Quick Tip Tuesday: Using revision effectively

April 13th, 2010

Revision is a key to strong writing, yet many students are often reluctant to revise their work. “They may honestly like what they have written in the first draft, or they do not want to spend the time to go back and look at their own writing,” explains Mark Overmeyer in his book, When Writing Workshop Isn’t Working: Answers to Ten Tough Questions Grades 2-5. Mark suggests showing students the difference between revising and editing and modeling revision to turn it into a positive part of the writing process.

Separate revision from editing for mechanics

In order to help students separate editing from revision, we must show them the difference. Modeling the practice of revision is a way to make the experience more concrete for students, and also to show them the rewards of revising. If they associate revision with something negative, or something they must go back and do, then it will be less appealing.

I think that one of the problems we bring as teachers of writing is our own baggage. As a teacher who truly loves to read, and who wants to instill a love of reading and literature in my students, I would never share negative experiences about reading. I would never introduce a book and say, “I hated reading this when I was your age, and now it is your turn!” This sounds extreme, but when I think about this type of scenario in the context of writing instruction, I do not know how extreme it is.

How often do we share positive experiences about writing with our students? I remember many occasions when I told students about my strict English teachers in high school, long before computers, when I had to carefully type and retype draft after draft until it was perfect. I have told stories of my teacher from high school who taught me to love literature, but who would automatically drop an entire letter grade from a paper if it contained the words “a lot” as one word.

Many of us, even those of us who love to teach writing, have ambiguous or even negative relationships with the revision process, so we must first convince ourselves, with our own writing, that revision need not be painful. The reverse, in fact, is true. If I assign something for my students to write, I begin by writing it myself. Two years ago, I worked on my own research alongside my fifth graders while they uncovered details about unsolved mysteries such as the Loch Ness monster, UFOs, and Stonehenge.

I studied the Mary Celeste, a ship whose crew mysteriously disappeared without a trace in the eighteenth century. I demonstrated how I chose important facts from my own reading about the ship, and I also modeled my writing. I brought in samples of my research, and as a class we would notice things about my writing and then make appropriate revisions accordingly. This modeling requires risk; writing and revising is messy business, so students saw me cross out old ideas and add new ones, and they watched as I drew arrows from words in the margins to the places they would fit into my writing. In short, they watched me struggle a bit, but they also saw me work through the struggle. Writing is about getting ideas on the page, and then knowing you can change your mind by adding, taking away, or rearranging. When students see us doing our own revisions, they can make choices about how to improve their own writing. Since my positive experiences with this modeling procedure two years ago, I have written every assignment I have asked my students to produce, and as part of my teaching I model how I revise these pieces.

As a first step to convincing my students that revising is important, I often convince them that it does not have to be difficult. One common instructional tool I use is to show a piece of my writing with weak verbs, and then ask students to help me change a few of the verbs so that they are stronger. Using model texts in context with memoir writing works well to serve this purpose. A memoir that has particularly strong verbs is Fireflies by Julie Brinckloe. In this first-person narrative, a young boy goes out to catch fireflies in jars with his friends. One page describes the fireflies blinking on and off while children in the neighborhood grasp at the fireflies and thrust them in jars. It is easy to act out this page, and point out to students that the actions are what make the piece memorable.

After reading this section of the book and discussing what we liked about the word choice, David Gonzales’ fifth-grade class helped me with my piece of writing. Here is my original version of my story about getting in trouble one day with my brother and my neighbors:

“My neighbors Tammy and Michael were out working in their yard, so my older brother Scott and I decided to help them. It was a really hot day. Michael, Tammy’s older brother, pulled a rose and threw it at his sister. Then she pulled a rose and threw it at Michael. My brother Scott pulled a rose and threw it at me. Then I pulled a rose and threw it at him. Pretty soon there were no roses left on the rose bush.”

The story goes on, with details about how we got in trouble for pulling all the roses off. Here is the revised paragraph, with suggestions from students to make my word choice stronger:

“My neighbors Tammy and Michael were out working in their yard, so my older brother Scott and I decided to help them. We were sweating from the heat. Michael, Tammy’s older brother, pulled a rose and threw it at his sister, and he cackled as hard as a hyena. Then she pulled a rose and threw it at Michael. My brother Scott hurled a rose at me. Then I pulled a rose and threw it at him. Pretty soon, we were shoving roses down each other’s shirts, having the time of our lives until Michael and Tammy’s mother came out and caught us.”

The students helped me revise this piece in less than five minutes, and when I asked them to revise their pieces, they were ready. The modeling had proved to them that revision does not mean recopying; rather, it means rethinking what has been written and making some new choices. When students understand the concept that showing writing is strong writing, they can more easily find ways to improve their own writing. When we show through our writing, we are taking the reader with us by creating sensory images, or by specifically naming with the use of strong verbs and nouns. If I give one generic piece of advice to students regarding how to improve their writing, it is about adding showing details. I discuss how I introduce students to showing writing through acting exercises in Chapter 3, and I repeat these types of exercises as needed to remind students about how important it is to show rather than tell.

This advice about showing is good for all levels of writers, and in all types of writing. In a research project, for example, showing writing might entail adding specific dates or names of places. Without these important details, the focus of the project is unclear. When writing a memoir, specific details including names of people and places are also important, and if the point is to make the reader feel part of the story, sensory images and the use of strong verbs are the details that make the reader relive the piece. When the technique of using showing writing is broken down into different categories, or a list of “Ways we can show in our writing,” it becomes a powerful tool for revising existing writing. In Neha Pall’s and Shannon Damm’s third-grade classrooms, the students had been writing about what they liked to do in their free time. The teachers had been working hard at helping students to add details to their writing.

When I asked students what they knew about good writing, the list they created was impressive:

Good writing

  • Has details
  • Helps the reader to see
  • Helps the reader to hear
  • Helps the reader to taste or smell
  • Helps the reader to feel
  • Uses similes
  • Describes
  • Shows instead of tells

Clearly, these students had a sense of what good writing was all about. After looking at the writing about free time, the teachers noticed a number of students overdoing it: they added strings of adjectives in cases where one would have served the purpose, or they used similes that did not fit the purpose of the writing. I created a piece of writing that displayed some of the same problems to see what the students would notice:

“In my free time, I love to go swimming! When I jump in the icy, cold, chilly, freezing water, I immediately cool off. Splash fights can be fun if you are careful. Sometimes when I splash my friends, the waves look like humongous tornadoes spinning lightning storms out of the sky, destroying the whole entire universe! The best part of swimming is going off the high dive. Many people are afraid of heights, but I’m not! As I climb the towering stairs, my heart beats with excitement because I know the best part of the day is coming soon. I stand at the edge of the diving board, looking down into the water. Everyone looks like tiny fish swimming around. When I jump, I go super-duper, crazy fast, zooming like a squirrel chasing acorns in a tree! Hot summer days are best when you can jump in a nearby, refreshing pool.”

I asked students if there were enough details. They agreed that I had enough details about what I liked to do in my free time. I asked them if I had too many details, and then gave them a few minutes to look at the writing again to see if I added unnecessary details to the writing. Volunteers came up and helped me improve the writing.

Jonathan crossed out “chilly” and “freezing.” When I asked him why, he said, “Because you don’t need all those words to show the water was cold.” Max crossed out “destroying the whole entire universe” because he said it didn’t make sense. Although many students liked the splashing waves being compared to tornadoes, Julie pointed out that tornadoes do not have anything to do with water. “You should say ‘whirlpool.’ Something with water.” The simile at the end of the piece, describing my speed going into the water as being “like a squirrel chasing acorns in a tree did not fit, Hailey said, because squirrels don’t need to chase acorns.

Acorns can’t run. She suggested “like a dog chasing a squirrel.” John suggested something in the water: “like a shark chasing a dolphin,” because the piece is about the water. I was impressed with how quickly the students could improve the writing, and told them so.

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday,Writing

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