Letting Go: Helping Students Emotionally Detach from First Drafts and Revise

Letting Go:

Helping Students Emotionally Detach from First Drafts and Revise

by Kessia R

When I sit down to grade a fresh stack of papers, I know with a certainty that pierces straight through all my eager optimism that I’m about to face a horde of frustrations.  Maybe some students will have completely ignored my detailed instructions on how to integrate quotations into their paper.  Maybe others will turn in papers riddled with easy-to-fix typos.  And then there’s the big one—the most consistent and baffling problem I’ve faced, both as a secondary English teacher and a freshman writing instructor: some students will turn in papers that are elementally the same as their first draft, perhaps with a few minor changes.  Somehow, no matter how much I emphasize the writing process, no matter how many times I make students sit down and write, no matter how many drafts I require, for some seemingly-indelible reason, students rarely make global revisions to their essays.  They write a first draft and seize onto it with a strange manic grip and absolutely refuse to let go.

This problem with revision is not new or unique to my classroom (thank the pedagogy gods).  Pedagogical literature is rife with sympathizers, from Nancy Sommers back in 1980 to frustrated blog-writing teachers like Joseph Teller today.  Sommers, in her well-known study, discovered that many student or novice writers resist significant revision, as one student in said study asserted when he/she said, “I don’t use the word rewriting because I only write one draft and the changes that I make are on top of the draft” (381). The results of Sommers’ study were reaffirmed by Anish Dave and David Russell who reviewed a more recent version of Sommers’ study done in 2010—which showed similar results.

This means that my pet pedagogical frustration is a wide-spread issue, and one that plagues many educators.  It can be downright alarming for teachers to spend a significant amount of time and planning on teaching writing as a process only for that effort to seem fruitless, as Joseph Teller explains.  He lists all of the strategies he’s tried in order to get students to make significant revisions—tactics from peer workshops to personal cajoling—and then seems to sigh: “The invariable result?  Weak drafts remain weak; stronger drafts get slightly stronger, but not by much.”

Here, Teller points out a large problem we face as we try teaching writing as a process—a problem that is often mentioned in pedagogical scholarship, but rarely or insufficiently resolved.  What exactly do we as teachers need to do to pry that first draft out of students’ hands?  What must we do motivate students to make global revisions?  How do we tactfully but convincingly teach them that—when it comes to that first draft—they need to let go?

In order to answer this question, I will begin by addressing the root of the problem—namely, why students resist global revision in the first place.  Then I will pose several solutions, including (1) requiring exploratory early drafts and (2) assigning writing prompts aimed at expanding a draft rather than correcting it.  It’s my hope that these solutions will assist students in emotionally severing themselves from their first drafts and thereby become more willing to engage in significant global revision.


Why Students Resist


A myriad of reasons have been proposed for students’ unwillingness to revise, reasons as diverse as age, metacognitive awareness, and lack of instruction.  For instance, Jill Fitzgerald points out that “revision behavior tends to change with age” (491), suggesting that students just need to ripen as writers over time.  Alternatively, Susan A. Ambrose and associates assert that this lack of global revision occurs because students do not metacognitively assess the effectiveness of their current strategy—in this case, that of writing only one draft and making minor alterations.  Then there’s the theory, proposed by Susan Tchudi, Heidi Estrem, and Patti-Anne Hanlon, that students have never been adequately taught how to revise, that “perhaps [students] have been misled by teachers who sometimes focus on neatness or correctness . . . at the expense of more global issues” (27).  Certainly, each of these reasons is valid and worth consideration.  However, these insights fail to explain the emotional attachment students seem to feel toward their early drafts, the stubborn, line-in-the-sand, defend-or-die attitude that I’ve seen time and again in the classroom.

This type of attachment can be explained, at least in part, by a different theory.  Perhaps, as Tchudi, Estrem, and Hanlon assert, students’ emotional resistance to revision stems from the fact that these students feel they’ve worked hard on their first draft and don’t want to waste their efforts by changing that draft too much. If this is the case, then, as Andrea Muldoon points out, “It is tempting to write off student resistance to revision as evidence of laziness” (27), especially because “students will occasionally admit” that they are “unwilling to do more work” (Tchudi, Estrem, Hanlon 27).  However, shunting all pedagogical challenges off onto the scapegoat of student laziness seems overly simplistic.

Surely, even hardworking people—or perhaps especially hardworking people—lament when their efforts are wasted, which is precisely how students feel when they have to make significant changes to an early draft.  I asked my students directly why they hesitate to globally revise, and many of them stated that if they don’t use anything in their first draft in their final draft, they feel that their work is pointless.  They feel that they might as well torch every copy and file of that early draft.  While in my more frustrated moments, I’m tempted to respond, “Yes, do that.  Burn those first drafts.  Burn them all,” for the most part, I understand. Who doesn’t worry about “undoing the work they have already done” (Tchudi, Estrem, and Hanlon 27)?  Who doesn’t feel an attachment to something they’ve labored to create?

This might well be the root of our students’ deep emotional attachment to their first drafts and their unwillingness to significantly alter said drafts.  They’ve forged a bond out of time, sweat, and wrinkled brows—and so they’re prepared to stand by their papers until the bitter end.  Unless, of course, we can find a way to divorce our sentimental students from their precious early drafts.


Exploratory or “Crappy” First Drafts


The first solution is to prevent students from irrevocably bonding with their early drafts in the first place, or, as Lori Dickson asserts, to prevent student drafts from “setting up like concrete.”  In order to do this, I have students produce an early exploratory draft—an assignment which I call, quite deliberately, a “crappy first draft.”

Exploratory drafts are, theoretically, a great way to prompt students to write a draft without allowing them to sucker onto their work with an octopus-like grip.  The exploratory draft’s detached approach should be clear in the mere title “exploratory,” a name that should indicate to students that they are writing to discover.  This is exactly what we want for our students because where Sommers found that novice writers do not alter their first drafts, she found that the opposite was true for experienced writers: they write in order to find a starting point, in order to discover. (384)  This is what exploratory writing is all about.

If such exploratory writing sounds intriguingly similar to freewriting, rest assured: it should.  Freewriting holds a similar purpose as an activity in which one writes to discover.  It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that there is overlap here—or that, when a teacher asks students to produce early drafts in lieu of prewriting activities, often “what [teachers] really [get back is] the prewriting [they] never asked for” (Leatham).  In this sense, exploratory or crappy drafting is similar if not exactly the same as prewriting strategies such as freewriting.  Calling it a “draft” rather than a “freewrite” merely emphasizes to students the idea that everything after this early draft can and should be thought of in terms of revision.  The name a teacher gives to early drafting can make a significant difference.

For instance—and problematically—when I’ve encouraged “exploratory drafts” in the past, I found that students sometimes still latched onto that draft and refused to let go—in part, because of the name I gave it.  Even when I attempted to clarify what the exploratory draft was for, even when students initially told me they felt like they needed to change significant portions of that draft, they’d tell me three days after that, “Yeah, but I read it again later, and it grew on me.”  I’ve watched many students gradually meld with their exploratory draft and turn it in as their final paper, with a few minor edits.

So—this time—I didn’t call it an exploratory draft.  This time, I called it a “crappy first draft.”  Of course, when I shared this title with fellow freshman writing instructors, they voiced some concern: “I wouldn’t call it that.  The students won’t do their best work on it.”  Ah, but that’s just it: my goal here wasn’t for my students to provide me with their best writing, but rather to encourage flexibility, fluidity, change.  It was almost better if students produced garbage, as long as they knew their writing wasn’t yet satisfactory and were willing to write a new draft later—willing to take only the best parts or ideas of this one.  Naturally, I never wanted students to blow off the assignment.  Still, the truth of the matter was that I didn’t really care how terrible their crappy first drafts were so long as they were significantly if not completely altered in later revision.  If changing the title from “exploratory” to “crappy draft” could help accomplish this, I’d gladly do so; in fact, if it helped, I’d call this activity the slop-vomit-garbage draft, all day long.

Naturally, the power inherent in a name can only go so far.  So, in order to actually instruct students on how to complete this draft and on its purpose, I based my lesson plan on Anne Lammott’s creative writing guide, Bird by Bird, specifically the chapter entitled: “Shitty First Drafts.” I made certain that students saw, from the perspective of a professional, best-selling author, that “all good writers write [shitty first drafts],” that this is what leads to “good second drafts and terrific third drafts” (Lammott 21), hoping to show students that the true purpose of a first draft is merely to lead to something better.  As a class, we read and relished Lammott’s humorous description of what early drafts do:


The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.  You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page.  If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her.  No one is going to see it. (21-22)


After reading this, we discussed as a class the purpose of allowing ourselves to write this way.  Generally, in our talks, students agreed with Lammott, that “there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means;” that there may be something in that crappy first draft “that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about” (23).  In short, we came the conclusion that crappy first drafts—like the exploratory drafts—were more about discovery than anything else.

This brings us to the actual assignment: students were given thirty minutes to write a crappy first draft of their conference paper.  They were not allowed to stop writing, no matter what.  If they got stumped, they could just write exactly what they were thinking, but they couldn’t cease typing.  Furthermore, students were not allowed to press backspace; they couldn’t go back and read what they’d written so far; they couldn’t self-edit.  Their task was simply to launch forward and stagger onward, no matter what.

After explaining this—and seeing the dismay on many a perfectionist face—I asked them the all-important question: can this assignment, or anything that looks remotely like this assignment, be turned in as your final conference paper?  The answer was a unanimous “No,” and when I asked why, students were quick to respond.  For one thing, they told me, I’d assigned the crappy first draft after students had selected and narrowed a topic for their conference paper, but before they had done any research.  Since research was a required element of the paper, students recognized that—most likely—their final product would look nothing like their crappy first draft.  Furthermore, the fact that students were forbidden from reading and editing their work as they went, as well as the fact that they were severed from the precious backspace key, meant that this draft would never be a tempting option to use as a final paper.  It simply wasn’t feasible.

After this discussion, and after showing my students a brief demonstration of what this would look like—meaning, after I wrote my own crappy first draft in front of them, a draft riddled with typos and filled with nonsense, starred with the occasional flash of insight—students completed their own crappy first drafts.  Results: though several students expressed surprise at some of the brilliant ideas they came up with, overall, my students vehemently explained that their crappy first drafts would never see the light of day.  And though I did make them reread their work and highlight their best ideas for future use, for the most part, their final papers were completely different.  For once, my students did not seem nearly as married to their initial drafts.  In fact, several of my students changed topics completely, some more than once.  In this willingness to switch or alter topics and in the dramatic changes between first and last drafts, I saw my students move toward greater flexibility in their writing and a less constricting emotional attachment to their first draft.


Expansive over Corrective Revision


While the crappy first draft seemed like a good step, I saw an inherent problem in this approach.  I asked myself: Wouldn’t students just latch onto their next draft instead?  Had I only delayed the inevitable?  It became clear to me that more would have to be done to teach students how to let go—of their first draft, or, in this case, of their second.  I began to wonder what I could do in later stages of revision to assist my students in emotionally detaching from their work enough to make significant alterations to writing they already loved.

I found my answers in the work of Wendy Bishop as well as Tchudi, Estrem, and Hanlon, all of whom promote expansive rather than corrective revision.  For instance, Bishop suggests what she calls “fat drafting,” in which students are required to double the length of their current drafts—whether by adding a new paragraph for each existing one, or by simply doubling page or word count (16).  Similarly, Tchudi, Estrem, and Hanlon advocate for activities like this: “write two new introductions” or “two new conclusions” for your paper (28).  All of these recommendations call for students to expand their current draft and their current thinking rather than simply correcting it or contracting it.

This expansive strategy, while at first overwhelming to students, is ultimately less threatening than revision techniques that merely involve making corrections.  In order to illustrate this, let’s think about many of the common revision activities used in writing classrooms, things like peer editing or having students search their papers or their neighbors’ papers for global and local issues.  Such corrective revision activities are problematic because, as we’ve discussed, students are emotionally invested in their drafts and, due to this attachment, they often see corrective revision “a sign of [their own] failure,” or as “a personal affront” (Dethier 3).  This makes sense.  After all, what student doesn’t dread the approach of the red grading pen that slashes and rips wherever it goes?  It’s easy for students to feel attacked when they are simply told, “Take this out.  Oh, no, get rid of that.  Change this,” etc.

Expansive revision techniques are different because the hard work that students have already produced is not threatened.  Rather than being told to change what they already have, students are simply asked to produce more—to try a completely new type of introduction, to add more body paragraphs, to delve deeper into their research.  Their earlier work, for the time being, is untouched.  This allows students to feel safe and to attempt new techniques or expound on current ideas without the feeling that they are erasing what they’ve worked so hard to produce.

Even better, expansive drafting like this assists students in understanding how global revision even works. One of the large problems that I’ve seen in my students is that they don’t know where to start when it comes to large changes.  Even once they’ve conferenced with me or with fellow students and have heard that they need to work on organization or address certain questions, students feel at a loss for how to proceed.  As Bishop asserts, when students get “bog[ged] down” like this, they need to expand their draft because what they really need is “more material to work with” (15-16).  Expansive drafting offers students more options for what to include in their paper, and for what to change about their paper.  Eventually, students will have to pare down their fat draft—and when they do, they can pick and choose what techniques work the best; they suddenly have options, different approaches, different strategies they can select.  This makes global revision easier because it becomes more about choosing among your options rather than just killing your darlings.

In my classroom, we unfortunately didn’t have time for a full fat draft.  Instead, after students produced their second drafts, I had my them write two new and completely different introductions and conclusions, as Tchudi, Estrem, and Hanlon suggest.  I also had students include two more body paragraphs in their paper.  It was my hope that these activities would begin to offer students options for how to alter their paper globally. It was also my hope that doing this would—as Tchudi, Estrem, and Hanlon call it—“unsettle” my students’ drafts (28), making those drafts more fluid.  By the end of the unit, eighteen out of my twenty students asserted that they had been more willing during this unit to make significant changes to their papers than they had ever been in the past.  Furthermore, more of my students than ever before changed their topics or met with me multiple times for multiple drafts, so that I saw the fluidity of their writing firsthand. This, to me, proved this approach a success.

Ultimately, through requiring crappy first drafts and promoting expansive revision in our classrooms, we can help students to emotionally detach from their early drafts and become more willing and able to make global changes to their papers.  This begins with the early exploratory—or crappy—draft in which students produce a piece that they won’t emotionally cement themselves to, and continues with activities like fat drafting, in which students expand their precious drafts rather than facing harrowing reductive correction.  In these ways, we can decrease students’ resistance to revision by making the process less threatening.  Certainly, doing this helped my students become more fluid writers who were willing to alter the work that they’d already produced.  This doesn’t mean that the research on this topic is complete or that these methods are foolproof.  Naturally, more research and study can be done.  For instance, it would be useful to compare my students’ past conference papers written in other classes with the conference papers they produced in this particular unit in order to see whether these activities changed not only my students’ flexibility, but also the quality of their writing.  Furthermore, it would be beneficial to examine the way that students think about the purpose of drafts in general.  Many students seem to believe that material in their drafts is wasted if it isn’t utilized in the final product. This exposes some lack of cognitive understanding about writing as a process rather than a product, and as such could bear further study.  For the moment, however, I find relief and success in simply seeing my students embrace revision—and watching them finally let go of their early drafts.



Works Cited

Ambrose, Susan A., Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, Marie K. Norman. “How Do Students Become Self-Directed Learners.”  How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Jossey-Bass, 2010, pp. 188-215, https://reserve.lib.byu.edu/docs/20900/. Accessed Nov. 19, 2017.

Bishop, Wendy.  “Revising Out and Revising In.” Acts of Revision: A Guide for Writers, edited by Wendy Bishop, Boynton/Cook, 2004, 13-27.

Dave, Anish M. and David R. Russell. “Drafting and Revision Using Word Processing by Undergraduate Student Writers: Changing Conceptions and Practices.”  Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 44, no. 4, 2010, pp. 406-434, http://wwww.jstor.org/stable/25704888.  Accessed Nov. 19, 2017.

Dethier, Brock. “Revising Attitudes.” Acts of Revision: A Guide for Writers, edited by Wendy Bishop, Boynton/Cook, 2004, 1-12.

Dickson, Lori. “Before the Draft: Mentoring First-Year Writers Through Collaborative Invention.” Locutorium: A Place for Conversations about Writing, vol. 2, 2007, file:///D:/Classes%20Fall%202017/610%20Pedagogy/Big%20Question%20Paper/Before%20the%20Draft%20%E2%80%A2%20Locutorium.html. Accessed Nov. 19, 2017.

Fitzgerald, Jill. “Research on Revision in Writing.” Review of Educational Research, vol. 57, no. 4, 1987, pp. 481-506, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1170433. Accessed Nov. 19, 2017.

Lammott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Pantheon Books, 1994.

Muldoon, Andrea.  “A Case for Critical Revision: Debunking the Myth of the Enlightened Teacher versus the Resistant Student Writer.” College Teaching, vol. 57, no. 2, 2009, pp. 67-71, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25763367. Accessed Nov. 19, 2017.

Sommers, Nancy. “Revision Strategies of Student writers and Experienced Adult Writers.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 31, no. 4, 1980, pp. 378-388, http://www.jstor.org/stable/356588. Accessed Nov. 19, 2017.

Tchudi, Susan, Heidi Estrem, and Patti-Anne Hanlon. “Unsettling Drafts: Helping Students See New Possibilities in Their Writing.” The English Journal, vol. 86, no. 6, 1997, pp. 27-33, http://www.jstor.org/stable/820365. Accessed Nov. 19, 2017.

Teller, Joseph R. “Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong?” The Chronicle of Higher  Education. 3 Oct. 2016, http://www.chronicle.com/article/Are-We-Teaching-Composition/237969. Accessed Nov. 19, 2017.