Putting the End at the Beginning: Introducing Revision to Writers

Revision is typically something that comes at the end — at least for young writers who may not be aware of the ubiquity of revision throughout the writing process.

I want my students to understand that revision is important, and that it doesn’t have to be this huge, tear-inducing process. It can be simple. It can be regular. It can be awesome.

Here’s how I do it:

Have them write something

On the first day of our poetry study, I give students a bag of words from two poems I love: Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry” and Greg Orr’s “Adolescence.” Both poems are chock full of vivid verbs and concrete nouns — the kinds of words I want my students to use in their own work. I don’t tell them where the words come from (I save that for another day). In fact, I keep the instructions really vague:

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Google Presentation Slide for Poetry Activity

Students spend 10-15 minutes writing poems. Every single student — and I truly mean every student — loves this activity. They’re so focused you can hear the paper words sliding across the plastic composite desks.

In addition to getting students to revise, I use this activity for another reason: I want to learn more about my students’ prior knowledge of poetry, so I ask them to make a poem and tell me why it’s a poem. Their definitions, in addition to the mentor texts we study, help me shape minilessons for the next few weeks.

But any writing invitation will do. Consider using notebook time to help students generate some writing they can revise.

Invite students to make their writing a little bit better

The vagueness of the directions is key. “For next class, I’d like you to revise the poem you wrote in class today…please spend at least 15 minutes making it a little bit better.”

The hands go up. “Can we make it longer?” “Can we use any words now?” “Should we use bigger words?” “How long does it have to be?”

I let them ask all the questions…then say with a smile, “Just make it better. And show your changes in a different color so we can see your thinking on the page.”

That is the definition of revision I like best: a daily commitment to making your writing a little bit better. It’s clear and simple. This definition is not loaded with high expectations. It’s not leaking red pen. Daily practice means replacing weak words and searching for sharper images and adding punctuation for emphasis and reordering the paragraphs for flow and rewriting until you find the true meaning of your piece and … it means all of these things and more. With the constant but gentle press of revision on a piece of writing, we can discover the piece’s true meaning and potential. 

Invite students to share their revisions

The next day I invite students to share their revised poems — what they changed and why. First, they share with their writing groups (3-4 people).

Then I ask for volunteers to put their notebooks under the document camera to share with the whole class. My eighth graders always jump out of their seats at this invitation. My ninth graders look like I’ve asked them to share their deepest darkest secret in front of the entire group. (The difference one year can make!) So for the month of September and October, I offer my ninth graders extra credit to share their work under the camera. (My hope is that they’ll become so comfortable doing it during these first two months they won’t think twice come November…) I’ve always sort of been against extra credit, but in this case, it helps build community, trust, and confidence, so I hand it out in generous doses at the beginning of the year.

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Ask students what they’ve noticed about revision

We close the two-day lesson with a short whole-class discussion about what we’ve noticed. I use these questions to generate discussion:

  • What revision moves did people make?
  • What revision moves have you tried before? Which ones are new for you?
  • How did it feel to revise so soon after you had written a draft?
  • Why might writers benefit from revising continuously, throughout their process — rather than at the end?

I am working on compiling the talking points from the various discussions into a revision moves poster that will hang in the classroom for students to use while they write. I’m thinking of making a smaller version they can glue into their notebooks as well.

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Notes from a class discussion about revision

Invite them to write and revise again…and again…and again…

Students have now come to expect my 15 minute after-class* assignment: spend 15 (or sometimes 30) minutes making something you wrote better today. This is a typical after-class assignment several times a week. 

*Rebekah and I have committed ourselves to using the words “after class work” instead of “homework” to emphasize that writers don’t just write at home at night…they write all the time, and our students can too…on the ride to or from school, during study hall, at lunch, during morning break, at soccer practice (a little rehearsal in the mind for future writing projects never hurt, right coach?).

This is a very simple way to introduce revision to students…but I love that it comes from them, and I love that it’s not complicated. Does it need to be? Students whose papers have bled the red ink of teachers’ pens abhor revision. But it doesn’t have to be dreadful.  And I want my students to know this right away. 

I want them to have a chance to discover the power of revision for themselves — to discover how it can change the way they view their writing. The way they view themselves as writers. 

So I keep revision simple, and continue inviting it, until it comes to them as easily as sleep.
How do you introduce revision in your classroom? How do you encourage students to revise throughout the process, not just at the end?

~ Allison

Find me on Twitter @allisonmarchett

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