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Writing Across the Curriculum

Supporting Student Revision

Revision is, for many writers, the place where the writing and thinking really happen. Students often do not take, or do not have, the time to revise. So, how can faculty encourage students to make revision a part of the writing process? And what role can faculty play in supporting good revision? Listed below are some strategies for encouraging and supporting students in the challenging process of revision.

Model Revision for Students

Composition researchers have confirmed what most instructors have known for some time: many students do not revise their essays. The essays they turn in to us are essentially first drafts with (in some cases) some editing and proofreading of sentences. In order to demonstrate the importance of revision, share your own writing process as a model of good practice. Show students an early draft of something you have been writing, and then a series of redrafts. Describe the process by which you revisit and revise your work. Communicate the joys and struggles of writing as a process of discovery. A variation on this is to show students the revision process of a professional writer. You might provide students with a copy of manuscript text containing revisions and organize a classroom discussion around the differences between an early draft and the final text.

Sample of professional writing demonstrating the revision process

Require revision

Require revision of one or more of the essays assigned in class. If there is one major essay in the course, consider making that essay due early enough in the semester that you can provide comments and ask students to substantially revise. In other words, build the writing process into your syllabus by assigning exploratory writing early on and incorporating due dates for drafts, instead of assuming that students will work through these stages and revise on their own. Some instructors ask students to incorporate a new source, or consider some new avenue opened by an early draft. If students have completed a series of essays over the course of the semester, you could ask them to choose one to revise for publication in a class anthology or for inclusion in a student portfolio.

Ask students to write for a different audience or purpose

Giving students a new task utilizing material from a previous assignment can foster complex revision and reapplication of concepts. For instance, you might ask students to write a dialogue between two researchers on a given issue. Then, students could write a formal argumentative essay that considered both sides of the argument and took a position. Alternatively, as a follow-up to a literature review, annotated bibliography, or summary assignment that lacked engagement with the debate or issues, you could ask students to write a letter to an official or to the paper clarifying a complex issue and staking a position. Changing the audience, the genre, or the length-requirement for an essay can help students see revision as something more than editing and fine-tuning.

Craft responses to student writing that promote revision

Revision is not editing and proofreading, and yet instructors are often disappointed with re-drafts because they represent little more than a tidying up of sentences and punctuation. Help students to see the difference between these two stages by offering comments that focus the student’s attention on the appropriate stage in the writing process. In other words, if it is revision that you want, don’t offer comments about editing and proofreading (which are in many ways easier changes to make). Also, instead of simply responding in writing, it might make sense to set up individual conferences with students so that you can provide targeted support for revision and provide students with an opportunity to think through and communicate their ideas to an audience. Encourage the latter by keeping your own talk to a minimum in conferences. A good conference supplements careful listening with timely, appropriate guidance.

Explore peer review

Formulating and communicating the idea behind a project is a key struggle in the writing and researching process. Encourage students to talk through their thinking with others (as we do with our colleagues). You might form students into small groups and ask them to first say what they are working on and then have the group say back what they have heard and understood. Or, you might ask students to review each other’s work in writing.

Require a visit to the Academic Support Center for Excellence (ACE)

Instead of suggesting that students visit the campus writing center, you might require students to set up occasional or regular meetings with a writing tutor at the Academic Support Center for Excellence (ACE). A visit to the campus writing center challenges students to communicate what they are working on to an attentive listener, while providing individualized support. It is also a good idea for you to get involved with the process by contacting a member of the ACE staff directly. They will let you know what services they offer and allow you to confirm that students are actually attending tutoring.

Encourage students awareness of their own revision processes

Different people have different writing processes, and those processes often change from one writing task to the next. You can help students become more aware of their own writing and revision practices by asking them to submit a cover letter for revised assignments in which they explain their revisions and assess their success. In addition to encouraging greater attention to writing and revision as a process, such letters can provide helpful insights into a student’s thinking about revision.

Suggestions for futher reading

  • John Bean, “Chapter 2: How Writing is Connected to Critical Thinking” and “Chapter 14: Writing Comments on Students’ Papers,” Engaging Ideas
  • Toby Fulwiler, “Provocative Revision: Responding to Texts”
  • Anne Lamott, “Shitty First Drafts”
  • Susan Tchudi, Heidi Estrem, and Patti-Anne Hanlon, “Unsettling Drafts: Helping Students See New Possibilities”
  • Vivian Zamel, “Responding to Student Writing”

Please visit our Readings page to see the full citations.