Making Provision For Revision in Student Writing

Revision is a phase of the writing process frequently ignored and commonly misunderstood. Because it is misunderstood, it is often glossed over. And yet it is in the revision phase that the writer has the greatest opportunity to lift the quality of the writing.

Recently, I found myself reading curriculum documents that only referred to editing. Revision did not warrant a mention. 

There are currently commercial companies pushing so called ‘writing programs’ to schools that only focus upon the surface features of writing- essentially editing. This lack of attention to revision means young writers are being denied the opportunity to appreciate how this important action assists them to noticeably improve the content of the writing. Revision is a lot more than the teacher merely telling the young writer they need to add more details, or they need to use more describing words.

When teachers inform me students passively resist revision as a tool for improving their writing pieces, I begin to wonder about the way it is being presented.  Their students are yet to understand that ‘revision is the magic behind great writing.’  If we, as teachers of writing want students to embrace the idea of revision, we must remove some very obvious obstacles that may be hindering meaningful revision.

Let’s Start With Topic Selection
When students are able to choose what they really want to write about, then they usually display increased commitment to producing their best writing. As a consequence, they are more likely to indulge in their best revision efforts. They are more engaged in the writing because they have ownership. It is important student writers realize how important it is to only choose topics close to their hearts. Writing to please a teacher will not engender much in the way of passion for revision. Student writers need to be helped to understand a good piece of writing can grow into a great piece of writing with revision.

If the teacher owns the topic, the idea, the response, the student experiences a disconnection from the piece. Allowing students to choose topics is central to the philosophy of an authentic writing program. If students feel a sense of passion about what they’re writing, they’re more likely to produce something worth persisting with and worth reading by others.

The Principle of Purpose
The writing our students are doing must have a real and obvious purpose. It is critical that the writing has authenticity at its heart. For this to happen it must be linked to the notion of audience from the beginning. We must ask questions that nudge the young writer to think:

Who are you writing this for?
Who are your readers?
Where will this be read?  
Why is it important to write this?

Without a reason to write there is little point being invested in the effort required to write the piece in the first place. It saddens me to hear students respond, ‘It’s for my teacher’ when I ask them who the writing is for. As teachers we need to invest adequate time in establishing an awareness of audience in writers. This implies publishing and a range of audiences. This is where purpose resides… 

As teachers we need to be more creative than merely pinning the writing up on the walls of the classroom. Taking writing beyond the classroom walls is critical. It is imperative to encourage student writers to consider not only HOW they will share their writing, but also WHERE the writing will be placed.  When writing goes public, it leads to feedback. This leads the writer back to the purpose and value of revision. 

Is This Editing or Revision?
If we as teachers are confused about these processes then it will hamper the level of revision that occurs. If students just ‘fix up’ the surface features of the writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation) they are not revising the piece, they are editing. Revision requires the writer to re-vision the writing. This means revisiting the content and working to improve the way it is written. The writing is re-crafted, not just fixed up. Sometimes this may involve surgery, cutting and pasting chunks of text. Young writers need to be shown how to do this. Telling them to do this important work without showing them how it actually works is a waste of time.

Did I Mention Mentors?   
All young writers need regular contact with someone willing to share their writing. Someone willing to share their writing at all stages of the writing process. Students need to see how another writer uses revision to improve the content of their writing. This is the action that most effectively breaks down the resistance to revision. It is up to the most proficient writer in the class to demonstrate how revision works for them as a writer.

There are many ways a writer can improve a piece of writing. Inexperienced writers can easily be overwhelmed by the idea of reworking the words they have written. The developing writer has little experience of re-visioning their writing. To assist the young writer to gain this important insight we must show them how a writer improves the content at various levels.

-the word level (word choice- verbs, adjectives, nouns)
-the sentence level (beginnings, variety of sentence lengths)
-the paragraph level (expanding on ideas, zooming in)
-craft strategies (show don’t tell, simile, metaphor, alliteration, repetition, voice Inside/outside, lift a line)

Let’s not forget that an understanding of how revision shapes a piece of writing is very much developmental. Our youngest writers have little experience of such authorial actions. We must foster the awareness of revision and its power to improve the quality of a writing piece with deliberate and mindful teaching.


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