A professional writer once said that writing is rewriting.
It may feel great when we put the final period on the last sentence in a paper or composition, but we are really only part of the way done with what we have written. Even the best writers make mistakes or choose less than perfect words and phrases when they write a first draft. That’s why it’s important to teach your ESL students that revising is an important and necessary part of the writing process.
What is the writing process?
I use the acronym POWER to teach my students the process of writing. I stress that writing is not one event that starts with the introduction and ends with the conclusion. The best writers follow this five step process for generating, organizing, writing about and then refining their ideas.
Prewriting is the idea generating stage of writing. In prewriting, writers come up with many ideas, all the possibilities in fact, before deciding which ideas have the most potential.
Once a writer has chosen her best ideas, it’s time to organize them. Laying out what she will write and how the ideas will flow from one to another happens in this step. Organizing might include making an outline or it might just be making some notes on a sheet of paper before you write.
Writing is the third step of the process, and it often takes the most time. Writing does not mean starting with the introduction and working through to the conclusion (though some people do write that way, most don’t), but it does mean getting something coherent down on paper. After step three your students will have a rough draft or what some people call a sloppy copy. The best writers know their compositions are not finished at this point and willingly move on to steps four and five.
Editing and Revision go hand in hand, and even the best writers (professionals, too) may go through these steps many times with the same piece of writing. You can distinguish the steps from one another like this. Revising is more about content, flow, word choice and organization. Editing is more about grammar, punctuation, spelling and formatting. It is possible to edit and revise at the same time, but writers may find even better results by taking each step separately. I like to teach my students three different strategies for revising and editing their compositions.
The Top Down Technique
The top down technique is a revision strategy, and it is about as straightforward as you can get. To use this technique, your students will start at the beginning of their paper and read to the end. As they do, they will note any problems with content and style. As your students read through their writing, they should ask themselves these and similar questions.
- Do I have a clear beginning, middle and end?
- Are my arguments clear?
- Do I give enough support to make my ideas convincing?
- Do I have transitions between paragraphs and ideas?
- Do I have any confusing sentences? How can I change what I am saying to make my ideas clearer?
- Do I need to change any words to make myself clearer or make my points stronger?
- Do my ideas flow easily into one another? What organization strategy am I using? Is it effective?
If you have any specific requirements for the assignment, this is the time to make sure those have been fulfilled as well. Peer readers can often give a writer the best feedback during the revision process. Peer readers can often see problem areas better than the writer themselves. After each person has done a preliminary revision on his own piece, enlisting the help of a peer reader can make your students’ writing more organized and more complete.
The Bottom Up Technique
The unfortunate thing about editing our own writing is that we tend to miss our own mistakes. We know what we want to say, so we sometimes fall into the trap of reading what we think we are writing rather than what we have really written. This is why the bottom up technique is so effective for editing. This technique allows the writer to get outside her own ideas and look at what is really on the page. To edit using this strategy, the writer should start at the end of her composition. She should then read one sentence at a time. As she does, she should look for any errors in grammar, spelling or punctuation. After each sentence, she moves to the one preceding it. This process does take time, and I don’t recommend using class time for it once students understand the general concept. Even though it can be tedious, this step will ensure your students have used language as accurately as possible and make them more aware of their own errors.
The Target Technique
Every writer has their own bad habits when it comes to getting words on the page. While ESL students will have their own personal writing quirks, they will almost certainly struggle with first language specific errors. These errors may include incorrect word order, conjugation, punctuation trouble or inappropriate gender usage. What the errors are doesn’t matter as much as each person being aware of the mistakes they make on a regular basis. This personal awareness of habitual mistakes is what makes this editing strategy so effective. To use this technique, each person should read though their composition looking for their own specific habitual errors. For example, if I misuse commas with compound sentences, I may go through my essay looking for every use of the word and. For each instance I find, I will check that I have used a comma when necessary and haven’t when unnecessary. I will then read through my essay for another error I make frequently. If students reads through their essays for the three or four most common errors that they make, they will submit better final drafts with fewer mistakes.
The most effective revisers use all three of these techniques to make sure their writing is clear, organized, well supported and free of grammatical, punctuation and spelling errors. When students understand that revision is a part of the overall writing process and they put forth good effort to be effective revisers and editors, they will have strong effective writing about which they can be proud.