Meaningful Revision in Five Days

Tara Smith of Two Writing Teachers once posed the idea of an in-between study, a study that occurs during the brief pause at the end of one unit and the beginning of another. In the middle of December, I found myself with an extra week before exams began — not quite enough time to start something new before seeing students off for the holiday.

I had been looking for a way to teach revision meaningfully — not as a series of single lessons at the end of each unit that often felt rushed and last-minute — but as a true unit of study that would allow students to explore different revision techniques and experience the power of transformation. At the time, students were working on assembling midterm writing portfolios, so it seemed a perfect opportunity for a mini unit on revision.

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Image by Nic McPhee via Flicker

With a few essential questions to guide us and writing portfolios as the culminating goal, we dove into a brief but powerful unit of study that lasted five days, bringing us right up to the first day of exams. Below I give a brief description of the mini-lessons I taught during this week, the outcomes of the unit, and a few student reflections.

Essential Questions for a Revision Study

  1. How do writers know when to revise?
  2. What revision tools do writers use?
  3. Does revision always make a piece better?
  4. How can revision help a writer get closer to their meaning?

*A note about materials

The week before exams, wherever I turned, I walked into an exploding backpack. Students’ bags were overflowing with binders, review sheets, laptop computers. I wanted to simplify their working conditions during this unit and was inspired by an idea I learned at NCTE from Jackie Catcher of Three Teachers Talk. Jackie presented the idea of a Survival Book Kit to help students come prepared for Reader’s Workshop. The idea is simple: on reading workshop days, students bring their kits (a Ziploc bag filled with their book, post-its, a book mark, a thumb drive, and a pen/highlighter). Not only does the book kit protect the book from rain and exploding backpacks, it also keeps everything a reader needs at his fingertips. I adapted this idea for our revision unit:

Revision Kit

  • 1 gallon-sized Ziploc
  • 2-3 different colored highlighters
  • 1 pencil or pen
  • 1-2 copies of your draft, printed out
  • post-its
  • Writer’s Notebook
Revision Kit
Revision Kit


A few of my students took the suggestion and toted their revision packs to and from class for five days. Next year I think I will organize a class-wide assembly of these bags. It was really nice to take a break from the laptops for a few days!

Five Writing Lessons: A Summary

Lesson #1 — What is revision?

To introduce the concept of revision, I used Kelly Gallagher’s lesson on STAR found in his book Teaching Adolescent Writers. Students brainstormed the different things that writers might do when they substitute, takeout, add, and remove. We plotted our ideas on a chart which anchored instruction in the coming days. In the second part of the lesson, I used Gallagher’s Pimp My Ride metaphor to teach the difference between surface revision and deep revision. We highlighted those moves on the STAR chart that represented surface revision and those that meant deep revision in a different color. I showed examples of both kinds of revision using old student work (befores and afters). To close class, I prompted students to revisit their writing from the semester and choose one piece they thought would benefit from both kinds of revision.

Lesson #2 — How to Revise for Ideas

The study continued with two lessons on different kinds of deep revision. I emphasized that writers begin with deep revision because it doesn’t make sense to nitpick over words and conventions the writer may eventually substitute or remove altogether. The purpose of this lesson was to help students identify the heart of their piece through a variety of exercises, and then help them draw out that central idea through elaboration (or in some cases, compression). One technique students loved was triple-spacing their drafts and writing in between each line to flesh out their thinking.

Lesson #3 — How to Revise for Structure — In this lesson we explored the overall structure of a piece as well as sentence structure. I would have liked to have divided this lesson into two parts — revising for organization and revising for sentence structure — but we were short on time. The benefit of discussing structure holistically is that students are able to see the different levels of structure within a piece. I used old student work to showcase different possibilities. One technique students loved was cutting up their writing and moving the various pieces around on their desks to seek alternate methods of organizing their ideas.

Hannah experiments with the structure of her poem


Lesson #4 — How to Revise for Word Choice

Our first foray into surface level revision, students were asked to write about the purpose behind their piece and consider whether the words they had chosen to express their ideas were appropriate, specific, and effective. This lesson presented an opportunity to review denotation and connotation, as well as teach students how to use a thesaurus.

Lesson #5 — How to Revise for Conventions

First I shared a tweet from Susan Orlean in which she states the importance of reading out loud. We made a list of all the things reading out loud might help a writer do — from spotting typos to sounding more like him or herself. Students paired up to read their work to a partner. We worked closely with our individual editing checksheets as we proofread for errors.

In the end, I think my students benefited more from the revision study than the single lessons on revision that I present at the end of each study.  Now they are better able to articulate the difference between editing and revision, and they can point to examples of both in their writing. The invitation to return to any piece of writing from the semester meant that they could choose a piece of writing from which they had some distance, enabling them to see their growth as well as revisit the writing with a fresh perspective. The sequence of moving from deep revision to surface revision gave students a bundle of tools they could use together or separately depending on the writing situation.

At the end of the unit, I asked students to reflect on the revision process. Here are some of their responses:

Going back to this review made me think that I could make it more intriguing and compelling to the reader. I could have revised my memoir because it was on golf, but I felt like this was a piece I could improve and make it stand out more than it was when I first wrote it. What I thought about when I revised was trying to organize the paragraphs and not having multiple topics per paragraph. I also added a few things to some of the paragraphs by thinking how it could relate to what I’ve written already, and using description in a couple of phrases. I worked on taking out unnecessary information in paragraphs and putting in things I thought were helpful to the paragraph. I thought about revising and trying to make the sound of the piece better so the reader would enjoy reading about my experience. — Grayson, Grade 9

I chose a poem to re-do and make better. I tried some new things and I used some other poems as a guide. I changed some of my word choice and I definitely changed the format…I put my own spin on the format. I think it turned out really well, so I am really excited for Ms. M to read it. Hannah, Grade 8

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Excerpt from Hannah’s first draft
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Excerpt from Hannah’s draft after lesson on revising for structure and work with a mentor text

In my [restaurant] review, I needed to make my transitions stronger and maybe rearrange some paragraphsI focused on rearranging paragraphs and making them stronger. One main thing I changed was I mixed around the order so instead of saying the “downsides” casual aspect first, I talked about the food. If I was reading I review, I think I would want to hear about food first to draw me in. I also tried to describe the taste of the food in a little more depth. Ravenel, Grade 9

Do you teach revision as single lessons or as a whole unit? What revision techniques do your students benefit from most? How much time do you spend teaching revision? We’d love to hear from you! Please tweet us @allisonmarchett or @rebekahodell1 or reply in the Comments section below.


  1. Oh my goodness! What great stuff! In a similar spirit to your post here, I am working on how to integrate regular, low-stakes revision into my students week so that they can develop “muscle memory” with this part of the writing process. When they get to the big complex stuff, like a multi-page academic essay, they will have revision down pat and will be mentally freed up to devote their attention to the complexity in the moves of academic writing.

    I love the kit. That is brilliant! Imagine what you could unlock if you did these kinds of lessons all year long instead of between units. How can you work them into a weekly, or bi-weekly, rotation on small pieces of informal writing?

  2. Thanks for a great post. I just blogged about this idea – the need for teachers to create time and space for process writing. To me, the heart of process writing is revision. If we don’t honor it in our classrooms, then our students will only focus on product, or in just getting it done. Here’s my blog

    1. Thanks, Laurie! I appreciated your post as well. I especially love the Matisse quote you provide as a framework for thinking about how we might make time and space for writers to create. Best wishes on a speedy recovery!

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