Forcing Students To Revise Their Writing

My college classes this last semester had some of the best writers I’ve ever had in English 101. I felt very lucky to get to work with them. But there was one thing about those two classes that irked me to no end throughout our first two big essay units: no matter what I did, they wouldn’t revise their work.

I marked specific things on their papers and told them what to do to improve them, but much of that advice was ignored on subsequent drafts. And when I gave general feedback about writing style and missing elements, nothing in the next draft reflected that at all.

Few things are as frustrating for an English teacher as seeing their careful commentary on student work completely ignored by those students.

I even integrated some basic revision exercises into our classwork to remind them of (introduce them to?) the mechanics and mindset of revision. I labored the point that first drafts are never good enough–that strenuous attention to perfecting work is a must in any endeavor.

Finally, after the midterm, I decided to launch a nuclear attack on the subject, and after returning the first draft of their third essay project, I gave them these directions:

For the revised draft due next week, you must take the first draft and revise it as follows:

Choose any two or three of the five articles given below. Incorporate an analysis and discussion of each of them (as per the original directions) into your existing essay draft. HOWEVER, you may not add any new paragraphs–that total must not change–nor can you just add new sentences to the ends of existing paragraphs. The new material must be smoothly integrated into the existing essay–the commentary from the first draft must be revised to also address the new material.

There must be new material in *every* paragraph of this revised draft.

BUT, this new draft must also be no longer than the original first draft–this means that some material from the first draft must be condensed and/or eliminated, and what you add will have to be succinct.

Yes, that’s a cheap, sneaky way to micromanage their progress, and I hated doing it, but it did get results. The next drafts were substantially different, and they were even better. Now I just have to hope that as they go through future classes, and the rest of their lives, they keep the lesson in mind and continue living it.


Sideways Editing

When revising writing that I’ve labelled “awkward,” students have a tendency to practice what I call “sideways editing.”  Instead of swapping out their initial phraseology for something more fluently developed, they rearrange the existing parts into an equally awkward sequel.

Here’s an example that I now use as an illustration in class:

First draft: The article had good ideas in it and related them to us good. 

is not substantially improved as

Second draft: The article’s ideas were good and they were related to the readers in good ways too.  

The Value of Term Papers

The brilliant professor Mark Bauerlein scores yet another direct hit in a recent post about the value of those old-fashioned writing assignments:

In my classes I include both types of assignments, short, one-page writings and longer 7-page papers (I rarely go over 10 pages these days, but I try to make the class have 25-30 pages of finished writing overall.)  I also make students bring in their rough drafts so that we may go over them sentence by sentence, word by word.  (I’m lucky to have small classes.)  It is a novel experience for many of them.  To have a reader pause over the placement of a modifier, and to have to think about such things as a writer, is altogether new.  The deliberation simply doesn’t go along with digital communication habits.  Until we see students paying closer attention to diction and syntax, we should keep traditional writing assignments as a good portion of the work.

Actually, this quote is more of a defense of revision than word count, but it’s still the money quote in a great piece.  By far the single biggest factor holding back anyone’s writing is lack of sustained effort–we naturally feel that a simple first draft gets the job done, and that’s that…and we teachers all too often reward such sloppy work by letting it slide by.  Teaching students to care about and focus on every word is the best writing training we can give.

Scrutiny in Teaching Writing

A post at National Review, and some great follow up comments from readers, offers some great ideas about teaching writing:

The only way to address writing is to give line-by-line feedback. We cannot assume that students know what good writing looks like. Every time students pass a written assignment at any level with subpar writing, such poor performance is reinforced as acceptable and the poor writing ability become the next professor’s problem.

One of many astute reader comments notes:

Absolutely crucial, if we want students to improve, is that they be required to draft and revise. If they only receive comments — no matter how comprehensive and excellent — on already graded work, they simply won’t attend to them. Why bother if it isn’t going to make any difference on that essay? And they don’t always have the understanding to apply comments on one essay to the next; but if they revise *this* essay by the comments given, then it sparks some realization of how to apply those comments to other work.


This is the single most important thing that students need to learn about writing: every word counts.  Continue reading

The Cold Darwinian Erasers of Editorial Evolution

As writers, we wield the cold Darwinian erasers of editorial evolution.  Scrutinizing the compositional gene pool, we are a vehicle of natural selection, finding the weakest words and the unfit phrases.  We exercise the instruments of the delete keys at our fingertips, and thus remove the dead weight that threatens to hold back the success of the prose herd.  Our task is nothing less than to kill off those unlucky aspects of our writing that simply aren’t strong enough to deserve propagation. 

This should be the attitude of anyone who writes: student writers all seem to be born with a case of excessive compassion for every word they write, even the ones so obviously inferior that they can do no more than infect the surrounding writing with their ineptitude.  The mark of a good writer is the evolved ability to remove themselves from their emotional attachment to their own writing and do what must be done: the execution of those elements which simply aren’t worthy of seeing the light of day. 

This task is hard enough to develop in ourselves, much less in student writers.  Yet it is necessary for growth as someone with any talent for writing at all.  It’s been my experience as a teacher that most students can write far better than they do, but they hold back because the more intense effort needed to justify the existence of every word is more work than it’s worth: a chatty first draft is usually “good enough.” 

One thing that often helps students develop a more critical mindset, however, is discussing with them the rather morbid metaphor I opened with above.  Kids really respond to that.  Today in class I advised students to delete all of the extraneous on’s from their writing.  Someone joked that I was “killing all the poor little on’s!”  I replied, “I plead guilty to the crime of prepositional genocide!”  A hearty round of applause erupted.  Disturbing, possibly, but productive. 


On Teaching Writing Vs. Teaching Literature

A couple of notable essays have appeared recently about focusing on teaching writing, as opposed to literature.  Here are a few money quotes, starting with the original piece in Salon:

It’s hard to blame anyone for not wanting to teach writing, which, while it might not involve manual labor or public floggings, is hard, grueling work. Often it demands maximum effort for minimum payoff, headache-inducing attention to detail, wheelbarrows full of grading, revision after revision, conferences with teary-eyed students. Who wouldn’t prefer to talk about books or stories or poems? Problem is, the hard, grueling work to be done doesn’t go away. Ask any college composition teacher.

 A reaction from another teacher, quoted at Instapundit:

Teenagers, already a cauldron of emotions, rather enjoy boiling over onto paper, as long as authenticity trumps accuracy or analysis. They “reflect” all the time, mostly on their cell phones in indecipherable shorthand. Building, supporting, and defending a thesis – that’s much less fun. Teaching them to how do it, and grading the results, is much harder work as well.

Others have chimed in, but you get the idea: teaching literature is fun and easy, whereas teaching writing is painful. 

It’s absolutely true.  Continue reading

What’s Wrong–And What’s Right–With Student Writing

Last week I got a reading-response journal from a high school freshman in my honors class, about an excerpt from Plato’s dialogue Crito (which I’ve described and quoted here before); her paper started off like this:

From Cristo was written by Plato. This story talks about this guy named Socrates whom was sentenced to presin for “corrupting the youth.” although he is inasant and trys to prove it, the juriry desides he is still guilty. He agrues for his inasance. But for all it was pointless. He had the chance to run away but he wanted to prove his inasance. If he would have ran away; other “cities” they wouldn’t welcome him with open arms because he disabad the law by running away. He is killed.

It took me a minute to figure out some of the words: “inasant” is “innocent,” and “disabad” is “disobeyed.”  What accounts for such awful spelling?  Easy–people write like this because their only real engagement with the language has been verbal.  Writing like this–with phonetic spelling, slang, fragments, etc.–comes about because the writer only knows what the language sounds like out loud. 

To put it another way, we now write like this because we don’t read anymore.  Exhaustive experience reading a language used formally is the only way to learn to write fluently.  It’s a simple formula, no more complicated or less effective than any Sunday School answer: if you want to write well, you have to read first.  A lot. 

This dumbing down of written language due to almost exclusively oral experience is especially problematic in students for whom English is a second language, or not spoken at home.  For the girl quoted above, notice how the Greek name “Crito” becomes the Spanish word “Cristo.” 

All is not lost here, however.  She does a few things right.  The second sentence ends with the closing punctuation inside the quotation mark, something which most of her peers do not understand, and the next to last sentence includes the words “would have,” which many of her peers would have written as “would of.”  And, although it’s fairly simplistic and has a couple of errors, she does show a decent understanding of a difficult passage. 

Most importantly, though, when I gave this back to her and said that it needed to be revised and fixed, she cheerfully did so, taking all my advice into account, and quickly resubmitted a much improved paper.  Such a mature work ethic is practically a guarantee of success, and will eventually get her to where she needs to be.  Writing well may not foster character, but character will help her work towards writing well.