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Remembering what’s important: revision

posted: 7.15.13 by archived

I don’t always have the time I’d like to respond to posts of my fellow Bits’ bloggers, but one post I keep coming back to is Doug Downs’s Priorities. In that post he claims that for college writing students “the biggest growth needs are conceptual,” identifying the three areas of revision, collaboration, and contingency. In the face of those frightening statistics about how much and how quickly people forget what they have “learned,” it’s been a challenge to me in my six-week class this summer to think about what is most important for my students to remember:  the “adjustments” I hope they have made in how they think about writing. On a practical level, I’ve been trying to address more deliberately how what I do as a teacher, what I ask students do to, and how I assess their work contribute (or don’t) to those adjustments.

For me, the most essential change I hope for concerns students’ attitudes towards revision, which I’ve written about here and here.  But I wonder how much of what I say and do gives students mixed messages. Though I try to promote revision as the core of writing process (parroting the oft-quoted “All writing is rewriting”), what I grade is the final product. To what extent does marking “grammatical error,’ whether on rough or final drafts, persuade students of what some (may) already suspect: that in the end it’s all about correctness?

My methods of encouraging revision have changed somewhat over the past decade. In the past, one of the main topics of the first or (more likely) second week of classes was a standard lecture on “stages of the writing process” (which is still, as far as I can see, one of the most common ways that writing textbooks begin); now, as part of my efforts to make my classes more active, I’ve minimized that sort of talk, choosing to start instead with student practice in making observations and asking questions. (for some useful resources, see the Right Question Institute’s site). In the past, I would collect rough drafts in paper and meticulously annotate them with comments, questions, and corrections; now I give global comments for student rough drafts as posted on their individual blogs, and I make more local comments on style and grammar on final drafts, collected either on paper (using my favorite green or purple thin-line Gel pens) or via email (using Word’s comment feature).

Students’ revision efforts, on the whole, are minimal, as if they were operating with tweezers to try to disturb their words as little as possible.  They refer to final drafts as “corrected” or “fixed” essays, despite my wincing insistence that revision is a larger and messier process. In the spirit of trying to promote revision, I allow students to revise essays still further, trying to insist on “substantive revision” beyond “mere” proofreading, but most of the time the message doesn’t get through, as students carefully go through my comments one by one.

I need to try some other strategies, and I’ve made a start this summer. On the course blog I’ve added a section, with a drop-down menu of options, of Revision issues. I didn’t get a chance to fully implement this, but my plan was to assign each student one of these options to read, based on the most pressing issue I found in their rough draft: focus, development, coherence, organization, research, grammar, and style. (After I set up this break-down, I remembered Donald Murray’s wonderful classic The Craft of Revision, which I used as a text some years ago until I had qualms about its cost; his chapters similarly go through a variety of issues writers might consider in revision.) In my not-fully-realized plan, student would then revise their essays using (or not using) that information, and as a separately graded piece turn in a reflection detailing the decisions they made as they revised (to keep as is or add or delete or restructure or reword) and connecting those decisions to information they read and/or to feedback they received from me or other readers.

I’ve been considering some other possibilities as well:

  • To convince students of the value of revision, Doug suggests that students “need to experience writing tasks that are ‘bigger than their brains.’” That idea intrigues me, but I’m not sure how I could implement it.
  • An interesting few pages in Murray’s book are titled “20 Ways to Unfinal a Draft”; perhaps I should consider requiring students to perform some radical acts of revision. Doug uses the metaphor of revising as building, but perhaps students might also benefit from seeing revision as sweeping clear, tearing down and starting fresh (and coming to understand that a blank page or screen does not imply an empty mind).
  • I wish that I had the time to study the revisions students do: what is the connection between degree and types of revision and particular modes of instructor/writing tutor/peer feedback? One of my colleagues sometimes asks developmental students to map their own changes as an essay evolves, using color-coding or some other visual or quantitative representation. That might be a start.
  • Finally, my thoughts on revision were challenged by a recent article in the Boston Globe, Craig Furman’s “Revising Your Writing Again? Blame the Modernists,” which prompts the question of what to do if essays seem to require little revision.

If you’ve gotten your students to embrace revision, please share in the comments below any advice or suggestions you can give.

Categories: Holly Pappas
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