Teaching Writing: Revision and Why We Do It

I started teaching college writing in 2005 when I was still an MA student, and my writing skills were  just a few steps ahead of my students’. Over the ensuing years, I’ve become a better writer, but each new cohort of students in my classroom faces struggles similar to those of the first students. As the distance between my struggles and my students’ struggles has become greater, I’ve had to think more analytically about my writing practice in order to be able to teach academic writing effectively. This is part of a series of blog posts about guiding students through different stages of the writing process.

This post focuses on revision, the stage of the writing process in which we think about ideas and organization, and also a stage of the writing process that my undergraduate students resist engaging in.

For a long time, I was stymied by my undergraduate students’ resistance toward revising their writing. At first, I thought they were being lazy or failing at time management because they clearly must have known how important revision is!

Except they didn’t know.

After a lot of observation and listening, I learned that many of my students view revision not as a necessary and normal part of the writing process but as a kind of punishment for having submitted an inferior project. Making significant changes to a paper that had already been read by peers and the instructor was tantamount to admitting the failure of the draft.

They’re not wrong. Revision is an admission of failure. When we sit down to revise, we acknowledge that our draft falls short of perfection. The difference between experienced writers and my revision-resistant students, though, is that we didn’t expect perfection in the first place.

The problem is that when we consume other people’s writing, we see only the most polished version, the version that may have gone through multiple iterations of revision and editing by the writer, by the writer’s peers, and by an editor. We see only the product, not the process.

Here are some things that I do to convince my students that engaging in revision will actually make their written work better, to make the process more visible.

  • We read Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts,” sometimes as a homework assignment, sometimes out loud in class.
  • I show them an intermediate draft of one of my MA project papers, which has comments and edits in four different inks, one for each of the four people who commented. And another intermediate draft that has been sliced into numbered paragraphs and rearranged.
  • I talk about my current revision process and how it is challenging and frustrating and rewarding.
  • I tell them, over and over, that revision is where the magic happens. I say this so often, that I should put it on a tote bag.
  • When the students are preparing to submit first drafts for peer review and evaluation, we discuss what it means to have a complete first draft–that the draft should move through the complete arc of the paper from beginning to middle to end, but that it may have holes or ugly paragraphs or snarly sentences. First drafts, I tell them, are supposed to be ugly.

Once I understood that student resistance to revision was coming, not from laziness or bad time management, but from a fundamental misunderstanding of revision’s role in the writing process, I was able to change the way I presented it to them. When I acknowledge that revision is not easy, when I  join the students’ wrestling with the vulnerability of sharing imperfect work, more of them are willing to entertain the idea that revision is where the magic happens.

For strategies for teaching revision in the classroom, see this post.

 

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