"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

A Few Ways to Teach Revision

October 10th, 2014 by

Revision hardly seems controversial. Most of the time, most of us assume it is something all writers do, or should do.

It also seems to be such a drag to people that in another blog on another site, I once compared revision to repentance.

Whatever the reasons are, it seems that revision remains problematic, and research on the problem has proved to be enlightening. Nancy Sommers’ ground-breaking research into the revision strategies of what she terms “experienced” and “student writers” remains relevant today. Though her results were published in 1980, her study should be required reading today for anyone who presumes to teach writing at any level, whether for kindergarten or at the graduate level. I don’t think I am over-stating the importance of her research.

Songs of Innocence and Experience
Sommers did work with two groups of writers in Oklahoma and Boston. Her student writers were undergraduates. Her experienced writers included teachers, principals, lawyers, and others who wrote on the job.

Student writers in the study reported not even using the word “revision” to describe what they did after they finished a rough draft. Instead, they used terms like “rewording” and “crossing out”; their efforts to rework their rough drafts had to do mostly with the surface level of finding the best possible words.

The experienced writers, in contrast, used the word “revision.” They described the changes they made to their texts in terms of adding, subtracting from, and rearranging entire passages.

Anyone who teaches writing should notice something here. It certainly confirms what I have noticed about the work my students do, even in upper division courses. After writing a single draft, they think that they are nearly done, except for “fixing it up” or “correcting it” (math terminology should seem strange in a writing course).

In contrast, like the “experienced writers” in Sommers’ study, I write a rough draft, what Donald Murray, another wonderful writing teacher, has called the “zero draft,” and consider myself to be just getting started.

The Reasons Why
Sommers notes in her opening remarks that the reasons behind students’ lack of revision practice may have to do with the model of writing they have been taught. She argues that students have been taught to write by using the models we use for spoken discourse. Speeches, once uttered, cannot be revised. In fact, in most models of rhetoric, revision is not considered.

I suspect Sommers is correct about this. I also think that the way writing and literature are taught at the junior high and high school levels could be to blame.

Indeed, the writing models of most high school students also do not require revision or, for that matter, invention. The five paragraph theme requires a draft and then the kind of “fixing up” students report needing to do after they’ve composed. It doesn’t require that they revisit their organization or to add new points or to deepen their reasoning with more examples. To perform any of those functions will cause them to receive a lower grade, since their teachers are grading them on their ability to produce a symmetrical five paragraph design.

In literature courses, students read the best finished work of novelists and poets and assume that those writers were simply gifted and could write straight from the voice of Zeus or Athena and not need to even “fix it up.” As students, we are never shown a writer struggling to make a text meaningful. The first time I was allowed to see this happened when my teacher in a graduate course in Edith Wharton, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway, brought in a rough draft sample of Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises. The first 80 pages or so that his fellow writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, told him to cut—an act of revision—we got to look at and read.

This was a graduate course. Such material is hidden from most high school students. To show it, however, might be to introduce a new way of thinking.

My students who read Nancy Sommers’ essay in the composition course I teach usually fault her for not giving any application to her work at the end of her study. But I think the applications are obvious. I’ve just listed two ways to apply her findings in a general, programmatic way. Assign writing that requires more than just “fixing up.” Teach literature as a process. Show the greats sweating over the work that made them famous.

Sommers also lists the ways that experienced writers revise their work, by addition and deletion. I like to bring in to my classes examples of doing just those functions. Adding new text usually leads to my own deepening understanding of what I am writing about. Deleting text makes room for more additions.

I also require that my students practice addition. After they submit a rough draft, I require that they compose new sections of material. If they are working on a narrative, I require two new scenes from them. They might be scenes they won’t use, but writing them usually leads them to new insights into character and theme.

For narratives, I also follow the advice of Judith Ortiz Cofer, who often recasts her narrative essays as poems. Her examples of this have been astounding. What does a new way of casting our stories lead us to focus on? What do we learn about our real themes?

Addition also works if they are writing an argument, where I require that they add new points and illustrations to their essay. Many of them, especially at eighteen, think that a quick quote or two and a few statistics will clinch their points. I note that illustrations, analogies, and examples do the real work of persuasion, and I require that they broaden their use of “good reasons.”

This is what revision is and does. It is not sexy or trendy. Neither is taking a shower. Neither is doing laundry. But just because I never see other people in the shower, that doesn’t mean I should stop taking them.

Works Cited
Murray, Donald. “The Maker’s Eye: Revising Your Own Manuscripts.” Language Awareness: Readings for College Writers. Ed. by Paul Eschholz, Alfred Rosa, and Virginia Clark. 8th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000: 161-165

Sommers, Nancy. “Revision Strategies of Student and Experienced Writers.” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader, 2nd ed. Ed. Villanueva, Victor. Urbana: NCTE, 2003: 43-54.

Posted in Uncategorized| 6 Comments


Comment by Emily Griesinger on October 10, 2014 at 1:49 pm

Great article on revision, Tom. I intend to pass it on! –EG

Comment by Larry J. Dunlap on October 10, 2014 at 2:28 pm

Absolutely love this. A very good example of how, for the very best of reasons, we are taught the wrong things. It applies to writing but it replies to nearly everything in real life that we are taught the basics of in schools. We are rarely taught the really important reasons for why there are erasers on all pencils. In the manual of life, everything we do for the first time is usually the ‘zero’ draft.

Comment by Tom on October 12, 2014 at 7:50 am

I agree, Larry, that students are taught this way for all the best reasons. Thanks.

Comment by Maria Mayer on October 11, 2014 at 3:33 pm

Anything that helps us teach “Writing” better is a welcome gift, specially from someone as trained as you. I wonder, Tom, what happened to the (old) Humanist stand of teaching by reading the Classic writers (emulatio, imitatio), make the students see the debates among writers (on the craft), and help the student develop a healthy rebelliousness

Comment by Tom on October 11, 2014 at 4:21 pm

Thank you, Maria. Most of the classical training you mention has been replaced by trendy models that are not as effective and, I think, certainly not as humanist. Learning by studying and imitating the classics has returned in some private schools. I think it’s a great idea–in the classic models it helps to teach both literary, critical awareness and writing.

Comment by Maria Mayer on October 11, 2014 at 4:31 pm

It has returned at Thomas Aquinas College, a very conservative Catholic institution, and at other Christian institutions. But, given their lack of social updatedness (shall we say?), I find their method lacking. I wish we could come up with an approach that would combine the best of two worlds.

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