Is There a Way to Teach Revision?

Last week, one of the grad students in my pedagogy class, Kara Sheridan, said this in response to my piece “Writing Process and Teaching Process”:

I think that what I’m struggling with the most after reading “Writing Process and Teaching Process” is this: “teaching, for me, is teaching revision.” I understand your meaning, having been in one of your workshopping classes, but I also know that much of revision takes place within one’s own mind, away from the suggestions of the class, focusing on the areas that the teacher has pointed out as problematic but has not suggested solutions for. Because of this, I’m wondering if there really is a way to teach revision in a satisfactory way, which, to me, means to allow the student to revise their own pieces without a teacher.

If writing is really the process of revision, and the majority of the time, revision takes place with just the student and their paper, at home and away from the teacher, how are we teaching them revision? What is the process of teaching revision . . . beyond just commenting on a paper and assuming that they understand what to do with those comments? What can I do in class that makes them understand what to do with those comments?

This is a crucial question, and I think it’s one that tends to get ignored. In my own teaching, I think there is plenty of “assuming that they understand what to do with those comments.” Or if I don’t assume that, my thought process tends to be that giving the comments is my job and working with them is the student’s job. But Kara is right to ask if that’s the best we can do.

My comments do tend to, as Kara said, raise issues without giving solutions. I try to ask questions or to point to problematic areas, as well as affirming strengths, but much of the time I don’t offer a procedure for revising the problematic part.

Why not? And should I?

Sometimes I don’t offer a solution because it would constitute telling the student what to write. The question or problem has to do with the content, the argument, the ideas, the substance of what the student is working on, and it’s not my role to tell them what the substance of it should be. I feel my role is to take the Reader position and say, “I’m having trouble with this because, the way it looks to me, there’s an inherent contradiction [or whatever] . . .” In other words, I’m saying to the writer “Here is what you communicated to me, and when I thought about it in good faith, I had difficulty for the following reason. Can you say this in some way that will help a reader deal with that difficulty?” (There is also the possibility that the writer will feel that is exactly the difficulty she wanted the reader to have. Which may be perfectly valid as long as she communicates that that’s what she means.)

The above doesn’t just apply to idea-driven pieces or the logic of arguments; in fiction, there could be unclarity in the action, mystification about the motivation of a character, etc. – all sorts of problems that have to do with the substance of a story being told. Again, it isn’t up to me to tell the writer what the story should be.

In either case, I do sometimes skate closer to saying “write it this way” when I talk about what I think the story is trying to be or what I think the paper is trying to say, based on evidence in the existing draft. I sincerely don’t believe I am necessarily right about these things, and I know the student often won’t agree with me. This is okay. I’m very averse to writing a “do it this way” cookbook for the student, because to me that constitutes taking over her paper, and completely defeats the purpose, which is, as Kara said, to leave the student able to write better when I’m no longer around.

Nonetheless, the fundamental question doesn’t go away: can we teach the student anything about how to work with the feedback we give?

There is a kind of feedback that I think does do this: feedback that teaches principles of technique. Basically feedback of this kind says “Here, in your piece, is a situation of a certain kind that often occurs. The technique issue in situations of this kind is X; the way you resolve it is Y.”

Here’s an example, from the fiction class I’m teaching right now:

I feel that you’re underlining the same emotions repeatedly [this is a kind of narrative situation, and what follows are statements of principles that apply in such situations], and when you do this a law of diminishing returns sets in. Understating it slightly, or being frugal with words describing emotions, can be more powerful. It’s always best if people can perform their emotions, as opposed to the narrator telling the reader what they are. This kind of thing [Now I quote the writer’s words back to her, implicitly saying two things. One, she’s already doing it in a desirable way some of the time, and two, therefore she could do it more of the time]:

He turned around and found Lilly leaning against the doorway, tears rolling down her cheeks. He didn’t move.

“I was married once,” Lilly said quietly.

“You don’t have to do this,” Alec said, but Lilly held up her hand to stay his words. [Kalie Wilkerson]

The fact is, however, that I had to search for a while to find such a clear example of articulating a principle among my comments. They tend to be more local, more responding to specific passages, than about generalizable technique advice.

When writing teachers imagine their work on some ideal plane, they might aspire to do all their commenting in the following way: identify technique issues in students’ writing, then give them reliable, durable principles of technique that will enable them to deal with each issue successfully in all future writing. I know I used to aspire to this. But after 30+ years of teaching writing, I don’t think it can work that way. There will always be very local, particular, context-specific things that are needing some response from me. Only in a minority of cases will I be able to give my feedback in terms of generalizable principles of writing technique.

And if I could comment in terms of such principles all the time, and only gave such comments, I would long since have gotten bored to death with teaching writing. I’d feel as though I was simply articulating the same principles over and over again. It’s the individual, particular, relational aspect of the commenting that makes it interesting.


          But maybe this is all addressing the question on too high a level. Before everything else about revision, students must learn to revise at all. Even the least little bit.

In the immortal words of one of my students, revision is an attitude toward writing. That attitude is not easily or automatically acquired.

I suspect that the very first notion of revision students acquire in school is “fixing the problems the teacher points out,” and at the beginning those problems are on a very concrete level: correcting spelling, for example. Putting periods at the ends of sentences and capital letters at the beginnings. We can teach kids rules about most of these things (except maybe spelling) that tell them how to fix the problems.

As time goes by, the problems the teacher points out come to be on a more abstract level. For example, in my pedagogy class we looked at some 9th grade papers about Of Mice and Men, and we all wanted to point out how there wasn’t enough use of evidence or the evidence chosen wasn’t very convincing. And clearly the teacher wanted his assignment to address that issue, because his handout to the students said, “This assignment allows students to interact with the text and practice using textual evidence in support of their opinions.” Again, we can teach, if not rules, then ways to think about use of evidence. (Is this quotation relevant? How does it relate to what I’m asserting? etc.)

So a way to describe the progression would be to say that the issues being pointed out get more and more sophisticated, and we keep teaching more ways to think about those issues. Probably that never stops. For example, if you and I, dear reader, were in graduate school in philosophy, we’d know all sorts of highly sophisticated ways to think about making arguments, and the kinds of problems that could be pointed out in an argument might not even be understandable, or might not matter, to a non-philosopher.

At the same time something else is going on, and this is where the attitude comes in. I think the other crucial issue is the student having ownership of their own writing. I don’t think ownership is something that develops late, I think it’s there from the start. You can ask a first-grader to write you a story, and though he may “write” it by dictating it to you, it’s his story. The issue, it seems to me, is keeping on having that kind of ownership while writing the kind of writing that is right for the context you’re in. (It could be anything: a novel, a term paper, a journal article, a letter to the editor.) This is taking me back to where I was before: I don’t want to give feedback in which I take over the paper. The student has to own it, and this is why I can’t tell her what the substance should be.

As part of this ownership, the student has to own revision. In the end, if all this educational process works, it cannot be a case of “I revise because the teacher requires it,” and it cannot be “I revise because the teacher allows me to improve my grade” – a deadly attitude that teachers often encourage without realizing the damage they’re doing. If the student achieves a mature relationship with writing, it has to be “I revise because this is my work and I’m making it as good as I can.”

Phew! I think finally I may have begun to address what Kara was asking.

So, following this thought where it takes me, because my goal is for the student to own revision, this may indeed mean that I can’t tell her everything about how to go about it.

What can I do in class?

First off, I can start a conversation about revision, or more broadly, about writing process. I often have students write something informal about their writing process, then share and talk about their thoughts. If they haven’t taken a writing class in a while, they often haven’t thought much about their process, and just putting it in the spotlight of awareness is constructive. Often they find that other people go about it differently from the way they do, which can be something of a revelation. It can open up possibilities. It may not work to say “Revision is done like this,” but it may work to say “Revision is done in many ways, including . . .”

I think it’s helpful to ask students what kind of feedback they find useful, and to follow up, when they describe some helpful feedback, by asking why it’s useful, or what they do with it.

One fundamental key to all this, to teaching itself, is that everything doesn’t come from the teacher. Some of what creates the learning comes from the students, and one has to rely on this and make room for it to happen. I actually can’t emphasize this enough. If you see teaching as trying to zap some life into a passive lump of dough, it will appear hopeless and impossible. It may be hard, but it isn’t that hard. To some extent, your helplessness – in that you cannot possibly do the thinking and learning for the student – is also a psychic lifesaver, because you cannot be responsible for doing the impossible.

Back to what I can do in class. When a student has revised something in a successful way, I could copy the before and after versions (maybe just an excerpt, to make it manageable in size), show them to the class, ask the writer what process she went through to get there.

I could ask people (and often do) what their big issues are with the thing they’re writing, and then if there’s an issue most of them have in common (there often is), I can start a conversation about that. And this would be a point where principles of writing technique could come into play, because we’d now be talking about a writing situation that recurs over and over in many people’s writing. For example: the challenge of writing the ending.

I pretty often give exercises that address points of technique I believe will come up in students’ writing. Then I can at least hope students will make use of whatever they internalize from these exercises while they’re revising, and I can remind them of what they’ve previously done.

I think there will always remain a part of this that we really can’t mess with directly. The student carries away with her a piece of feedback and sits down to work on her writing. Let’s say she reads my comment. It’s like a voice in her head. She hears this me-voice say something. How does she then have the next thought?

It seems to me that is in principle unknowable. I don’t know where ideas come from. I don’t believe I can teach a student to have a thought. I don’t believe I have to, either; people just have them.

Suppose I’m having a conference with the student and I give her some feedback face to face: “Right here in your story,” I say, pointing to a passage, “this gave me trouble. This part: [I read it aloud].”

Student: “I just don’t know how to say that differently.”

Me: “Well, do you see why it’s hard for me? The way I read it, it seems to say that [I tell her my understanding of the passage].”

Student: “Uh huh. [lengthy pause, during which I’m sure she can’t understand how I can be so dense] Yeah, but I still don’t know what else to put there.”

Me: “Okay, how about if you just tell me what this phrase means, right here. Just say it to me any way you can think of.”

Student: “Well, so, um, it’s like . . .” and then, not to belabor the point, she does eventually tell me in some new way what she means. Now, where did she get that new way of putting it into words? I have no idea. I CANNOT SUPPLY HER WITH AN ALGORITHM FOR HOW TO HAVE THAT THOUGHT.

It’s a social process, a relational process, it happens BETWEEN people, in the midst of their ongoing interaction.



You can download this as a Word document here: Is There a Way to Teach Revision?