Teaching the Art of Revision in Composition

Teaching the Art of Revision in Composition

Stacia Levy
by Stacia Levy 8,216 views

Often when a writing instructor suggests revising a work, a collective groan goes up.

“You’re making us write it again? Why?” Or alternately the teacher is met with a blank stare and essentially the same question: “Why would I write it again?” And if students decide to write their paper “again,” they seem to believe that revision involves moving a comma or two. Revision is punishment, one of those incomprehensible exercises teachers put students through. Actually, there are a number of reasons a writer should write something again. Revision, of course, goes far beyond writing something “again” or playing with punctuation but goes to the very heart of the writing process itself.

Check Why Revision is Beyond Writing Again

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    The element of student papers most in need of revision, from both teachers and student opinion, is in support. There are a number of ways students can support a claim.

    Examples may be drawn from student or friends’ experience. When writing about different marriage customs, for example, I might give the example of attending a wedding in a culture not my own. However, less is more: longer “examples” run the danger of turning into narratives that threaten to take over the whole essay. I would not tell the story of this wedding from the beginning of the day until the end, for example, but rather highlight a couple of traditions that were new to me before moving on to the next point in the essay.

    Specific details are needed to fully develop an essay: if something or an area or landscape is “beautiful,” what exactly does that entail? Readers may have different ideas of beauty than the writer, so giving some details about the beauty of a place, whether its stark, desert terrain, lush green lawns, pristine snow, etc., will not only develop your writing but create mental images for the reader, pulling her into the piece.

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    Quotes, paraphrases, facts, and statistics are also needed to support claims about such issues as the divorce rate, the number of college graduates versus non-graduates who get jobs in their field, or the depth of the water crisis currently facing California. It’s really not enough to say the water crisis is a crisis indeed and affects a lot of people; rather expert testimony as to the depth of the crisis is needed, specific statistics on how this drought compares to droughts in the past, and figures on how far down rainfall is, for example, are needed. Students need to do their research on the topic, in other words, not only to add to their knowledge base but to develop their essays.

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    More Precise Word Choice

    Some words are an anathema to academic writing: “nice,” “good,” “bad,” etc. More specific word choice/academic word choice is called for: when the water crisis in California is “bad,” what exactly does that entail? Is it “tragic,” “frightening,” or maybe “critical”? Students should highlight these vague words in their writing and consider what they really mean by the word, try to replace it with a more specific word, and use a print or electronic thesaurus as necessary. This exercise will not only develop student writing but also increase student vocabulary.

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    Organizational Patterns and Structures

    While we often see the need for more support in student writing, readers often fail to mention organization, which is less obvious a problem but just as important. When I feel my attention drifting while reading an essay, it is often because the organization is nonobvious, the connection between ideas questionable or not apparent at all. Discussing with students possibilities for the overall structure of their essay, such as narrative followed by analysis of that narrative, or addressing first causes then effects of an issue, can greatly improve student writing. Also important is the more “micro” organization: how the ideas should follow within an introduction, for example, first introducing and defining a topic, then limiting its scope for the purpose of the essay, and then finally stating the position of the essay, is a typical method of introducing an essay.

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    More Masterful Transitions

    As important as organization is, it is the transitions or connections that make that organization explicit. If the transitions are missing or incorrect, then again, the reader may find her attention wandering or find herself struggling to make connections on her own. For example, in telling the story of immigrating to the United States, one student started out with her waking up in bed on the first day followed by travel on bus. I suggested she start with the bus trip as it was more relevant. The student replied that the bus trip was the actual start of the story, that it had happened before waking up in bed the next day, something not at all apparent due to the lack of connections/transitions.

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    Sentence Structure

    Relevant to organization of an essay is the issue of sentence structure. If all sentences are simple declarative sentences, then again, the reader may find herself struggling to see the connections: “California has a drought. The drought has gone on a long time. We must conserve water” is fairly clear, but better is “California’s drought has gone on for a several years, and the time has come for Californians to conserve water” is improved.

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    Eliminate Empty Observations and Language

    “Marriage has existed in the world for a long time.” This goes without saying on a literal basis. The writer can strike this sentence and continue with whatever position or purpose he has for discussing marriage and the paper will not be harmed at all and maybe improved. In revision, be merciless in striking material that adds nothing to your piece.

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    At the college level--even high school level--it is no longer acceptable for students to stop at the end of the story of “what I did on my summer vacation.” They must go on beyond this to actually analyzing the experience: what did the summer vacation mean to you; how were you changed by the experience? What do summer vacations mean to your family? Then the analysis can extend to the more cultural and cross-cultural: What do vacations mean to Americans in general? What is the effect on the culture? How do American vacations differ from the vacations in other cultures? What does that mean? There are a number of methods and perspectives that can be used to analyze almost any given topic and extend it beyond the individual student’s experience.

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    As students analyze an experience, they will likely find that certain repeated themes will emerge: in analyzing the topic of “vacations,” for example, students might find the repeated theme of mishaps related to vacations coming up: the stolen wallet or passport; the lost luggage, the missed flight, and might then conclude that vacations, rather than the time of relaxation they are meant to be, are really related more to a lot of extra work and anxiety. This theme then can be deliberately highlighted throughout the piece.

After going through these steps toward revision, students no longer ask why they need to write it again as the reason becomes apparent: much improved writing with more specificity, more connected organization, better word choice, and more apparent purpose.

What are your methods of teaching development?

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