Writing Across the Curriculum

How Do I Get My Students to Revise Thoughtfully?

The literature in Writing Studies has long recognized that thoughtful revision is one of the hallmarks of experienced writers and that student-writers typically have great trouble with it.  Nancy Somers, for example, pointed this out in a much-cited article in the early 1980s, observing that inexperienced writers make sheerly “lexical” changes – a word here, a phrase there – and that experienced writers bring significantly more “global” considerations to their revisions.  That is, experienced writers add, delete, reorganize, even reevaluate their observations or the way they approach their audience.

But how you get students to perform this more ambitious sort of revision, to go beyond line-level editing, is much more difficult.  We recommend that you provide lots of built-in opportunities along the way for students to articulate and rearticulate their ideas – opportunities to “look and look again,” as literacy theorist Anne Berthoff put it.  Consider asking them to send you a paper proposal, conferencing with them on their idea, requiring them to describe their topic to at least one classmate, encouraging them to workshop drafts with peers, either inside or outside class, and recommending that they reread their work from the position of an opponent in order to anticipate objections. 

You might also show them what you mean about revision through a model:  heavily marked up drafts of your own work – the work of a published scholar, with cross-outs and arrows and newly inserted discussions – can make a strong impression on students, who often assume that the sign of a “good writer” is the ability to produce flawless and fully formed texts in a single angst-free sitting.

None of this will necessarily make students more capable of refining ideas and constructing carefully crafted discussions, especially in the short term.  But we believe it will work against the single draft model to which many students subscribe and help develop the habit of making repeated passes through the same idea, which we believe is fundamentally important to writing clearly and thoughtfully.