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?


Drafting Purpose — Is It Done Yet?

When my first-year writing students say to me, “Why do I have to revise? I think my first draft is good.”  I reply, “Why do you want to settle for good enough?”

When the writing teachers I mentor ask, “What do you do when a student turns in a really good first draft?” I say, “I ask more complicated questions of the text.”

I say these things to students and the teachers I work with because as a writer I know that revision is part of the writing process, and because I believe no text is ever really done. For me, a piece of writing is “done” when I have run out of time to continue working on it or, in the case of my novel, I couldn’t bear to look at it one more minute. I also know that shifting something in the rhetorical situation (my thinking about something has changed, a different audience now makes sense, a different purpose) always cries out for a revision. Every text can be endlessly revised.

But I’m wondering if something else is being implied here, if there is something else behind these questions the students and teachers ask. I’m wondering if we need to re-think what we mean by drafting.

I’ve been thinking that students and even teachers (okay I’ll admit it—even I have thought this) believe that drafting is only for those who can’t get it right the first time. Really good writers get it right the first time and really bad writers have to do a bunch of drafts until they can get it right. (Okay, I’ll admit it. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent crying at my desk because I had to do yet another draft in order to get it “right.”)  

I understand why our students come into our classes believing this. We are surrounded by writing “myths” that support this. Good writers are born talented, good writers get inspired. Good writers have the words, the sentences, the paragraphs pour effortlessly out of their fingers and onto the page. Bad writers struggle.

The implication here is that no matter what we write there is a perfect text – the perfect essay, the perfect seminar paper, the perfect article—and we are trying to achieve this “perfect” text as quickly as possible.

But what is a perfect text?

Is there a perfect text?

Students come into our classrooms thinking that for each of the essay units there is an A+ essay and this writing process we ask them to go through is a way that enables them to achieve that paper. And although we try to convince our students that the process we teach them isn’t really about this and that revision is something all writers do, I’m thinking that the way we ask students to draft may just undermine what we are saying. I’ve been thinking that we may just reinforce this notion of the perfect text by asking students to write a draft that looks and is in the same shape as their final essay. Although we expect everything to be “rough” (Just get your ideas down! Don’t worry about your grammar – yet!) the assumption is the first draft with its “rough” introduction, “rough” body paragraphs, “rough” conclusion, is just a “rough” version of what the final draft will eventually look like. We then start working from that draft and begin the revising process usually keeping the same structure, usually pointing out where things can be further developed, added, deleted, and moved around. Each draft then becomes a version of the previous draft. And because these multiple drafts look the same, students become locked into re-arranging what is already there.

So I’ve been thinking. What if we re-thought this whole drafting thing? What if the drafts looked different? What if each draft looked so different that the point of revision was to write something different?  What if we thought more about what specific purpose each draft could serve?

For example, last semester for our “Adding to the Conversation” unit I asked the students to begin by writing a draft that was one page discussing everything they already knew about their topic, and one page discussing everything they had discovered. For Draft #2 the students selected a specific audience for their topic and wrote a letter to a member of that audience. For Draft #3 the students selected a form that was best suited to their audience and wrote their draft in that form. The final draft was a copyedited version of Draft #3.

How was this different?

Rather than asking students to select their audience, purpose and form in the beginning of the writing process, I broke it down. The purpose of the first draft was to enable the students to get everything they knew and learned about their topics down. Rather than attempting to weave their research in with their own voices right away this enabled them to separate everything out so they could see what they were thinking. On this draft we did revision exercises to enable them to develop their own purpose and to explore different audiences. Once they decided on an audience, the letter (Draft #2) enabled them to speak directly to that audience, to test out what they wanted to say. This enabled them to think further about their purpose and to identify points where they needed to do further research. Once they settled on their purpose and audience, they revised (Draft #3) into a form that seemed best suited for their specific audience. This draft was revised for content, sentence structure, and mechanical/grammar issues into the final version.

Did this work?

I think so. I saw the students taking up the idea of revision in a more global way because since each draft was different they could not simply add, delete, or move existing paragraphs around. I also found that they were more open to possible directions for their final papers because they were not attached to any particular draft during the process.  The students didn’t really see that they were writing the same thing over and over. Instead they were writing their way to a final paper.

Could their final versions have been revised a few more times? Of course. More focusing on the overall structure would have been great, some points could have been developed a bit more, some focus on sentence structure would have been beneficial. But right now I’m wondering if thinking more about what specific purpose each draft could serve within the writing process and making that purpose visible may enable students to focus on writing their way to the essay they want to write rather than attempting to get it right in one shot.

Repurposing Peer Reviews & Teacher Feedback

Hari Stephen Kumar is a doctoral candidate in Rhet/Comp at the University of Massachusetts. He teaches first-year writing and is on the Resource Center staff.

A student mutters to me one time in class, “Why am I doing peer reviews for others when I could be working on my own draft?”

A different student tells me, in office hours, “Your feedback was encouraging, but I don’t see why you can’t just tell me what’s wrong with my draft. That’s what teachers have always done for me.”

In an end-of-unit reflection, a student scribbles: “Doing reviews was very different from high school peer editing, where we would just kinda fix up things for each other. I hated doing that. I liked that people asked me actual questions this time. It helped me see where they didn’t understand what I was trying to say.”

Comments like these always spin me for a loop. And these are just from students – I’m not including here all the teacherly voices (both my inner doubts and the conversations I’ve had with other teachers) about our struggles with writing our own feedback on student drafts: how much, how much time, when, what (not) to say, etc.

And to a large extent, all these voices are in my head at the start of every semester, especially during that week when first drafts for Unit 1 are due. That’s the week when four different things have to kick into gear. Most pressing on my own agenda is the sheer reality of 15 (or 30) first drafts that I have to read through, and then write cogent feedback about, and then get that back to students in a timely manner as they work on their second drafts. Then there’s peer review, getting students to read each other’s first drafts and provide useful feedback to their peers, feedback that is more meaningful than just a “I liked it” comment. Finally there’s the students’ own reflective writing and revision work: how to motivate them to make that purposeful turn from 1st draft to 2nd draft, beyond just tweaking sentences and fixing up words? How to get them to reflect on other choices to try, larger changes to make, new purposes to pursue?

Then I realized that many of my students often see this very differently. Every semester I’ve had students say things like: “I’ve never done this many drafts for any paper before. I’ve always just written one draft and then corrected it before handing it in.”

Or: “Revision is basically fixing things that the teacher tells you to fix.”

Or, really worrying: “My friends in other 112 classes aren’t doing this much work!”

When I’ve talked with students at length about their previous experiences, what I’ve found is that for most of them teacher feedback was the most important (and often only) source of input during revision. Working on a paper, for many of them, involved just two pieces of “homework”: draft, and then fix. In my class, then, when they see all the other things they’re supposed to do, it’s easy for them to see those tasks as just “more homework.” And when they don’t see why they’re doing this “extra” work, it can become yet another chore for them to complete, to check off. It becomes just “busy work” for them. Peer reviews become a chore to get through quickly, to skim through and quickly comment on surface-level things. Reflective writing becomes a run-out-the-clock exercise. And, frankly, that generates “busy work” for me too. Teacher feedback becomes the one place where I put most of my effort, convincing myself that if I don’t say something useful then students aren’t going to get it from anywhere else.

To address some of these perceptions, this semester I’ve been working within a structured framework that connects all their “homework” back to the process of revision, back to the ideas of student-as-writer and writer-centered revision. Being in this framework allows my students and myself to always ask: so just why do I want them to do a particular piece of homework? And what should they expect to get out of doing that homework? The framework relies on the following core pieces:

  • Writer-centered revision: moving students to a model where they are at the center of revision, where they are motivated to make changes purposefully and proactively.
  • Peer reviews and teacher feedback linked to revision goals: providing a broader purpose for gathering different kinds of feedback from different sources.
  • Clearer expectations: setting defined goals for what different courses of feedback can provide, mainly to let me focus on specific things in my feedback to them instead of making me feel like I have to say it all.
  • Purposeful and specific feedback: varying the kind of peer review activities they do from unit to unit, so that they don’t feel like they’re doing the same thing each time and more importantly to develop writerly skills in soliciting in-depth feedback on their own over the course of the semester.

So during Unit 1, on the day that first drafts were due, I distributed a handout (Contextualizing Feedback within Revision Goals) summarizing the key goals for revision: re-seeing purposes, extending & complicating meaning, discovering choices, and testing out alternatives. I borrowed this list from the Teaching Database but I added a table at the bottom of the handout that showed how they could get help in achieving these revision goals from five different sources for feedback and advice during revision: peers, teacher, self, friends/family, and the WritingCenter. The idea was to show how each of these feedback sources support the revision goals in different ways.

Based on this handout, we then discussed as a class the different kinds of feedback that each of us could contribute to a writer in the class. We came up with three main sets of expectations: one for peer reviews, one for teacher feedback, and one for the writer’s own reflective revision plan. We decided that peer reviews would focus on the “Re-seeing Purposes” and “Discovering Choices” revision goals. For peer reviews I distributed another handout, also borrowed from the Teaching Database, on doing initial draft reviews (How to Do Peer Reviews for Initial Drafts) using the sayback-pointing-questions method. Meanwhile we decided that teacher feedback would focus on the “Extending & Complicating Meaning” goal. And lastly, the writer would focus on “Testing Out Alternatives” in their revision plan.

Having this structured process provided for a seamless Unit 1 feedback experience. Most students got a lot out of both doing and receiving peer reviews. Having the structured sayback-pointing-questions method meant also that students moved beyond a corrective “peer editing” approach and were instead actually asking genuine questions of each other. Meanwhile I was able to keep my own teacher feedback short and focused. In their revision plans, I was gratified to see them incorporating all three sources (their peer reviews, my feedback, and their own ideas) into generating some really specific and significant “alternatives” they wanted to try for their 2nd draft.

This process also allowed for changes initiated by students. When we did a debrief the following week, I asked students to reflect on how they would want to do this process differently for either the next unit or for a different stage of drafting. Many students pointed out that while the sayback-pointing thing may be good for initial drafts, they would prefer more detailed and focused critiques for mid-process drafts. Students who had more experience with college-level peer reviews also pointed out that the sayback-pointing exercise seemed to be overly structured. These were terrific opportunities for me to ask the class to “own” the feedback process more purposefully going forward. So, for the 2nd draft in-class reviews, we adopted a more writer-centered model where each writer asked for specific feedback from their group members. This allowed the review process to be more purposeful, shorter, more focused.

Then, when we moved into Unit 2, we made the review and feedback process even more writer-centered. For first drafts, I asked each writer to provide two cover notes: one for their peers and one for me. In each cover note they were to ask for specific types of feedback geared toward the revision goals. This is where the rubber really hit the road: students wrote very clear and specific notes, asking for different things from me and from their peers. And I could see this making a tangible difference in how students approached revision: their 2nd drafts took on more purposeful shifts, many more students tried more significant changes, and the in-class feedback discussions were much more specific.

Going into Unit 3, now, I am about to ask them to take this to another level still. I’ve been putting them into groups for Units 1 and 2, but for this unit I’ll ask them to choose the sources from whom they want feedback. I’m going to encourage them to choose especially people they know outside of class: their roommates, or a trusted family member, or a peer mentor, or the WritingCenter. That is, I’d like them to approach this the way they might if they were in another class where structured peer reviews are not built into the course. I’m hoping that this allows them to experience and develop more writerly ways of soliciting feedback for non-class/non-graded writing situations. I guess I’ll find out how this goes over the next few weeks!

Re-Visiting Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich, the poet, essayist, and feminist, died last week. When I learned of her death, I was, of course, sadden, and then her words about revision—“[r]e-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction…”[1] came to mind. It wasn’t too odd that her words came to me, because these words from her essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” are never too far from my mind. It was through Rich’s essay that I really understood the meaning of revision as a continuous process.

Although Rich’s work has influenced my work as a feminist writer on many levels and in many ways, it is this concept of re-seeing or re-visioning that I carry into the writing classroom. I work to move my students away from thinking that drafting and revision are about getting to the perfect text as quickly as possible. I ask them to think of the texts they create as never done; to see their work as ever-changing pieces of writing. I encourage my students to acknowledge, to articulate, to examine the eyes they see, read, and understand with. I do this by writing “revision” on the board as “Re-Vision.” I do this by designing exercises that ask them to re-see what they have written.  I do this by paraphrasing Rich—Remember, revision is not about fixing or correcting. It’s about the act of re-seeing.   

If you haven’t read “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” (of if you haven’t read it in a while) I encourage you to do so. You will find the piece in many anthologies, but also here at this link:

 As Rich invites us to return to “old texts” with fresh eyes, I invite you to share your “old texts,” here, with all of us. If there is a text that has influenced your work as a writer and a teacher of writing, please share it with us.   


[1] From Adrienne Rich’s essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” from On Lies, Secret, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978