, faster toward the blooming light, toward a place where the earth arched and curved, then spun into an almost perfect circle.


Today’s assignment: Try this yourself now… Take something you literally just spit out and see where you end up after using this little trick. Would love to hear how it worked for you, and/or your students.

Happy sculpting!


23 Replies on “Teachers Write 8.2.16 Tuesday Quick-Write with Nanci Turner Steveson

  1. Dear Nanci,
    What an interesting idea of editing and laying your work out. I know there are often scenes where I feel I have been to “wordy” and need to cut but wasn’t sure how to go about it. I think this method will work great for this. And it’s fun too. Thanks so much for sharing.

    1. Thanks so much! It has worked really well for me, not only in each piece I work through this way, but it also jars my often-stuck brain into gear again. Would love to hear how it works for you.

  2. Oh, Nancy Turner Stevenson you are singing my SONG sister!

    I often write prose first and then cherry-pick the poetic elements out of it. But, I tend to keep my work in verse form. I’m crazy for verse form.

    About a year ago on Kate’s facebook page was a fascinating discussion about novel-in-verse. I read that discussion a few times because I’m convince there is a link between prose fiction and poetry. I think writers in each area of strength have so much to offer each other.

    After reading that discussion I discovered an online poetry class. The point of the class was to learn poetry to punch up one’s prose!

    Ta da! There is a link! There is a link!

    I took the class. It was hard…oh, my gosh was it hard for me. But, the learning was amazing and I highly recommend it.

    I don’t have permission to advertise here on Kate’s blog. But, I’ll share the deets about that class on the FB page if anyone would like them.

    I just want to sing AMEN to your post.

    I love the example you gave and would very much like to use it with students.

    You ROCK!

    I’ve followed you on goodreads and am adding Swing Sideways to my middle school library wish list.

    Thanks for dropping in. I am off for some writing time!

    1. Wow, a woman after my own heart indeed! So interesting, and amazing how using this method really does spit, polish and shine what starts out as the serious uglies. Thanks for adding Swing Sideways to the library wish list. I’ve had really wonderful feedback from teachers and librarians throughout the country and am truly humbled. Thanks for your note!

  3. This is amazing! Thank you for sharing the genesis of this exercise via the poets. I found that back story inspiring. I learn a lot from the poets in my writer’s group as well: precision. AND, your polished paragraph is a beauty! Your sculpting is my surgery! Off to prep–

    1. I like that, sculpting and surgery. Thanks for checking in. Would love to know how this method works out for you, and anyone else. I have such a huge respect for poets (even though they still scare me!).

  4. Wow! That transition is amazing! I’m going to play with that today with a picture book I’ve got to revise. So exciting! And frightening!

    I love your “puke on the page” metaphor. I could own that one!

    Thank you!

    1. Oh the dreaded picture book. You are a braver woman than I. I’d rather face the prospect of a 60K novel than a 1,000 word PB. I’m envious of the PB writers and their ability to carve out such lovely pieces in so few words. Please share how this worked for you, and good luck!

  5. Hi Nanci and thank you for this awesome lesson!! I’ve always been a wordy writer and started playing with poetry in part as a way to parse out some of those extra words. Like Linda, I often start writing in prose form and later transform it into verse. I hadn’t thought about transforming it back into prose after the parsing. Will definitely have to try that! I love the idea of using this exercise with students, as well. I can see using it in a poetry unit for students who think that they can’t write poetry: start with prose, break it up, chop it up — and, if you want to keep it in prose — put it back. Also excited to learn of Swing Sideways. I read the teaser on your website and now can’t wait to get my hands on the book. Thanks for camping with us!

    1. Thanks! I’m honored you will use this with your students, this little thing I discovered on a snowy night at poetry group. I remember being very intimidated by the poets and their analyzing and discussing and chopping up the placement of a single word for thirty minutes. I knew then I was learning something truly valuable. Let me know how this works out for you. I love, love, love seeing this kind of thing in action.

  6. Hi, Nanci!

    I’ve been gathering notes from experiences at the track over the last few months. The high school (or college or local town/community) track is an interesting place. You have your leisurely joggers that are out for a morning stroll, or you have your cross-fit athletes running laps and stopping for push-ups and sit-ups. After school, you have your high school or middle school track team. There is structure and lots of action (runners, high jumpers, long jumpers, shot putters). Sometimes, you find a trail next to the track for the cross-country team.

    This is the setting for my next story (maybe – I’m still at the “gathering notes in my notebook” phase), but your activity helped me put a little of it together this afternoon. A great way to warm-up (for writing, of course)! My track workout is already done.:)
    Here’s my excerpt:

    The start of the gun
    startles me.
    I feel my run form
    coming together.
    Thump, thump, thump.
    Is it my heart
    or my feet?
    There’s flow on the straightaways,
    the curves break me.
    I feel my run form
    through 800.
    Running and changing gears
    to reestablish my rhythm.
    Now’s the time,
    sprint to catch the pack
    but save for the final
    300 meters.
    Leave it all on the track.
    Leave the pack behind.
    I feel my run form
    in the final 50.
    Lunge across the line,
    gasp for air,
    look to the scoreboard,
    sigh of relieve,
    number one with
    personal best time.

    Thank you again for the activity.
    Happy writing!

    1. Wow I really do love this. It’s so wonderful to see and hear about so many writers making their way to poetry, especially in regard to kids books. Imagine the possibilities if poetry reading at the dinner table took the place of texting. Sigh . . .

  7. I have been writing poetry this summer, so it was fun to write it as a paragraph first. It really makes poetry more accessible when you don’t have to “worry” about the structure right away. A good activity for students who “can’t write poetry”.

    The wash is hanging
    On a line
    To dry
    It flutters slowly
    In the breeze
    The sun reflects
    Off of its
    There is something
    About clothes that have been 
    On a line
    You can smell the sunshine
    The breeze
    The fresh air
    There isn’t anything like it
    That’s what I remember
    From that summer
    That first summer
    In the country
    When I moved away
    When I moved away 
    From it all
    Away from
    The traffic
    The people
    The noise
    And got away 
    From it all
    It was hard
    At the beginning
    But then it got easier
    And easier
    And now
    I wouldn’t go back
    For the world
    Where would I hang
    My clothes
    To dry?

    1. Yes!
      I happily moved from the country to the suburbs…..but, oh there are some irreplaceable things that I miss. Laundry on the line is one. Don’t tell but I got one of those old fashioned collapsible lines and hang my laundry out on the deck (with undies on the inside, of course!). As soon as the laundry is in and I”ve enjoyed the scent I put the line down so it’s not visible. lol I am a laundry bandit!
      Look at that reaction your poem gave me! Thank you so much!

  8. Thanks for this wonderful post. Late to the party today, but I’m glad I have this to refer to tomorrow.

  9. What strikes me most is how revolutionary the ideas are that I practice from TW. I love the idea of revision as sculpting – thank you, Nanci!

    As a young teen,
    my parents and aunts and uncles
    scoured Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,
    discovering a secluded lakeside resort.
    With seven rustic cabins,
    we fit just right.
    The little ones had free range
    to explore in big-family safety.
    The dock stretching out from shore
    held six fishing boats
    and countless memories.
    Nighttime walks to breathe in the stars
    in solid, quiet darkness.
    Nights when the birthday girl would be gifted the galaxy
    “I give you the Northern Lights.”

    1. This is what I started with: (not huge differences, but I was much more careful & precise with my words in the revision)

      When I was an early teen, my parents and aunts and uncles explored Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and found a lake-side resort that fit us all just right. We had enough family members that we’d fill the entire resort, which gave us kids free range to explore in total safety. That we were in the UP implied a tremendous of level of safety in the first place, but still. The dock that stretched out from shore and held six fishing boats held many memories. Dock walks before bed to see the stars in the solid, quiet darkness. Nights when Nancy would celebrate a birthday, and once Allison even pronounced, “Nancy, I give you the Northern Lights.”

  10. Thanks for this exercise! I was so dug into revising my MG earlier this week that I didn’t see this. But I love this idea and I think it will be incredibly helpful! When revising I often change the font of my document to give it a different feel, but I like this too, for smaller sections.