Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Revising versus correcting

One of my perennial frustrations in trying to help students develop as writers is their persistent resistance to substantively revising their work. Some of this is due to sheer stubbornness. For many students, the task of writing is sufficiently daunting that a readable draft is such a big accomplishment that they don't want to touch it. (Besides, it looks so pretty printed on those crisp white pages!) In other cases, poor time management is the issue, as students just don't plan ahead and so leave themselves only a tiny window of time to revise their work.

But as with many other challenges related to teaching writing, much of the problem arises from students' unfamiliarity with the stages of the writing process, in this case, not knowing what it means to substantively revise. Tom Deans offers an interesting diagnosis of how we instructors can inadvertently contribute to this problem by tacitly collaborating with students so that the process of revision turns out to be a process of correction:

Conflating revision with correction is quite natural: Students submit (usually flawed) drafts; faculty prescribe how to fix them; and students fix the flaws. Such a process, as anyone who has worked with a skilled editor knows, may not always be fun but it leads to a better final product.

The problem is that the ultimate aims of editing and teaching are different: editors want better writing; teachers may want that too, but they ultimately want better writers.

Certainly students can learn a great deal by following the lead of a good editor, but when teachers slip into editor mode, students in turn focus on delivering what the teacher/editor wants more than on either learning or inquiry. Consider the extreme version (but I've seen it happen): a student submits a draft electronically; a dedicated teacher makes extensive, time-consuming edits in Track Changes; and the student scans the first few edits and then hits the "Accept All" button. Revision done.

Deans points out that when we get into the "I'll tell you what's wrong and you fix it" mode, students turn in better writing but they don't become better writers. Ultimately, they don't learn how to critically engage their own work and become dependent on other people for their editorial judgment and their own writing voice.

Deans reminds us that we can avoid the "I'll tell you what's wrong and you fix it" mode by ensuring that the feedback we give "challenges writers with options and sparks further conversation." All well and good, I say, but there's a nearly genetic resistance to serious revision among my students. And it's especially frustrating when students won't revise in simple ways that nevertheless lead to dramatic improvements in argumentative cogency.

A common example: I receive a lot of student papers that I call "rabbit from the hat" papers. These are papers in which it's clear that the student is knowledgeable about the topic, but because the student hadn't settled on a thesis beforehand, wrote the paper as a report of their own thinking about the topic. As a result, the thesis emerges at the end of the paper, but is basically buried in the last few sentences. It is possible to write a successful philosophy paper this way, but it takes enormous rhetorical skill to keep the reader interested until the end. The more common result is that the reader loses patience trying to figure out what the paper's arguments are leading up to. The discouraging part is that this is an extraordinarily easy problem to correct: Put the rabbit up front by stating the thesis in the first 100 words or so of the paper, so that the subsequent argumentation is oriented around the thesis. Yet many students won't do this even after I explicitly suggest it to them!

In any event, I'd be curious to know what experiences others have with students' revising (or not revising) their work and what they've found to be effective in instilling in them the habit of revising — and not just correcting.


  1. My favourite technique to address this sort of problem is to make submission of an essay plan a compulsory requirement for the unit. Sometimes I grade them, but usually it's just a hurdle.

    The essay plan is the sort of thing that can be anywhere from 1/2 to 2 pages in length, and it has structured questions to make sure that students actually think about the various stages of writing a paper -- this is particularly effective at stopping the "rabbit out of a hat" problem. It doesn't directly address the issue of teaching a student how to revise a paper, but it at least gets a student to think through the process of writing the paper a bit more thoroughly than is usually the case. That is, it seems to achieve the benefits of revision, by engaging with the student earlier in the writing process.

    The questions I use are along these lines (N.B. these are derived from some examples given to me by a colleague, and I think he got those from something written by Adam Morton): (1) What's your question/topic?; (2) How do you intend to interpret the essay question? (3) Name three things you plan to read to help answer the question. Briefly say why those things will be relevant; (4) Write a short outline of the argument of your essay; (5) What's the main conclusion? (6) State some doubts you have about your conclusion; (7) Give an example that you plan to use in your essay; (8) Explain how the example is relevant; (9) What would you like help with in writing this essay?

    Ideally, I make time to meet all my students to discuss their essay plans. (The last time I tried this in a large class, I made interviews recommended but not compulsory, and I met with around 75 out of 100 students for an average of around 10-12 minutes each. So it was quite a large time commitment.)

    While I have done no rigorous analysis of the effect, my strong impression is that this sort of exercise -- especially when paired with the interview -- makes students write much better papers. Correspondingly, I am less inclined to "correct" their papers when I finally receive them. Rather, I can engage with them on matters of substance, because many of the more trivial errors/shortcomings have been avoided by the planning process.

  2. I'm starting to think that cooking and writing evoke very similar behaviors from people. The ones that are absolutely terrible at it want everyone to read it, while the good ones would prefer their work never see the light of day if they could manage it.

  3. Hi, Michael,

    I can't speak to "Prozac's" assertions, but I do want to express support for some of the techniques that Toby Handfield -- and for that matter, Tom Deans in the article you cite -- use. Specifically, I think that the way to get students better at being "meta" about their writing is to have them practice it, and to be explicit to them that that's what you (and they) are doing.

    I have had students write revision statements for each draft (which means, for me, at least two drafts of the assignment in question), which they submit along with the draft and which I use as one of the "rubrics" by which I evaluate that draft.

    I have conducted in-class, whole-class sessions where we look at examples of (anonymized, prior permission received) student writing from one of my previous courses, and talk, as a class, about issues of audience, organization, avoiding the rabbit-from-the-hat problem that you mentioned, etc. I then ask the students to work in small groups to come up with "top-level" feedback about the paper before they focus on questions of spelling/grammar (unless those be egregious).

    I also (sparingly, and probably less than I should) have 1-on-1 or 1-on-2 writing conferences with students between drafts, where, again, I try to focus on "top-level" issues and on both successful and unsuccessful patterns in their writing, and less (but still some!) on the kind of things that many students associate with "revision": removing typos, misspellings, and grammatical glitches. As Toby says, that's quite a large time commitment that many instructors just might not be able to make.

  4. This also raises time issues, but I think one step towards the goal of "making better writers" is to devote class time to various revision activities.

    Like Vance, I spend lots of one-on-one time w/students; like Michael, I'm often explaining (in like 19 different ways) how they might bring their conclusion forward & revise from there. In my experience, the students are genuinely PRESENT during these conferences & I believe they're learning, which is why I still love such an exhausting teaching method.

    So then it occurs to me that if students aren't attending to what we see as clear or straightforward revision suggestions, it's maybe because they understand what we mean but don't know how to pull it off on their own. Testing-crazed schools these days teach kids that mistakes (and therefore risks) are bad, and that if they don't have a clear road map to the right answer then maybe the teacher's to blame (or something along these lines but WAY less reductive; sorry, tired).

    I think many students "get what we want" when we suggest revisions, but I'm also thinking that I need to follow through a bit more energetically on my commitment to teaching students to sign on for some serious revising. If I could get myself to quit being so greedy about class time, I could try out some of my ideas for "let's play with paragraphs" revision activities & give students a guided, hands-on experience of HOW to break apart pieces of their drafts & move them around (and so also how to do what they find even scarier: create new "frames"/transitions, or re-phrase analysis passage to suit the essay's new structure).

    Doing this in class while talking about it, asking questions, experimenting w/two versions of the same passage, etc., would allow students to practice unfamiliar & challenging revision moves in a low-stakes environment. After a few such sessions in class, maybe more of them will grow comfortable with taking those first painful steps towards real revision on their own.

  5. Thanks for these ideas everyone. They all seem sound, though I do worry about the time commitment involved. One radical idea I've had is to have "writing" assignments that involve only revising and no original drafts. The idea would be that students would receive copies of some problematic student drafts (written by students from previous courses, say) and then be required to revise them. Ideally, it would be best if the papers were on topics the students were preparing to write about themselves, since that would enable them to use their content knowledge to make suggestions for revision. One reason I've not done this is that I'm not sure how I'd want to grade or evaluate it, but I really like the idea of an assignment that consists wholly in revising.


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