Teaching Revision in Freshman Composition Class Term Paper

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eager freshman English writer comes to the process of composition with many pre-conceived, previously successful methods for editing a first draft. A favorite teacher's well-intentioned message, a parent's unskilled assessment, or the student's own perceptions can stymie the editorial and revision process.

Not just another line item to be ticked off a list of 'to dos' when completing a well-crafted paper, revision is a key element to the desired end result of quality, thoughtful discussion, and scholarly dissection. Problematic, therefore, is overcoming several societal expectations of the writing craft -- i.e., doing it well, with structure and individuality.

Learning to properly revise in an English class can support scholarship in subjects from Calculus to Macular Biology. The revision process is not limited to the prosaic essay or doctoral dissertation; understanding how to communicate in a concise, clear, and well-thought out manner is important to a successful educational career.

Revision and Editing: Difficulties

When delivered from the driving need to write, the consummate act of creating with words is an act of existence. Trusting one's words will make a mark on the world, provide for one's legacy, and even provide for the writer's physical survival, writing can become a justification for a person's reason for living. When the process of revision is realized, the writer's ego is entangled with the writing.

Asking a paradoxically consumed writing student to revise large pieces of his work is tantamount to asking for a piece of one's flesh; a painful process. For the 'captive' student -- the writer who must write to pass the course or gain a degree -- participation is also painful. Once this student has produced work that would, at least on the surface, pass for decent writing, asking him or her to revise that Herculean effort is asking for their own pound of flesh.

Of great concern to educators and social engineers alike is the tendency for students to rehash old theory, revisit the great thinker's premise, and regurgitate another's thinking. The Yuva Halchal -- "Youth Commotion" -- project posits that "engaging in self-critique and reflection during the writing process is an important part. . . As is learning to give constructive feedback to others." In this program for Arab students in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, youth are encouraged to create their own space in a world where "life is made of people's stories; not atoms." Proper revision designed for efficacy, clarity, and scholarship affects these atoms throughout human existence.

The majority of students evaluated for form and methodology in revision technique pay attention only to form, sometimes known as Lower Order Concerns (LOCs), and focusing little to no time or effort on content, often referred to as Higher Order Concerns (HOCs). Admittedly, this may stem from the instructors expectation of how the work should appear -- i.e., structure, grammar, syntax, and so on. In a germane study of the teacher's ultimate influence and control -- and the subsequent effect on the student's editing process -- Robert P. Yagelski determined that a twelfth-grade advanced composition class focused 81.7% of revision work on surface and style changes and a mere 18.3% on content. His study continues by explaining the teacher's definition of 'good' writing -- as set by her own criterion -- and an emphasis on 'correctness' as the most critical factors in her assessment and ultimate acceptance of the work.

Another challenge to overcome when teaching effective editing methods is the misguided, yet pervasive, concept that editing is best applied to the introductory ideas usually found in the first paragraph. This truth is outlined in an article by Nancy Sommers' Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers. Ms. Sommers cities the truism that adults edit to "find[ing] the form of an argument and accommodate[ing] the audience" and students revise to "choose[ing] better words and eliminate[ing] repetition." Undoubtedly, the adult writer has the advantage of life-experience when learning to revise for the intended audience, yet this is a skill which will be useful to the student in many forms of their adult lives, and as such, should be taught with care and vision.

Proper editing and revision work demands time. Many writers excuse the lack of developmental revision work for lack of hours available to commit to the process. Partnered with the time commitment, self-motivation is mandatory if the student writer wishes to revise to instruct, entertain, and be understood. Self-discipline and motivation -- while desirous personal traits -- are often won at a high price; a value not every student is willing to pay.

Revision and Editing: Advantages

Revising one's work has numerous advantages: for the irrepressible writer, simply making the work stronger is reward in itself. For the young writer, the acceptance of peer groups, teachers, family systems, and other adult figures is tantamount to acceptance of themselves. Adults realize revising and editing's advantages through productivity, being understood, workplace kudos, and the like.

Revision affords the student with a personal level of enjoyment as they learn to hone the process of research and writing. Writing is a journey -- one which demands a sustained effort if done well -- and the opportunity for consistent and predictable training and guidance is a strong advantage.

An unheralded advantage to the revision process is one of learning self-discipline. A tool which cannot be undervalued, self-directed discipline -- a skill which editing one's own work demands -- will follow the student through a successful life. The student who revises to say what is important will invariably worry less about a pass / fail grade and focus more on the driving force behind the need to write and write well.

Revision and Editing: Realities

Peter F. Drucker -- a well-known and highly skilled business author -- calls the first draft of any work the 'zero draft'; the count begins at one with the second revision. In order to properly revise a piece of writing, students must learn to read; with their skills lain bare and an eye focused on clarity and meaning. To see their work as sacred, unable to dissect or eliminate favorite prose is to "underestimate the amount of rewriting it usually takes to produce spontaneous reading."

During the revision process, many students doubt their skills and purpose, thereby losing the sparkle which forced pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. A student must "survey his work critically, coolly, as though he were a stranger to it. He must be willing to prune, expertly and hard-heartedly."

Current Teaching Methods

The Craft of Revision by Donald M. Murray is a book written by a notable journalist who views the revision process as "the start of the process." He further argues that this belief in revision and editing is the hallmark of professional and craftsman, compared to amateur and journeyman. Having taught the art of revision to countless college students and journalists, Murray's fundamental premise is that a writer learns to write well by following the entire process through to completion; dreaming, writing, and multiple revisions.

Teaching methods for adept revision include the use of stimulating tools: pens with colors that don't scream 'stop', 'warning', or 'danger' as the timeworn use of the red pen or pencil by teachers and editors demonstrates. In an April 2002 Wall Street Journal article, Lucia Moses cites green as the best color for editing. In the psychology of color, green communicates confidence, success, and balance.

Pairing students with other writing participants is an effective tool for teaching proper revision technique. The student comes to recognize how their writing is perceived by another reader and, assuming the pairing is thoughtful, can be highly effective in the subtle instruction of other's approbation of concept, theory, and discourse.

Group critique is still being used in today's classrooms. When directed in a sensitive and constructive manner -- dissecting the work and not the writer -- the effect can be one of quality revision and rewriting. Done poorly, the writer may never believe enough in themselves to write again.

The mechanics of revision and editing continue to be taught today, despite empirical evidence that this is little more than a training ground for semantics and sentence structure. Concept and individuation rarely survive a solely mechanical treatment.

New Ideas

Florida State University, among other high schools and colleges around the country, is melding curriculum requirements -- i.e., Longman's Writer's Companion and measurable mechanical testing values -- with progressive and innovative ideas. Some of these ideas include: keeping 'editing journals' wherein the student is encouraged to rewrite editing rules in words they clearly understand; sessions designed to debunk myths (e.g., spellcheckers can be trusted), and creative ways to unearth mechanical errors to pave the way for greater development and creativity (e.g., read each sentence backward, read each paper once for each editing element, and so on).

Beginning with second and third graders, teachers are instructing boys and girls in keeping personal journals; teaching the process and invaluable skill of revision and editing even personal thoughts and writings.

Contests designed to eliminate…[continue]

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