Once upon a time in my third-grade classroom, I had an eight-foot pencil poster on my wall that listed the steps of the writing process from prewriting at the point to a publishing ferrule (the crimped metal band that connects pencil and eraser). About half-way down that pencil was the bold word “revising.” It came after drafting and before editing and it was not, shall we say, beloved in our classroom.
In my early years of teaching I wasn’t sure I had the right to tell students how to revise their writing; I believed that revising was very personal. While I still think that’s true today, I realize explicit teaching of revision fosters a writer’s ability to engage in the process in a personal way. Revising requires time and attention. As Jeff Anderson states in his book Mechanically Inclined, “Labels of the writing process are dead without daily action.” If I still had that pencil poster, I’d twist it into a spiral to represent the recursive process of writing and I’d tell students, “We are going to revise well and often and you are going to love it.”
My fifth-grade daughter Maya is a strong writer. As I was planning this article, I asked her if she liked revising. She shrugged, “Sort of.”
“Sort of?” I asked in surprise.
“Well,” she said, “Kids don’t really like to be told what to do and they often like their story just the way it is. Some kids want to get it over with and revision seems to take longer. And sometimes I worry if I change something it will ruin it.”
That sounds about right.
As a young writer, I would ask people to help me with my writing, but I felt irritated if they had any suggestions for improvement. It’s like the last line of Shel Silverstein’s poem, Tell Me:
“Tell me I’m perfect —
But tell me the truth.”
I’d also get feedback that I had no idea how to apply. Staring at the words for awhile, I’d try to will them to fix themselves.
“Revisenedit,” I’d curse.
Oh yes, that was the term for fixing up your writing: revisenedit. A German word to be sure.
The teacher would say to us, “When you are finished writing, be sure to ‘revise and edit’ your work to make it better.” Revisenedit!
Maybe it was sooner, but I remember in college finally understanding that they were two distinct steps. If I use the analogy of cleaning the house, revising is moving furniture to vacuum, sweeping and scrubbing the refrigerator where the maraschino cherry juice spilled. It is clearing the clutter off the counter (how does it multiply like that?) and taking out the garbage. Toilets too. Editing is walking around and dusting, putting out the nicer hand towels, adding a bouquet of tulips and making sure it looks presentable before the guests arrive.
Ruth Culham has a helpful definition in her book 6+1 Traits of Writing, “Revision means working with the idea until it is clear, organizing with a sense of order, selecting words that are accurate and specific to the topic, making sure our voice is appropriate for the audience, listening for the flow of the words and sentences, and changing them when the melody breaks down. But fixing spelling, using punctuation, writing upper and lowercase letters properly, using grammar correctly, and indenting in all the right places — that’s editing.”
Before and After Effect
I’m not a television watcher, but I pay enough attention to know about wildly popular shows like Extreme Makeover. Whether the show’s focus is weight, plastic surgery or home remodels for needy families, Americans are fascinated by the “Before and After Effect.” Oh, the drama in the build up to the Big Reveal; there’s the thin, smiling person standing in one leg of the old pants. Shock! Disbelief! She’s a new person! His house is unrecognizable! We love it.
In the spirit of extreme makeovers, I choose a writing sample that looks really bad without make-up and its hair done. Sometimes these are samples from other classes with names removed, sometimes they are samples from Six Trait materials, and sometimes I just make them up. I’ve found that over the years, I excel at creating writing that needs help. I read the sample aloud to the class and we begin with what the writer is doing well because there is something to celebrate in every paper.
Then I say, “We are going to give this writing a makeover.”
I place the sample on the overhead or under the document camera and grab a green vis-à-vis pen. Each student has their own copy of the same writing and sharp green pencil. Green is the color of new shoots pushing through the dirt; we aim to make this writing come to life. Another teacher-friend chose purple for her class because, she says, “Revision is a royal act.”
Together we talk about the message of the writer, crossing out words and sentences that don’t seem to fit. If the lead isn’t catchy or the conclusion isn’t satisfying, we rewrite them. When we find general words, we replace them with precise ones. We limit needless dialogue and choose a very purposeful exclamation or short exchange. Sometimes we find places where the writer is telling instead of showing, and we help there too.
As we work, I note the types of changes we are making on chart paper and connect them with the traits we have studied. Here is a sample from a fourth grade group I worked with:
|Crossed out sentences
that didn’t fit
Rewrote lead to make it catchier(Organization)
Took out words like ‘fun’ ‘things’ and ‘stuff’
Added description(Ideas and Word Choice)
Rewrote the conclusion(Organization)
Then I have a student read The Before and another reads The After and we exclaim in shock and disbelief. It doesn’t even sound like the same paper!
Here’s where Extreme Makeover can’t compete with teaching – the students take action by pulling out their writing folders. Mighty green pencils begin adding, deleting, and changing student writing. Like a scavenger hunt, they note the changes on post-its and they stick them under the categories we’ve created. If we’re lucky they create new categories of revisions.
The whole time I tell them, “Let’s just play with it and see what happens.” I praise, “Look at all that beautiful green on your papers.”
Over time and with guided practice, revision goes from a “have to” to a “get to.” It’s not a task where I ask, “Is there anything you need to revise?” It’s an expectation, “What are you thinking you might revise today?”
Results May Vary
Even after many minilessons with shared writing, guided practice and feedback, revisers are on a continuum. At the beginning they are much more likely to add than subtract. A girl once had this sentence: My dog is very brown, furry and likes to play. She added the word ‘cute.’ While we might not call this revision an extreme makeover, she showed a willingness to make a change to her writing. Another boy told me how he substituted a better word. He’d crossed through the word ‘big’ and added ‘huge’ above it. To him, the word ‘huge’ was more precise and more what he wanted to say. He’s writing as a real writer. I don’t get discouraged anymore about writers’ tendency to start with superficial revisions. Using a word from Brian Cambourne’s research into the conditions of learning, they are “approximating” — as learners, we stay in that zone for a time before we deepen our understanding.
With more practice, I’ll use examples like changing ‘big’ to ‘huge’ and I’ll pose the question, “Do those revisions give the effect we are looking for?” Because that’s what we do as writers. We get an idea and we put it down word after word. If we can, we put it aside for a day or maybe four, and then we read it again with new eyes. We notice that it’s not as clear as it was when we first wrote it, and so we work to improve it. Each day we show up to the page a little more confident, a bit more experienced, and a tad more trusting as we take up the green pencil . . . and we write.