Professional writers all understand from experience that writing is a process that takes time, that writing is inherently linked to the process of thinking through a complex subject matter, and that the first version of an essay will most likely bear only scant resemblance to the final project. Most of our students do not know this. What they consider revision is in fact mere editing; the last steps of the writing process. Usually students will read through their papers, run a spell check, check for grammar, and then tend to think of these activities as revising their essay. To foster papers driven by original thinking, critical analysis, and inspiring writing, it might prove fruitful to encourage students to work with a process of revision and not merely to discourage doing only last minute proof reading. In order to do this, it is important that students truly understand the function and process of revision.

Because most students have been taught to write in a very linear fashion – think, research, think, then write – they do not use writing as a tool for exploration of their own ideas, and they tend to believe that one simply sits down and types out a complete and coherent essay overnight. As their professors we know that this is not the case. Our students essentially need a re-education in terms of how to think through writing, and they need to be told that the academic writing process is never linear, but instead a process of exploring what you believe and think you might know. All this process writing however is often what our students believe to count as their final essay. This also explains the sometimes rigid and unproductive way some student writers incorporate sources into their work. In a writing process that allows for revision much of this can helped. However, for students to be able to truly undertake a process of revisions, it is necessary to make room in the syllabus for their writing process to unfold. We might often blame bad time management for our students’ inability to revise in a productive fashion, but very often their bad habits can be changed by simply implementing several writing phases into the class design, thereby breaking their process into different projects that will eventually lead them to a better paper and, by extension, a better understanding of the subject matter.

To make our students better at doing revision we need to emphasize the need for them to write while they think or even, radically, before they think. They need to understand the necessity of writing as process before they can understand it as a product intended for a reader. It is not that we want them to hand in unfinished papers of process writing in the end, but we do want them to engage with their ideas through writing. Assuming that they will need a thesis statement, a central claim, a solid question for exploration, whatever we call the core idea of their paper, it will be easier to achieve a complex, yet doable, thesis by first writing about what they might want to say. After they have had the chance to revise their ideas, their thesis, and the logic of their argument they are ready to start revising the narrative through which they convince their reader of the soundness of their idea. Below are some ideas for how to encourage such a revision:

  • Make time for revision in the course design. Students need to know that revision is expected of them and that their professor wants them to work with their own thinking. An instructor might stress that though a given writing exercise is not necessarily graded it will of course influence their final product and thus their grade in the class.
  • Consider having a CUNY Writing Fellow come to you class to conduct a workshop on revision techniques. Also, it is a productive strategy to point weaker students toward the right help, such as the Queens College Writing Center, early in the semester so that the student will get help prior to serious revision.
  • As mentioned previously on this site modeling is a powerful tool. If it is possible for the instructor to share parts of a work in progress it is an excellent way of proving that revision is the norm, that no writing comes out perfect at first try. Bringing in a finished article and an early draft for comparison by the students can be a powerful expression of the power of working with revision. This can obviously also be done with a good paper from a previous class, but students relate to seeing that their professors, though on higher level, are struggling writers as well.
  • Peer review is an excellent method for getting students to work on revision (see Peer Evaluation). Students will often learn a lot about their ideas (and their formulation thereof) by having to explain them to their fellow students. Just like professional academics depend on their peers and colleagues to read, listen, and comment on their work, students will benefit from doing so as well in a structured setting.
  • Ask you students to keep a portfolio of their work. Every draft, every little assignment, every revised draft, every journal page, every version of writing produced or handed in should be handed in with the final version of the paper. This will make it clear to the students that revision indeed matters and that their progress can be traced. It is a good idea to encourage the students to use their collection of writing as a road map. If they feel stuck at a particular point they can go over their previous writing and scavenge for ideas. Maybe something they threw out in March will prove helpful in May. This also creates a history of accountability preventing most students from even attempting plagiarizing.
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