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John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines
101 McGraw Hall • Cornell University • Ithaca, NY 14853 • 607-255-2280

Two Ways of Assigning Revision

We have substantial evidence that when left to their own devices the majority of undergraduates attempt, at least, to complete papers (even long research papers) in a single draft. This effort to make the first draft the last accounts for many weaknesses in undergraduate writing, including shallow and narrow perspectives, internal contradictions, loose organization, awkward sentences, and a stiff, demonstrative style that results from the writer's struggle to assemble first thoughts into something that sounds thought-through.

If avoidance of revision causes many of these problems, assigning revision appears to be the solution, but the results are often disappointing. Because many students seem reluctant to make substantial changes beyond the ones we explicitly recommend, we find ourselves in the awkward position of evaluating the fruits of our own labor. Peer reviews from other students often yield haphazard, cosmetic revisions.

To understand what is going on, we need to recognize that the term "revision" refers to two kinds of changes writers make at different stages of the writing process and for different reasons:

  • The changes writers make in order to complete a draft before they give it to the intended reader.
  • The changes writers are obliged to make after they have submitted a complete draft, with the hope that it is finished.

The majority of assigned revisions represent the second type, which corresponds with the suggestions we receive from editors and peer reviewers on manuscripts for publication. At that stage in the process, most of us respond to suggestions as our students do. We change what we can't avoid changing.

The reason is that from the writer's perspective, writing "sets up" at some point in the process, like concrete. Beyond that point, when language and thought have lost malleability, extensive changes require something on the order of dynamite. Delaying this point of solidification, most experienced writers reconsider and revise their work extensively before they submit a complete draft.

Student writing, by contrast, tends to set up almost at the moment it hits the page, as a linear sequence of words and sentences. "It's exactly like building a wall," a Cornell freshman said, explaining why he does not revise. "You can't take anything out once you've put it in. I think that each sentence is something I really wanted to express, and just to take it out is like. . .like breaking the wall down."

First thoughts thus become last thoughts, and second thoughts seem destructive.

What can we do?

Because there are two kinds of revision, effective strategies in WIM courses have taken two directions:
1. Before Completion of a Draft

If students avoid revising first drafts (and first thoughts) because their writing sets up too quickly, we can assign delays: stages of thinking and rethinking, writing and rewriting, that postpone the completion of a draft. The writing students produce in these early stages must be explicitly informal, unfinished, expendable.

• Many teachers have used "reflective journals" in their courses to stimulate thought about lectures and readings or to generate discussion. These journals often contain ideas more interesting and complex than the ones students produce when they sit down to think up a paper topic.
• E-mail discussion lists can serve the same purpose if you require participation in these discussions. Otherwise they tend to remain empty.
• Assign proposals of no more than one page and respond to these rather than to completed drafts. Peer reviews and oral presentations often work best at this stage as well, because other students are more likely to offer reconstructive advice at early stages of work in progress, when criticism seems helpful rather than damaging.
• Ask students to turn in only the beginning of a paper, the first page or two--just enough to show you the approach and direction. Students are much more likely to reformulate an approach, even to throw it away and start over, before they have carried it to completion.
• In these early stages, have them write about their writing, in or outside class. Ask them to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the approach they have taken, and to suggest improvements. Writing about what they have written will both stimulate and validate revision.

2. After Completion of a Draft

If you want students to rewrite completed drafts, not just to correct them, you need to get the draft disassembled, open to reconstruction, in the mind of the writer. And if you want to avoid supplying most of the energy for that reconstruction, you should refrain from being too helpful.
• Before students hand in drafts, ask them to explain in writing what they think is working or not working, and what they would like to change in the next version. You can often respond more efficiently to their perceptions, and they will be following their own advice, not just yours.
• In response to your comments or to peer review, a written statement of the writer's intentions for revision can serve as a contract and yields more substantial change. For this purpose, some teachers have used the professional convention of a letter to the editor following manuscript reviews.
• If you want substantial revision, limit your own comments to the big issues. Questions that undermine the structure or point out missing perspectives are often the most effective. Avoid making minor corrections that invite cosmetic changes to passages you want students to rewrite.