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Becoming a College Writer: Learning to Revise

posted: 1.30.12 by Nancy Sommers

How do first-year college students revise?  This is just one of several questions my colleagues at Bedford/St.Martin’s and I wanted to explore in our survey of over 1000 students from thirty-six colleges and universities.  Seeing revision through the eyes of students reveals the gaps between teachers’ expectations and students’ practices and explains why students’ revised drafts, no matter what we’ve said in the classroom or written in the margins of their papers, too often remain rough drafts.

What did we learn from students’ survey responses?  Well, not surprisingly, many of the  responses confirm our assumptions that first-years don’t see the global possibilities of revision, but instead conceive of revision merely as moving words around, fixing errors, “going over” and “cleaning up”—a separate stage at the end of the process, requiring “perfecting” and “polishing” what has already been written. And the responses confirm students’ anxieties about making changes. As one student put it, “Revising is hard because you don’t know if the changes that you make are going to be better than the original choices.”

But consider the implications of these three representative responses:

“When I’m asked to revise, I feel as if I’m being asked to revise myself.”

“When you revise, you are forced to think in ways you did not before.”

“Sometimes the first draft blocks a way of seeing something new.”

These responses remind us of the vast leap our students need to make to become confident college writers—to see revision as a normal part of writing, not as a punishment or as an indictment of their character—and, then, the even huger leap to see revision as a way to reconsider or re-think the subject matter of the draft.  As teachers, we can correct and edit, suggest and implore, put students in small or large peer groups, but if students see revision as a threat to themselves and to their own identities, they will continue to see change as a loss, as if something is being taken away from them, rather than as opportunities to re-see and re-imagine something new.

The truth about revision, as the survey respondents recognize, is that it takes patience and practice to gain the necessary detachment and critical distance to see beyond words already written. A first draft often blocks “a way of seeing something new,” which is why student writers, like all writers, benefit from revising in the company of readers. And revising, as students understand, requires that one be open to change, which isn’t easy for first-years who are being asked to move away from either/or ways of thinking and to consider new ideas and practices.

Becoming a college writer is an apprenticeship, a slow one that doesn’t come about in one paper or one semester. And the survey responses remind us why students need considerable practice and repetition before revising becomes a comfortable habit of mind.

To help your students see the possibilities of revision, especially those provided through peer readers, you might want to show them a wonderful new video created by Suzanne Lane at MIT, No One Writes Alone: Peer Review in the Classroom, A Guide for Students.

What one piece of advice do you offer your students about revision? Or what advice helped you learn how to revise?  Please share your advice and ideas.


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4 Responses to “Becoming a College Writer: Learning to Revise”

  1. Suzanne Lane, MIT Says:


    Thanks, as always, for leading us back to the implications of students’ perspectives. Your succinct analysis of the students’ comments about revision are a great reminder that one habit of mind many early academics haven’t yet developed is the habit of living with an idea over an extended period of time, and this makes me wonder whether a way to help students learn to revise–to help them separate the written work from themselves, and to break out of the constraints of the first draft–might be to have them write about the same idea in different genres, from different perspectives, or for different audiences, leading to a “final draft” in which they draw from each to write a longer or deeper essay (which might, for instance, use elements of versions from different perspectives to develop an argument with counterarguments, etc.). Has anyone here tried this? I’d love to hear about whether it has been attempted, and what happened.

  2. Jill Dahlman, University of Hawaii Says:

    Part of my most recent ongoing research in student self-efficacy reveals some strange trends regarding revision. In the “first week survey,” only 9 out of 60+ students students indicated that they used any form of web or outline to formulate their papers. By the end of the semester, that number had doubled. I consider that significant because it indicates that students are thinking and possibly (re)visioning their essay.

    By the same token, the number of students who indicated that they wrote their papers a few hours before the assignment was due jumped–dramatically. In the “first-week survey,” only two students indicated that they did this; in the post-class survey, the number moved up to nine. Whether this was because their self-efficacy regarding everything they had learned had increased or if they spent more time really thinking about what they were going to write and preparing for that paper, or even the possibility that they spent more time really drafting and proofreading or learned how to write faster is difficult to say since no one elaborated.

    Once I finish with this semester’s round of materials, I’ll try to dig a little bit deeper into this phenomenon. I do believe your discussion of revision does fit into this conversation and in many ways informs it.

  3. Alex Purdy Says:

    Nancy – thank you for what I have read as a reminder of the importance of revision. It is so hard to abandon an idea or plan, and this is generally true even beyond the writing context.

    Concretely, the best advice I received as a student was to print my document, “walk away” for a significant span of time (ideally, overnight), and then revise based on the paper version. We who are of the generation used to easily-malleable computer-based drafts need to encounter the text in its physical reality.

    Another great post!

  4. Andy Dominguez Says:

    What about the notion that revision occurs constantly during the writing process–and isn’t just a distinct activity that one engages in after writing a “rough draft”? How much revision might occur before you see that draft in the first place?

    I think we need to complicate our notions of revision beyond something that MUST happen after a draft is completed. In many cases, it begins to seem as though revision were an end in itself. “You’ve written the rough draft and now it is ready for the revision process.” Regardless of how much revision has already occurred, there is a notion that everyone must revise. This forsakes the fact that revision is ongoing–and can’t be pigeonholed into a discrete step that occurs in between drafting and editing.

    This model of the writing process, to me, seems artificially linear. I think we would benefit from conceiving of revision a little more broadly–as a recursive act that is always in play.