Revising Revision

Revising Revision:

Updating the Writing Process for First-Year Writing Students

Jeremy Leatham

A collective cheer broke out in my first-year writing class when I announced to my students that I wouldn’t require them to turn in any kind of prewriting for their first paper. “Some people prewrite on paper, others do it on the computer, and some even do much of it in their heads. Some writers like to have all of their ideas out in front of them before they begin drafting, and others prewrite as they go,” I told them. I wasn’t interested in forcing them to follow one particular writing process—although I emphasized that it was important for them to have some kind of process, and they seemed to genuinely appreciate that freedom. However, when the students turned in their “rough drafts” a few days later, what I really got was the prewriting I never asked for.

Of course, the students had no idea that prewriting was what they had really done. To them, prewriting is meaningless lists, outlines, or “webs” hurriedly scribbled five minutes before class to satisfy the teacher’s eccentric demands. Prewriting is also easy points—if it is graded at all—because, as students know by now, it’s difficult to evaluate prewriting. What prewriting isn’t, to most students, is a useful step in a useful process. Many of them don’t take seriously the idea that prewriting is simply getting thoughts down on paper, thoughts that might eventually evolve into major sections of their final product, which was essentially what most of their “rough drafts” amounted to. Since a draft of a paper is the first thing in the writing process that the teacher can seriously evaluate, it’s usually the first thing that the students take seriously. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, Linda Flower and John Hayes showed years ago that “writers are constantly planning (pre-writing) and revising (re-writing) as they compose (write), not in clean-cut stages” (275).

But this knowledge does require a shift in our approach to the writing process. Because students generally resist the “extra work” involved in the writing process as they have traditionally learned it, it is important to teach students how the writing process can make their writing better—and easier—instead of more cumbersome. In other words, it is necessary for us to update the writing process to meet students’ needs. While such an update would involve numerous changes in the first-year writing classroom, my focus here will be on revision, specifically the importance of revising the way we teach revision. By focusing the majority of our instruction, and requiring the greatest amount of student work, between the initial draft and final draft of a major paper rather than before the rough draft, we can expect students to engage more fully in class instruction and in the multiple stages of the writing process.

Certainly there are some critics who argue that dogmatic devotion to the writing process—however “revised” or “updated”—is not the answer to the challenges first-year writing students face; however, a thorough examination of the criticism aimed at the writing process in the last fifteen years, often labeled as “post-process theory,” shows that most of this criticism attacks the way that the writing process has been applied rather than challenging the basic elements of the writing process itself. While there are numerous advocates within the post- process movement—not all of whom seem to agree on exactly what “post process” means—the general critique is that writing process pedagogy overemphasizes narrow rhetorical situations and fails to acknowledge the social aspect of writing (Fraiberg 172). Thomas Kent, one of the leading voices in post-process theory, carries this idea even further to suggest that “no codifiable or generalizable writing process” can exist, or simply, that writing cannot be taught (1).

However, as Richard Fulkerson points out, “Kent’s is a radical position,” with which most post- process critics do not seem to agree (107). Most post-process critics take a different stand, adopting what Fulkerson calls a “coaching” role, helping students engage in social discourse, an aspect of writing not often emphasized in most process pedagogies (114). In short, then, post- process criticism reacts against the narrow way in which the writing process has been taught for the past 30 years.

What these theorists suggest, therefore, is that the way the writing process has been traditionally taught in high school and college is not adequate for the writing needs of our students. What these theorists do not suggest, however, is that the basic elements of the writing process should be abandoned. In fact, post-process theorist Bruce McComiskey explains that “the most useful meaning of the ‘post’ in ‘post-process’ is ‘extension, not rejection’” (qtd. in Fraiberg 175). Whatever else they do suggest, Russel Durst clarifies that “few composition specialists seriously challenge the approaches put forward by writing process adherents in the 1970s and 1980s, continuing to emphasize prewriting, revision, collaboration, conferencing, and critical reading” (98). A quick glance at most composition classrooms verifies this, as most writing teachers continue to emphasize the basic elements of the writing process (Matsuda 69).

It seems clear that the basic writing process will not be abandoned anytime soon, but more and more writing teachers are becoming increasingly aware that the way in which that process has traditionally been taught often fails to meet students’ needs. For most of my students, the writing process consists of independent stages that are followed in a linear pattern, some of which are completed merely to satisfy the teacher. To illustrate this, David Russell refers to his daughter’s exposure to the writing process in school, which consisted of a “formula, spelled out in large printed posters, PREWRITE, WRITE, REVISE, EDIT” (qtd. in Fulkerson 109). With the image of separate posters representing separate stages of the writing process, students rarely see the stages as recursive, and even more discouraging, they rarely see them as useful. The primary goal for many students, it seems, especially for those who are not confident in their writing abilities, seems to be filling up the required pages as quickly as possible. My students resist mandatory prewriting (and celebrate its demise) because they see it as useless or “busy” work that needs to be completed as part of the assignment before (or even sometimes after) the real work of writing happens. They have not been taught how to use prewriting throughout the writing process to constantly generate new ideas.

In addition to their misunderstandings about prewriting, students often misunderstand the concept of revision. It generally doesn’t take much to convince most writing instructors that less experienced writers, including many first-year writing students, have a different concept of revision than their instructors. Studies in the area of revision have found, rather predictably, what we already supposed: “Novice writers made fewer substantive revisions and tended to concentrate on low-level surface changes” (Durst 80). These more recent studies generally just reemphasize what Nancy Sommers found in her case study reported in “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers.” Many of the student comments on the nature of revision—“just using better words and eliminating words that are not needed,” “[changing] words around,” and “[getting] my thesaurus”—are very similar to the ones we might hear in today’s composition classrooms (46). Simply put, students tend to resist making significant changes to their papers once they’ve gone through all the hard work to fill the pages in the first place. One of my most recent student conferences illustrates this mentality. After pointing out that the first half of the student’s paper didn’t really contribute to his argument in any way and suggesting that he instead develop the strong ideas that he had started to explore in the second half of the paper, I asked if he had any questions for me. He did: “So, how can I fix that without rewriting the whole first half of my paper?”

As mentioned earlier, this student’s mentality is not necessarily a bad thing—at least, it doesn’t have to be—if first-year writing instructors have students write initial drafts early and place a greater emphasis (or demand) on revision. What students don’t need is the same old insistence on the separate stages of the writing process; what they do need is experience using the different elements of the writing process to significantly improve their writing and, more importantly (for them), thereby making writing easier to do (Dean). Too often, though, we expect that students will have done the majority of work before their first draft, so we approach revision as a separate stage of the writing process that is completed separately (and usually relatively quickly) before the final draft is due. The idea, of course, is that students are constantly revising as they write, but my experience suggests that students rarely get through much more than prewriting in their first draft. Even though we know that revisions are more than superficial changes, we don’t often put as much emphasis on revision as we do on initial drafting. Recent scholarship suggests, however, that some of the most important learning occurs during revision.

Many composition scholars have recently explored the value of revision for many different reasons. What most of them seem to agree on, however, is that focusing on revision rather than drafting provides more opportunities for writing instructors to challenge students’ preconceived notions. Some, like Joseph Harris, argue that focusing on revision allows first-year writing students to develop what he refers to as “critical practice,” by which he means “writing that responds to and makes use of the work of others” (“Opinion” 578). He sees the ability to read others’ work and respond intelligently to that work as one of the most important aspects of writing, and he emphasizes that the best place to teach this is “between the drafts” (“Joseph” 557). Others, like Kim Korn, Nancy Welch, Susan Tchudi, Heidi Estrem, and Patti-Anne Hanlon, have emphasized the importance of shaking students out of their narrow-minded thinking
through revision. Elizabeth Brockman emphasizes the importance of allowing, even encouraging, students to pause during revision to seriously reflect on their writing. She advocates letting students switch topics as they work through their ideas as a way to teach them that revision is more than sentence-level corrections. Likewise, Amy Lee argues that teaching writing as revision answers many of the concerns raised by post-process critics while retaining the strengths of writing process pedagogy. Although many of these writing experts have different goals for revision, they explore revision as a way to respond to the charge that a traditional approach to the writing process does not meet students’ needs.

Many of my own ideas for revising and the way I approach revision came from reading a set of reflection papers that my students had written after completing a research-based argument. I had asked them to identify specific struggles that they had in the process of writing the paper and ways in which they felt they overcame (or might overcome in the future) those challenges. Most of the students were able to identify a major challenge in their writing process as well as a breakthrough moment; however, for a surprising number of students that breakthrough moment did not occur until after writing an initial draft of the paper. One student’s comment represented the feelings of many other students: “The point where I actually had a decent outline and knew the direction I wanted to take was after I had written my draft.” Another student wrote, “Taking my thoughts and being able to write them in a coherent, organized paper of this size was a real challenge for me. To overcome this dilemma, just writing out a whole paper helped me realize what research I was missing and what I needed to go back and redo.” These students learned a valuable lesson about revision: there’s generally a lot of work to be done after the first draft of a paper, and most of it focuses on something other than surface-level changes. Unfortunately, I had not structured the class to allow much time for them to revise. These rough drafts served as a kind of prewriting, and if I had collected the drafts earlier and placed a greater emphasis on revision, these students would have had more opportunity to develop and reorganize their ideas (through serious revision) for much better final drafts.

The experience left me wondering how I might structure a first-year writing class so that students have these types of breakthrough experiences earlier and more often; I wanted to structure my class so that, as Harris emphasizes, I “[dispel] any notion that revising an essay will be less work than drafting it” (“Opinion” 588). Obviously, simply telling students that we want serious revision doesn’t work very well. I realized that if I wanted to see serious revision, I would have to change my attitude toward the writing process. Before collecting the first drafts of my students’ first major paper, I spent several weeks cramming them full of all I could about rhetorical situations, ethos, pathos, logos, kairos, and many other foreign terms and concepts. I was frustrated that I couldn’t get to everything before their first draft was due. How could they be expected to write well, I reasoned, if they didn’t know everything there is to know about writing? My greatest frustration came, however, when I collected those first drafts and realized that most of my students had applied few, if any, of the many strategies that I had been throwing at them for the previous weeks.

Although I held a conference with each student individually and gave extensive feedback to the students on their drafts, I had scheduled only one day for general feedback and revision. But this one class was by far the most productive of the unit. The students were involved. They asked questions. They genuinely wanted to know everything I could tell them that might improve their writing. Of course, many of them still made no significant revisions before the final draft, but I had to ask myself how much of that was my own fault. After all, I had expected them to do most of the work before the first draft, and I had organized the class accordingly. Other experiences throughout the semester seemed to confirm my observation, and by the end of the semester, I had developed a new model that I believe will help students engage more fully in class discussions and in the writing process: it is simply to assign a first draft of a major paper immediately—before students even have all of the tools needed to satisfactorily complete the assignment—and focus the majority of my instruction between the first and final drafts.

This approach has many potential benefits. First of all, if writing instructors return these first drafts back with a potential (not recorded) grade, students become aware of just how much work still needs to be done before the final draft. This automatically places the greatest emphasis of the class on revision instead of drafting, and because the students have drafted a paper so early (even if it’s nothing more than prewriting, which it often will be), they have much more time to focus on revision. Also, students are forced to pick a topic early and get started. Students often spend too much time trying to find the perfect topic (or wait until the last minute and pick anything); collecting their draft early forces them to start thinking seriously about a topic right away. This initial draft might serve as little more than prewriting, but it will be useful prewriting because the students are genuinely working out their ideas. If nothing else, they are thinking about their topics throughout the unit rather than scrambling for something at the end. This does not mean that students should be forced to stay with a topic if they are not satisfied with it; on the contrary, changing topics after drafting can be an important part of revision.

Another advantage with this model is the number of student examples available. While there are strong arguments against giving students models and asking them to reproduce the same kind of writing (Fraiberg 175), students are constantly asking for more examples. Writing instructors can use student examples effectively if they combine praise with criticism. I have found it useful to point out the strengths of all student writing I share with my class, and I have been surprised at how much this tends to increase students’ confidence in their own writing. This does not mean that the writing cannot be critiqued, however. When students analyze their own writing (or their peers’) with a teacher guiding them, they often learn much more than they would by looking at writing samples written outside the class in different contexts. Certainly, teachers should be careful not to disclose authorship, but telling students that they are looking at writing that was produced in the context of the class helps students draw parallels to their own writing. Having samples of students’ early writing also helps a teacher know what needs to be taught. Instruction can then be adapted to meet students’ needs.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of this model is that students become more invested in the class because they see how the principles being covered directly relate to their own writing. I am constantly surprised at how often students will repeat back to me important writing principles they’ve learned in class and then fail to apply those principles in their writing. Students need to apply principles as they’re being taught, but if they have no current assignment they’re working on, it becomes very difficult for them to meaningfully apply anything. If students have already produced a draft of a paper, instruction can be given every day within the context of the students’ own writing. They have concrete examples in front of them, and they apply instruction directly to their own writing. “Audience” isn’t some abstract concept, but a specific group that was (or wasn’t) addressed in the student’s paper. Good thesis statements aren’t a list of three things (e.g., specific claim, narrow focus, and map of paper), but the actual words on the student’s page. In short, writing instruction ultimately ends up in students’ writing rather than in class notes lost in the bottom of students’ bags.

Certainly, requiring students to draft earlier won’t solve all of the problems with the way students view the writing process, but I believe that it can be an important step. To be successful, however, it is important to keep a few things in mind. First of all, although students have had a great deal of practice completing writing assignments before they come to us in first-year writing, we cannot expect them to be able to take an assignment and do something meaningful with it with no instruction at all. After all, if students simply turn in rough drafts that show no thought or effort, we haven’t achieved any more than assigning the kind of prewriting that the students just “blow off.” It is important, then, especially for the first assignment of the semester, to give students an assignment that doesn’t require a whole lot of specialized instruction (the kind of instruction required for analysis, research, etc.). Opinion-based arguments or personal narratives might be a logical place to start. Also, students often struggle to find topics that they are interested in when they are only exposed to writing terms and techniques in the composition classroom. Instead of starting with rhetoric or argument, first-year writing instructors can instead devote the first classes to discussing interesting topics, such as campus controversies and possibilities on how to approach such controversies. The specific techniques for organizing and arguing will come later during revision, but it is important to help students find something they will be interested in writing about. Finally, it is important that students really put effort into their first draft. It might be useful to do away with terms like “rough draft,” which students often interpret as “unaccountable draft,” and simply tell them that they have a paper due. Then, so that students are fully aware of the importance of revision, the writing instructor should make it clear that while they may use the ideas they began to develop during this initial draft, they are
expected to produce an entirely different paper for their final draft.

This approach to the writing process, and specifically to revision, may strike some as too simplistic to achieve any great results, but I believe that its simplicity is one of its greatest strengths. Students generally don’t need more specialized instruction; they just need the instruction in the right context: after they have already tried writing on their own. Students may always celebrate the absence of mandatory prewriting or revision in a composition classroom, but after passing through a first-year writing course that focuses on their own writing and foregrounds revision, they will hopefully have a better concept of how much work good writing really demands.



Works Cited

Brockman, Elizabeth Blackburn. “Revising Beyond the Sentence Level: One Adolescent Writer and a ‘Pregnant Pause.’” English Journal 88.5 (1999): 81-86.

Dean, Deborah. “Strategic Writing, Strategic Living.” BYU Devotional. Brigham Young U, Provo, UT. 27 Nov. 2007.

Durst, Russel K. “Writing at the Postsecondary Level.” Research on Composition: Multiple Perspectives on Two Decades of Change. Ed. Peter Smagorinsky. New York: Teachers College, 2006.

Fraiberg, Allison. “Houses Divided: Processing Composition in a Post-Process Time.” College Literature 29.1 (2002): 171-80.

Flower, Linda, and John R. Hayes. “A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing.” Villanueava 273-97.

Fulkerson, Richard. “Of Pre- and Post- Process: Reviews and Ruminations.” Composition Studies 29.2 (2001): 93–119.

Harris, Joseph. “Joseph Harris Responds.” College English 66 (2004): 556-58.

—. “Opinion: Revision as a Critical Practice.” College English 65 (2003): 577-92.

Kent, Thomas, ed. Post-Process Theory: Beyond the Writing-Process Paradigm. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1999.

Korn, Kim Hainmes. “Distorting the Mirror: Radical Revision and Writers’ Shifting Perspectives.” Elements of Alternate Style: Essays on Writing and Revision. Ed. Wendy Bishop. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1997.

Lee, Amy. Composing Critical Pedagogies: Teaching Writing as Revision. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2000.

Matsuda, Paul Kei. “Process and Post-Process: A Discursive History.” Journal of Second Language Writing 12 (2003): 65-83.

Sommers, Nancy. “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers.” Villanueava 43-54.

Tchudi, Susan, Heidi Estrem, and Patti-Anne Hanlon. “Unsettling Drafts: Helping Students See New Possibilities in Their Writing.” English Journal 86.6 (1997): 27-33.

Villanueava, Victor, ed. Cross-Talk in Comp Theory. 2nd ed. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2003.

Welch, Nancy. Getting Restless: Rethinking Revision in Writing Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1997.