Showing vs. Telling in the Teaching of Revision

Since the start of the semester I’ve been reading course evaluations and talking to teachers about their plans for the semester. These discussions usually lead to teachers wanting to work on a specific part of the curriculum. Sometimes it’s how to make in-class activities more purposeful, sometimes it’s how to use the readings more effectively, sometimes it’s how to design better peer review activities/exercises. These are all great things to work on. One thing I’m always working on is how to make each class meeting productive.

When we, as teachers, say we want to make peer review more useful, class time more productive, in-class activities more effective, I think we are pointing to a larger issue about our classes. The bulk of what we do—the readings, the peer response activities, the in-class exercises, our responses during the drafting process—are all about moving the students through a revision process. The drafting process that we teach is really a revision process, a process that enables our students to develop and complicate their ideas, a process that enables them to evaluate the choices they have in terms of tone, voice, language, structure, and organization.

So maybe it would be useful to ask ourselves two questions:

How can we teach revision better?

How can we enable students to see and understand the importance of revision?

As a writer and as a teacher of writing, I understand the importance of revision. Despite the longing in all of us (I admit it, I have that longing too) to write an essay, a short story, an article, etc. “right” the first time, it rarely happens. Writing is a process. We begin with an idea, a question, a thought and then we work at it. We read texts about what we are thinking about, we talk to colleagues about our ideas, we write more, we get feedback about what we are writing and that makes us write more, question more, read more, and then write more again. We work on shaping, testing out different introductions, conclusions, different organizations, different language. We write more. Revision helps us to think more deeply and more critically about what we want to say. Revision enables us to know and understand what we want to say.

So how do we enable our students to see the importance of revision?

The other morning when I was walking my dog I was thinking about this. In my own class, I know the things that I do are all geared to enabling the students to revise their papers. I even tell them at the beginning of the class the purpose of the in-class or peer review activity we are doing is to help them further revise their papers. At the end of class, I even remind them that everything we have done is to help them revise. But sometimes something seems to get lost along the way. Somehow somewhere along the line the things we do in class just seem like the things we do in class and writing multiple drafts seems like writing the same draft over and over again.

As my dog and I got closer to the lake we walk to each morning, the creative writing advice, “show don’t tell” popped into my mind. Maybe I’ve been spending too much time telling my students about the importance of revision rather than showing them why revision is important.

How can we do this?

This semester I want to keep working on making my class more productive. I want to make peer review more effective, my in-class activities purposeful, the discussion of the readings we do more useful. But I want to think about all of this in terms of how these activities and exercises show students the importance of revision. Here is my question:

How can I more effectively show my students the importance of revision?

Any thoughts?


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