The Magic of Real Revision (and How to Teach it)
As the new year begins, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to make ourselves and our lives better. As you and your students make resolutions, this might be the perfect time to talk to your students about the process of making their writing better: revision.
But before you give your students tools to revise more effectively, it’s important to make sure that they have a clear sense of what revision is and why it’s worth doing.
What Revision Is (and Isn’t)
As a teacher, you may feel disappointed when students turn in a final draft of a paper that looks remarkably similar to the first draft. However, before assuming that students are lazy or unmotivated, we should consider the possibility that students and teachers have different ideas of what revision entails.
THE GREAT DIVIDE
Nancy Sommers, an education researcher at Harvard, surveyed both student and professional writers about “what revision meant to them,” and she found illuminating differences between the two groups. Students gave the following impressions of revision:
- “…just using better words and eliminating words that are not needed. I go over and change words around.”
- “…cleaning up the paper and crossing out. It is looking at something and saying, no that has to go, or no, that is not right.”
In contrast, professional writers described their process of revision this way:
- “…on one level, finding the argument, and on another level, language changes to make the argument more effective.”
- “…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 actually restructuring it.”
It is striking to consider the focuses of these two sets of responses; the students considered tinkering with vocabulary to be revision, whereas the writers defined revision as large-scale adjustments to argumentation and organization.
It is little wonder, then, that teachers are often disappointed by their students’ revised papers—the students might be working hard to replace one word with another, but that won’t do much good when teachers are looking for more specific thesis statements or more logical paragraphing.
Differences Between Revision, Editing, and Proofreading
How can you teach your students to approach revision more like professional writers? The first step is clearly delineating the difference between revision, editing, and proofreading. Feel free to share the definitions and explanations of each process below to begin that conversation with your students.
WHAT IS REVISION?
In A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers, Erika Lindemann defines revision this way: “True revision involves reseeing, rethinking, and reshaping the piece, resolving a tension between what we intended to say and what the discourse actually says.”
Revision is, at its core, a process of reflection. As part of that reflection, a writer might ask themselves the following questions:
- Is the paper responding to the prompt?
- Is the argument of the paper clear and complex?
- Is the organization of the paper logical and effective?
The answers to these questions may simply be “no” with a first draft, but they also may be “yes, but….” In order to address those areas of potential, the process of revision may involve:
- Providing more evidence or support for your ideas
- Defining your terms
- Adding a step to your logic
- Changing the paragraph order
- Bringing material from the conclusion to the introduction
- More clearly articulating the relationship between ideas
- Rewriting the paper from a different perspective
As students will likely point out, these are all significant changes to make. It follows, then, that revision is the very first part of the process, then editing, and finally proofreading.
Although all these steps are important to do (and teach), the order should not be reversed. After all, as the UNC Writing Center points out, “if your ideas are predictable, your thesis is weak, and your organization is a mess, then proofreading will just be putting a band-aid on a bullet wound.”
WHAT IS EDITING?
After a writer has considered and changed some of the larger aspects of the paper, it’s time for editing. Some of the questions that writers can consider as a part of editing include:
- Is the voice clear and confident?
- Is there a sense of rhythm and flow in each paragraph?
- Do the sentences connect to one another?
- Is the title clear and creative?
Part of the reason why editing is important to do after revision is that sometimes large-scale improvements can cause problems on a smaller scale.
For example, if you bring material from the conclusion to the introduction, it may be necessary to then alter the transition from the final body paragraph to the conclusion. Smoothing that transition would be editing, rather than revising or proofreading.
WHAT IS PROOFREADING?
While revision and editing are about making the paper work better (and thus are best tackled with a growth mindset), proofreading is a rare place where focusing on deficiency is the goal.
Proofreading largely consists of correcting errors and mistakes. While most of proofreading entails searching for grammatical errors (such as issues with subject-verb agreement, verb tense, punctuation, and commonly confused words), proofreading can also include fixing spelling mistakes, typos, and citation errors. Checking to make sure that the paper is headed correctly and the pages are numbered according to the given style format can also be part of this last read-through.
Some students might question the distinctions between these three activities, and it is true that revising/editing and editing/proofreading can blur together at times. As your students will be relieved to hear, whether they can identify every single change they make as they write is of little consequence.
However, describing each process distinctly to your students up front can make a significant difference in how they approach revision. As evidenced by the quotes from students and professional writers at the beginning of this section, it is most important that students do not confuse proofreading with revision and that they engage in all three processes as they write.
Making the Case for Revision
Out of the three processes we just covered, students most need to be persuaded of the value of revision. After all, it is far easier to turn on spell check and add a few commas than it is to rigorously examine the coherence of an argument throughout an entire paper.
However, while students might be initially resistant to the concept of revision, there are a few ways to get them more open to (and even excited about) the process.
THE POWER OF GRADES
The most obvious reason for students to value revision is that it can produce higher grades. Although it is generally better to encourage intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivation, realistically, discussing grades is a surefire way to get students listening.
In addition to expressing this sentiment to your students, you can show that you value revision and encourage students to do the same through your classroom policies.
One guide to revision suggests implementing a policy that students who make a significant revision will never be penalized by a lower grade, even if their revision is unsuccessful. Grades can have the unintended side effect of making students too hesitant to take intellectual risks—this kind of policy gives students the freedom to revise without fear.
In the same vein, veteran teacher and education consultant Rick Wormeli argues in an opinion piece that teachers can use revision to respect each student’s individual development and growth. More specifically, Wormeli warns against the following common policies:
- “You can redo the test, but the highest grade you can earn on it is a ‘B’ out of deference to those who studied hard and achieved an ‘A’ the first time around,”
- “For every problem you go back and correct, I’ll give you half a point of credit,”
- “You can retake the test, but I will average the new grade with the original one.”
These policies both penalize students for not reaching an educational goal as early as their peers and indicate to students that revision doesn’t matter as much as “getting it right” the first time.
Instead, Wormeli advises grading a revised paper as the final paper since, in fact, it is. When you indicate in your grading policy that you take revision seriously, students will take that as a sign to approach it with seriousness themselves.
REAL WRITERS REVISE
In conjunction with convincing students that revision is an important way to receive higher scores on papers, you can make students more open to revision if you emphasize that real writers revise.
Students often have a mystical view of professional writers; students assume that once a writer gets good enough, they are able to sit down at a desk and churn out perfect piece of writing without mistakes or inconsistencies. In this frame of mind, revision is an annoying part of school or a drudgery reserved for bad writers.
Therefore, dispelling the myth of the perfect first draft is important. So important, in fact, that education expert John Warner claims in his book Why They Can’t Write, “A significant part of the writer’s practice– maybe the only part that matters when it comes to attitudes– is recognizing that writing is difficult, that it takes many drafts to realize a finished product, and that you’re never going to be as good as you wish.” Simply saying this to your students is helpful, but examples can make it really sink in.
You can tell your students that Ernest Hemingway “rewrote the first part of his novel A Farewell to Arms at least 50 times and rewrote the ending of the novel 39 times”; “Hemingway revised so much not because he was a bad writer but because he was a good writer.”
If you are doing a modern poetry unit with your students, you might show them the rough first drafts of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous villanelle “One Art” along with one literary critic’s summary: “More than once in the drafts of Bishop’s published poems, one finds that she came to express in the final draft nearly the opposite of what she started out to say.”
No matter which authors you are reading with your students, there’s a good chance a bit of research could yield a number or quote from them about revision—after all, almost without exception, real writers revise.
After making it clear exactly what you mean by revision and convincing students that revision is worth their time, you can set students up for success by giving them the following resources:
- Revision models
- Revision memos
- A tip sheet for revision
STRATEGY #1: PROVIDING REVISION MODELS
Modeling what you want students to do is one of the best ways to make sure students really understand an assignment.
Edutopia suggests a number of different ways to model revision for students; for example, you can do a 5-minute mini modeling session for a specific aspect of paper writing, such as titling. Give students examples of unique and effective titles and discuss ways they can revise their current titles by hunting for title ideas from within their papers.
You could also have students interact with their own papers more directly during mini revision sessions. If you’ve noticed that your students have trouble staying on topic in their argumentative papers, Edutopia proposes showing students two or three essays where the writers stray from their original subject. Then, ask students “to find similar places in their own writing and make note to remove or rewrite those sections.”
If you have an entire class period to devote to modeling revision for your students, you could also take an unnamed student paper from previous years, project it on the board, and revise it together as a class. If you’ve read our article on the challenges of peer review, this session could look similar to the class period you spend modeling peer review—or these lessons could even be combined.
No matter how you decide to model revision for your students, whether in 5-minute bursts throughout the year or one prolonged revision session, you can be encouraged in knowing that your students will have a much clearer sense of how you want them to approach their own papers when you’re done.
STRATEGY #2: ASSIGNING REVISION MEMOS
One often overlooked element of revision is decision making. How should students decide exactly what to revise?
This dilemma can be heightened when students have a short period of time to complete revision and a lot of feedback on their drafts. Providing more feedback to students is a good thing, of course, and our case studies have shown that the additional feedback that students receive from our trained grading assistants improve everything from their writing confidence to their AP scores.
That said, if students are receiving comments from their teacher, a grader, and peers, the volume of feedback might make it difficult for students to prioritize. To make sure your students aren’t paralyzed by indecision, talk to your students about how to figure out which suggestions will be most helpful to them.
One guide to teaching revision suggests providing students with these questions:
- “Does this comment help me understand my writing any better?”
- “Does this comment help me to measure my progress toward the assignment goals?”
- “Does this comment offer any specific advice that I can follow when I revise?”
If the answer to these questions is no, the student shouldn’t spend time trying to revise their paper to accommodate that comment.
It’s also okay to admit to students that it’s possible they might not address even a few comments that fit all of those criteria. That might be a reason to ask for an extension or the opportunity to do another draft later in the semester. Ultimately, every revision should be guided by the following question: “With the time I have to revise, which comments can I realistically address?”
Some professors even formalize this reflective process by assigning revision memos. A revision memo can be very simple, and students may be asked to simply write a few summarizing sentences. A sample prompt for this kind of revision memo might be “Write briefly about what you hope to accomplish with your revision.”
Revision memos can also be more extensive. One professor at the University of Minnesota won’t read her students’ second drafts unless they attach a revision memo that includes all of the following criteria:
- A summary of the comments and suggestions your peers made about your first draft
- A description of what you changed in moving from the first draft to the second draft
- A list of changes you know that you need to make in your final draft, but haven’t made yet
- A brief list of points you would like me to be looking at and specific questions and concerns you have regarding this draft
Long or short, summarized or listed, the purpose of any revision memo is to make the revision process “visible, conscious, and deliberate,” a practice that will benefit not just one paper but all the writing that your students do.
STRATEGY #3: CREATING A REVISION TIP SHEET
The final way you can ease the revision process for your students is to give them a list of concrete tips and steps to take while revising.
Just like students will understand revision better when they have a specific definition of revision, they will be less intimidated by revision when they have a sheet of helpful hints and specific questions to refer to while revising.
To begin, you might type up your own definition of revision at the top along with some of the questions from our earlier section comparing revision, proofreading, and editing. You might even have three separate sections of questions for the three different processes.
After the definition and questions, include your best practices for revision. This section could include any or all of the following tips:
- Take some time away from your paper before starting a new revision. A full day away might be ideal but even an hour away will help you re-vision the paper with fresh eyes
- Print your draft out rather than doing all your work on a computer; don’t be afraid to write on it and highlight it as you make adjustments
- Read your paper aloud once (or even twice). Speaking through your writing will allow you to catch awkward transitions and typos much more easily
- When you make substantial changes to a paper, save the paper as a new document on your computer; knowing you still have the old draft to go back to will allow you to be more radical in your revisions
The more specific and actionable these items are, the more likely students will be to use them.
To get your students even more engaged in the process, you could even have them help you expand your original list of tips with their own ideas. Maybe one student highlights all their transitions to make sure they are varied enough; maybe another reads every paper aloud to their dog.
Revision, like writing, should be a flexible process unique to every writer and thinker. Once your students have learned the basics of revision, encourage them to develop and hone their own revision process, a skill that will serve them well in college and beyond.
Revision can frustrate both students and teachers.
When students and teachers have different definitions of revision, students don’t understand why they get the same grade on multiple drafts and teachers don’t understand why their students aren’t putting in the effort to make real changes.
However, done well, revision can turn a mediocre paper into an impressive piece of academic work—just like it turned Hemingway’s first outlines into a classic American novel.
When students are given clear expectations, motivation, and tips for revision, they will be less likely to simply rearrange a few commas and more likely to rise to the challenge of substantive revision.
Seeing a paper through new eyes may be difficult, but if your students do, you might be able to see them and their academic work through new eyes as well.