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Selling the Value of Revision

posted: 12.3.10 by archived

I have used many technologies to comment on student drafts—green or purple (never red!) pen on paper essays, the comment feature in MS Word, Google docs—but my primary goal is always to open students’ eyes to possibilities for revision. I want them to experience the perseverance of trying to say, clearly and vividly, what you mean to say; the joy of deliberating over words like colors from a paint box, or moving sections of an essay the way you would play with building blocks; the sense of comfort that writing is not finished until you declare it final. But how do I go about teaching this? Surely not by grabbing the pen out of a student’s hand to “fix” his or her writing? I tell my students that words should drip off their pens like sand, that writers don’t work in concrete. But it’s a hard sell.

When I hear my students say, “I’m done. It’s finished. I said what I want to say,” I wonder about the sources of their intractability. Part of it is boredom, no doubt, with topics they don’t care about (maybe because they didn’t spend time enough at the invention stage, or because assignments boxed them in too tightly). For some, the demands of busy lives or old-fashioned laziness may be factors. But there’s also the sense, for many, that they only need concern themselves with “fixing errors,” that correct spelling and mechanics are the chief goal in writing.

In thinking over possibly ways to teach the benefits of revision, I’ve come up with a few ideas:

Develop an analogy. Instead of playing a normal tennis match, imagine that you could “edit” each game by piecing together the best of your several hundred practice serves with your most powerful lob, your wickedest back spin volley, your best-placed drop shot. You would have the time to analyze his game. You could sequence shots to run your opponent from front to back court, from one side to the other. And you would surely win, or at least far exceed your usual performance.

Edit a transcript. To explore the differences between spoken and written communication, give students a question that can be easily answered on the spot and have them record an
answer. Type out a transcript and consider how revision could improve clarity, organization, or other issues. Try a more complex question and compare/contrast results.

Read the experts. Collect statements of professional writers about the revision process (here are a few). Look at some of the manuscript pages available on the Paris Review site; for many of the writers there’s an option to “view a manuscript page” right below the interview title.

Reflect on discovery. Ask students to consider what they learned during the process of composing the essay. Were there any lines that surprised them? (Particularly in personal essays, were there any resonant lines that captured the significance of the experience?)

Here are a few additional sources:

  • Bob Alexander, in a recent guest post on Edutopia, describes the technique of glossing, using highlighters or the comment feature in Word (or an open-source alternative) to mark changes made between drafts and explain the reason(s) for the changes.

Please post any strategies you’ve used to try to get students excited about (or just willing to consider) revising their work.

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Categories: Holly Pappas, Proofreading/Editing, Revising
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