Revision Strategies to Encourage Strong Student Writing

Revision Strategies to Encourage Strong Student Writing

Rewriting Overview

Hardly any writer, whether academic or creative or otherwise, sends off a first draft to a publisher or journal. Most of us know that a strong and effective piece of writing goes through multiple revisions; further, most professional writers have a particular approach to the revision part of the writing process, an approach that has been tweaked and honed over time.

However,  as teachers, it’s challenging to encourage students to understand the purpose and potential of revision, mainly because students have not practiced revision strategies enough to experience the effect of revision on their writing.

But here’s the good news: in-class revision strategies can help students create a sense of objectivity between themselves and their text; this objectivity allows them to see their text with new eyes. When I teach, once I create a space for revision in the course, students see this as an opportunity to strengthen their ideas, more clearly articulate the relationship between them, and more carefully consider their use of language. To me, this is a win for anyone who has sat facing down a stack of papers that need evaluating.

Perspectives of Students and Experienced Writers

Nancy Sommers, who directed the Harvard Expository Writing program for 20 years and established and directed the Harvard Writing Project, observed college students in their revision process and surveyed the students’ perspective of the revision process.

She found that students often focused on word choice or sentence organization when they approached the process of revising a second or third draft. Students did not even refer to the act as revision; instead they often called it “reviewing,” “redoing,” or “marking out,” describing the object of their attention as the superficial details of their drafts with a focus on vocabulary choice (Sommers, 1980, 381).

Sommers then compared the revision strategies of students with experienced writers. Here are a few quotes from experienced writers on their revision process:

  • It’s a matter of looking at the kernel of what I have written, the content, and then thinking about it, responding to it, making decisions, and then actually restructuring it.

  • Rewriting means on one level, finding the argument, and then on another level, language changes to make the argument more effective.

  • It means taking apart what I have written and putting it back together again. I ask major theoretical questions of my ideas, respond to those questions, and think of proportion and structure…I find out which ideas should be developed and which ones need to be dropped. I am constantly chiseling and changing as I revise.

Sommers concludes, “[r]evising confuses the beginning and the end, the agent and the vehicle. It confuses, in order to find, the line of argument” (384, author’s emphasis).

Just to be clear, this does not mean that revision confuses the writer, but instead that revision blurs or muddies the perception that writing is a linear practice, and that time, process, the beginning (an idea), the end (a completed text) are what’s being confused. I think she’s trying to say this is a messy process wherein writers repeat steps in order to think of interesting and new arguments and then to say them in ways that the audience can follow and be persuaded. Our challenge, then, is to convince students to embrace the messy, recursive nature of writing.

Two Classroom Rewriting Activities

So how do we get students to move past the superficial choices and use the revision process to its full potential? Here are two in-class activities that encourage students to re-see their text. I have had great success in helping students engage with the revision process using these activities, planning approximately an hour of class time to go through both of these activities.

Exercise 1: Reverse Outline

First, copy and paste your thesis sentence(s) into a new document. Then, copy and paste each topic sentence (TS) into your new document underneath the thesis. Now you have a skeleton version of the argument. Ideally, the thesis sentence(s) should offer an arguable claim that addresses the breadth and depth of the text.

What if the TSs are not arguable claims? If the TS in your skeleton isn’t an arguable claim, go back to that paragraph and see if a sentence can be pulled and used more effectively in the TS position. Replace the original TS with the new one(s). Now reevaluate the reverse outline – is the order of claims useful in persuading the audience?

What if the TSs are too close in idea? Maybe they need to be fleshed out to understand how they are different. Or, if they are not different, this may be an indication that the paragraph needs to be subsumed by another.  You may also consider doing this if you feel that the text keeps circling over the same idea without taking it into another direction.

Reorganization challenge: Try moving the TSs around to see if there’s a possible reorganization that will assist in expanding or furthering the arguments. There’s always room to consider arguments from different angles.

Exercise 2: What is it saying? What is it doing?

Go through your text slowly. After reading each paragraph, write one sentence that nutshells the main idea of the paragraph, and another sentence that describes what the paragraph is doing in the context of the text.

Here’s an example from PWR1 student Isabelle Thompson’s argument on street art. First, the paragraph from her text that she’s analyzing:

  • Both the East Side Gallery and 5 Ptz are examples of extremely public works of art that have recently caused immense controversy within local and global communities. While these cases do differ slightly from most street art simply because they are exceptionally culturally significant, and in the case of the wall historically significant, too, they are still useful as examples in this debate. Historically, standout cases like these have catalyzed changes in the legal system that then rule over entire genres. As evidenced, factions demanding legal reformation to ensure the protection of street art are becoming larger and louder. Currently in the United States there are very few laws that do govern art, and amongst those that exist it is quite ambiguous as to whether they can be used in respect to street art.  However, while the current system is flawed, there should not be new legislation legalizing and protecting street art because it would then cease to be true street art.

What is the paragraph saying? These two examples, East Side Gallery and 5 Ptz, serve as useful examples to support the main argument that no new laws should be passed to protect street art.

What is the paragraph doing? It establishes why the examples are useful and then states the thesis.

Some paragraphs will be easier than others; for instance, the intro and conclusion. But the “what is it saying” part may not be as easy to conclude if the claim is not clear, and the “what is it doing” part may not be clear if the paragraph has no real purpose moving forward.  

If you are struggling to nutshell a paragraph and/or understand its larger function in the text, then maybe the ideas haven’t been fully fleshed out and need some attention.

Sharing Practices

Many of my students rightfully claim: “Writing is hard!” And that’s because writing is rewriting. The process of writing is recursive, asking authors to return again and again to their ideas and expression of those ideas, a process many resist. But I hope I have illustrated two revision practices that encourage students to look at their writing with new eyes and strengthen their writing and writing practices.

Please share, in the comment section, the ways in which you help students see the possibilities in the revision process.

Headshot, Erica Cirillo-McCarthy. Photo by Megan O'Connor for Stanford Introductory Studies.Erica Cirillo-McCarthy, PhD is a lecturer in Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric.




Further Resources

Sommers, Nancy. “The Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Writers.” College Composition and Communication 31.4 (December 1980): 378-388.

See also this Teaching Commons article:

Improving Student Writing through Comments


One reader wanted clarification on the instruction "Then, copy and paste each topic sentence (TS) into new document underneath the thesis." We don't mean that you start a new document each time, but that you keep pasting the TSs into the new document to make a list. We've updated the language there. Sorry for any confusion!