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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Erica Cirillo-McCarthy, PhD is a lecturer in Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric.
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: