Writing instruction is difficult and complex with lack of student revision being one of the most challenging areas for teachers. Here, we describe two main reasons why students fail to revise their writing.
1. Students think that revising is synonymous with proofreading.
Students often feel that correct means you are done. As they are typing a paper, they are satisfied with their writing as soon as the word processor shows no squiggly underlines. This signifies to them that what they have written is correct and therefore good. After all, correct is good in math. In our rush as teachers to promote the writing process model we have accepted any corrections made to a draft as revising. We would do students a service by explaining to them that revising involves changing the structure of writing to meet a desired effect. For example, the piece might need more varied sentence lengths or varied sentence beginnings or varied sentence structures. Revising cannot be done to a single sentence. Rather, it is the process in which sentences and paragraphs are enhanced with relationship to each other. Proofreading, on the other hand, is generally a sentence by sentence process.
Writing Process = brainstorm draft revise proofread publish
2. Students don’t know how to craft language.
A lot of the red-ink on papers gives the students some vague idea that something is wrong but no clear way to fix that. For example, a red-ink comment might tersely exhort the student to revise for greater sentence variety. What to do? Can the student move the subjects around in sentences to create variety? Can the student apply subordination and coordination of clauses to create variety? Can the student add various phrases to the beginning of sentences to create variety? Has the student practiced language gymnastics enough to be able to readily apply any of these strategies without consulting a textbook? Typically, we teach these grammar topics as separate from writing when instead they are the necessary tools for students to actually revise their writing. If we could teach these language gymnastics before putting red-ink on the essay (as math teachers teach arithmetic before both moving on to algebra), we will have given students the tools to revise their essays. Most importantly, we will have given them the tools to write and revise successfully on their own. One of my favorite authors, Elizabeth George, said, “I find it both fascinating and disconcerting when I discover yet another person who believes writing can’t be taught. Frankly, I don’t understand this point of view.”
In conclusion, we can move students beyond proofreading to revising by approaching language as a craft. Teachers often dismiss writing instruction by saying that good readers are good writers. Therefore, if I just redouble my efforts in reading, my students will in turn write well. Another common cliché is that students are either natural writers or they are not. The idea is that those with talent can take their writing from correct to good, but those without talent will be stuck at correct. There is no good fairy of writing who bestows gifts on a cherished few readers. Instead there is practice with the tools of language which leads to becoming an artisan who can make language into something beautiful and useful.