Blogstitute: The Messy Process of Talk and Revision

June 15th, 2015


Welcome! We are excited to kick of this year’s Blogstitute with Jeff Anderson and Debbie Dean, authors of the recent book Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond. In this post they discuss how to make the messy process of talking, writing, and revision, productive for students. Be sure to leave a comment or ask a question for chance to win 12 books at the end of the Blogstitute. You can also follow along or comment on Twitter using #blogstitute15.

Getting Messy with Talk and Reading and Writing and REVISION
By Jeff Anderson and Debbie Dean

Since talk is messy and interactive, so is our blog entry. We alternate in the dance of conversation:

revision-decisionsDEBBIE: When I was in first grade, I idolized my teacher. I wanted to be her. And I would imagine myself in her spot, calmly walking up and down the straight aisles between desks with little students all diligently (and happily, it seemed to me) writing between the solid and dotted lines on the paper. The only sound I remember was pencil scratching. I could look up as she walked slowly past my desk. She was smiling. She seemed never to have known stress in her life.

When I was in my own classroom, however, the picture wasn’t so tidy. There was noise—lots of talking—with some students at the computer and some with notebooks on the floor in the back corner. There were even a few outside in the hall, sitting on the floor with their backs against the wall, writing (they needed more quiet—and who could anticipate that the hallway was more quiet than the classroom?). There were students—surprise!—who weren’t writing at all. Some were staring out the windows (prewriting???) while others complained, and one or two just put their heads down on their desks for a while. And the thing was, although I felt like these days were sometimes very stressful, I was happy, too.

For the most part, my students were engaged in the messy aspects of writing—not all in the same spot at the same time, not all as heavily engaged as others (at least for the moment), and talking! Talking! Not writing in silence, without anyone to bounce ideas off. Actually talking about ideas or reading parts aloud, laughing or crying sometimes. No, this wasn’t the neat writing class I’d imagined, but it felt like we really were engaged in writing.

JEFF: Sometimes we feel guilty that our classrooms are so alive, that the writing process is so messy. But that’s how it works. If we want things done one way for one answer, then we need a worksheet. If we are going to steward our students into deep thinking and decision making—creating and modifying on their own—it’s going to get messy. Debbie and I acknowledge this in our new book, Revision Decisions (Stenhouse, 2014). Revising is not a straight line: it erases, retraces, and replaces as students muck about in real thinking about the effects of their choices.

Messiness is not a free-for-all, though it can look that way at times. We need reliable patterns of thought to get us started. For instance, I am sure my class would be quite messy and loud if at the beginning of the year I said, “Okay, now we’ve reached the revision stage of the writing process. Revise.”

No modeling, no instruction, and no place to start gets us a steaming pile of no revisions.

So, one thing Debbie did in Revision Decisions is to give teachers and students a starting place for intentional talk. First, we give examples of what writing looks like revised and not revised. We learn there are replicable moves successful writers make to revise. We teach the mnemonic DRAFT (first used in 2011’s 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know):

  • Delete unnecessary repetition
  • Rearrange words and phrases
  • Add connector punctuation, words, and phrases
  • Form new verb endings
  • Talk it out

Specific enough to do, broad enough to allow for play. And play is serious business. It needs a bit of structure and flexibility to stretch and grow.

DEBBIE: When Jeff and I started work on the book, we talked a lot about play—about how the elements of play are important to writing and developing writers. We read about play theory and thought about all the ways that play corresponds to writing. Think about it: children may start play with a general goal in mind, but they develop structures to the play as they go along, structures that make sense to the specific situation of the play. I was at the park with my grandson. The same square structure was a rocket for a while, then a train, and finally a restaurant where I was told to give him my “food order,” which he brought. We “ate” and then I “paid.” Isn’t writing a lot like that process? We start with an idea. We may discard it or adjust it, but once we find what we want to say, we modify the text, shape it to our needs and the situation. And talk is essential to this process, both in play and in writing. We need to try out our ideas.

When we were writing Revision Decisions, Jeff and I talked—a LOT. Sometimes online, sometimes on the phone, sometimes face-to-face. It was a lot like play—trying out ideas and seeing how far they would take us. Once we had settled on the general structure for the book, much of our talk followed the DRAFT device as we worked through our revisions. But we have an advantage: we have enough experience to know how to move among rearranging, deleting, adding, and forming. We can use these actions naturally because of that experience, but our students need scaffolding to learn these ways of talking.

By beginning with the patterns in the book, teachers can help students learn ways to talk productively about their writing. As Jeff said, this talk is intentional, not a free-for-all. In the same way that play develops as children gain experience (my grandson needed to have gone to restaurants to structure our play restaurant), students gain experience using the patterns of the book until their revision talk is natural. When students see the talk modeled and get to practice it, the patterns became their own—and then they can modify them to meet their own purposes and needs. And that’s exactly where we want them to be as writers: independent talkers and revisers.

JEFF: Yes, independence. Letting go, allowing fits and starts, good and bad, allowing for experimentation. For a thriving revising classroom, we let loose and let go of the idea that every revision will make writing better and that when it doesn’t make it better, we’ve failed. The truth is, if we are doing revision well, experimenting and risk taking, then it’s a sure thing we’ll mess it up from time to time. We have to allow the space for error and experimentation.

In this world of computers, I’ve had to learn to copy and paste the awkward passage I’m revising into a new document. That way, I can experiment, try anything, and if it works, I can copy and paste into the document. If I made a mucky horrible revision, then I still have my thought. Better yet, I can pull a Don Graves and rewrite the whole group of sentences again without looking at the original. There is no one way to revise, but we can give our students guideposts with things like DRAFT.

We model the guideposts and then we let the students play with words. That’s revision. Just like students get better at writing by writing, they get better at revision by revising. Helping students make decisions about revisions is our game. Revision Decisions is our name. I think I better stop now, but you continue the conversation wherever you are. Take a risk, play with sentences, and see where it takes you.



Entry Filed under: Blogstitute

37 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Joanne  |  June 15th, 2015 at 8:46 am

    I love the idea of comparing writing to play. It opens up so many possibilities and definitely makes talking essential.

  • 2. LeAnn  |  June 15th, 2015 at 9:17 am

    Writing is messy, but students don’t realize it unless the teacher is transparent when modeling. Too often the modeling has gone through revision before it ever gets to the kids. I love the DRAFT mnemonic! Let’s get more playing with words/ideas in classrooms.

  • 3. Kelly Holland Mazzoli  |  June 15th, 2015 at 9:19 am

    Ditto the idea of play being so crucial to teaching good writing, particularly to reluctant writers. This also applies to solid writers who lack confidence in their craft. This year, my kids were utterly bored by Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl until I stopped the train and had a frank talk with them. They said they were bored by Anne’s perspective and wondered what the others thought. That night, I assigned them the task of assuming the persona of another person hiding in the Annex and writing a twice weekly diary entry from that person’s perspective. The kids loved it and it became like a game. Their attention spans grew, their writing took off, and we are in the process of publishing their collective diaries written in various points of view. I believe that most of this is due to the fact that it seemed like play because even my good writers stopped worrying themselves to death over every little sentence and just allowed themselves to play with it.

    I also LOVE the notion of talking about writing with respect to patterns. This conjures up memories of my grandmother cutting fabric and pinning the pieces to those crepe-paper like dress patterns that she used to buy at the fabric store when I was a kid. I aLways thought it looked so fun, yet intimidating. “What if I were to cut the piece of fabric too small?” I’d worry. However, thinking about this now reminds me that it’s no big deal, especially with writing, because one can simply — and easily — fix it. I’d like to figure out practical ways to ;incorporate this into daily instruction. I’m thinking magnetic word/sentence strips for middle school?

  • 4. Julie Clay  |  June 15th, 2015 at 9:58 am

    From my experience as a student, the talking piece of writing and revising was often not present in instruction. Quiet classrooms were expected by principals, which diminished communication. I had to rely on the the comments in red ink from my teachers and my own decision-making. Over the years I have really tried to help students break the habit of just making corrections as suggested by me and really thinking about the process of writing and revising. I often advise my students to read their writing aloud especially to each others so they can hear their words. Even when I am writing or typing something, I will turn to my husband and say, “how does this sound?” In recent years I have experimented with recording my feedback and comments as I graded rough drafts and then emailing that audio to my students so they can listen with earbuds as they revise. Verbal communication seems tightly connected to constructing and revising writing, and I have found it is virtually impossible to do one without the other.

  • 5. Kelly Mogk  |  June 15th, 2015 at 11:29 am

    “No modeling, no instruction, and no place to start gets us a steaming pile of no revisions.”

    Preach! 🙂 I cannot soapbox enough about the importance of modeling in the classroom. I payed with DRAFT a bit this past year at my new school, and my 4th grade writers loved it. It’s an excellent tool!

    Life is messy. Writing looks messy in the classroom, but is such an excellent way to help young minds learn to think about their thinking. Somehow all that messiness leads to greatness, if we just keep at it. 🙂

  • 6. Bonnie  |  June 15th, 2015 at 11:57 am

    I also love this idea of writing as messy because when I was young I was so scared to write if I didn’t think it was perfect. There was no role modelling when was learning so now as an adult writer and a teacher of writers I love this idea of messy, reworking, revising. I also like that the Mnemonic draft. So helpful.

  • 7. Laura Wallin  |  June 15th, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    This made me feel so much better about my writing instruction. I always feel like the messiness is a failure on my part, when that is what to strive for! I try to scaffold so much, to help my students, when I can give them more freedom. I love the DRAFT acronym. I am definitely going to use it next year with my third graders!

  • 8. Laura  |  June 15th, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    Play can give young writers more ideas to write about. We don’t give enough time for play, talking, and thinking in general, in the classroom. We all get so tied to the schedule, we forget the learner, and what they need.

  • 9. Marion  |  June 15th, 2015 at 1:33 pm

    I believe students benefit from a visual (picture) in their mind of what they want to write about. I think it helps when they can see the complex narrative or expository writing they must do as a visual in their mind first. Thus, they can check to see if what they wrote truly reflects what they see or what they visualized. I think they do this in play, too. They “see” in their mind what they think they want to create. Of course, what they see can change if need be, but if what they see in their mind is not what they produce, they must recognize that it needs to be revised to reflect what THEY WANT to say.

  • 10. Diane Anderson  |  June 15th, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    I did some introductory mini-lessons from the book with sixth graders in the last weeks of school after I purchased and read the book. It was really successful, so I hope to use DRAFT more next school year.

  • 11. Val  |  June 15th, 2015 at 1:48 pm

    Revision is an area that I would like to improve in my teaching and working with primary writers. I appreciate Jeff’s statement, “Revising is not a straight line: it erases, retraces, and replaces as students muck about in real thinking about the effects of their choices.” I must remind myself to allow for both “error and experimentation”. Thank you for walking us through this process.

  • 12. Teresa  |  June 15th, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    The DRAFT method of revising is a good way for students to learn how to revise. I use modeling to show them what to do. This is an important step some people forget to do. Then, they practice and help each other. I’ve even required the students to get two or three students to help them. They focus on a short part of the text and/or one of the DRAFT skills to revise and work through it together. Thanks for the reminder that I need to reread the 10 Things book.

  • 13. Justin Greene  |  June 15th, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    Thanks for the great post. Writing is messy and i know that I need to push my students to take revising more seriously. Will definitely be using the DRAFT next year with my 6th graders. Students need to collaborate and talk to others about their writing more. I need to let them do this and make it happen.

  • 14. Pat  |  June 15th, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    Revision is such a key component to the process and we can guide students as they play and make choices as writers. We want writers to explore revision so that their voice comes through to the reader, leaving the reader moved. We can teach this by empowering students to make decisions with the help of other writers. With that, we can provide choice and give them permission to take chances and express their feelings through their writing.

  • 15. Christoper  |  June 15th, 2015 at 3:45 pm

    We stumbled over here by a different web address
    and thought I may as well check things out. I like what I see so now i am following you.
    Look forward to looking at your web page again.

  • 16. Lisa C  |  June 15th, 2015 at 4:59 pm

    Sometimes I long for a quiet, stress-free class organized into neat rows! This year my class has been full (FULL) of kids who work better when they are humming, or tapping, or just moving. It was hard to get used to but they need to make noise to concentrate!

  • 17. Maribeth Batcho  |  June 15th, 2015 at 6:58 pm

    My primary writers love to talk, but even more so when they write! This doesn’t seem to distract most of them, but it sure does distract me! I need quiet when I write so after modeling and talking and modeling, I send them on their way, only to pull them back together to talk and model and talk and wrtite some more!

  • 18. Susan  |  June 15th, 2015 at 7:07 pm

    “If we want things done one way for one answer, then we need a worksheet. If we are going to steward our students into deep thinking and decision making—creating and modifying on their own—it’s going to get messy.” –

    I appreciate so much about this post, but especially this quote. It’s in the messiness that real creativity and thoughts can emerge. And it really does begin with conversation…isn’t that what we do as teachers…talk out our ideas? Why would students not need the same opportunity.
    Thanks for a fantastic post! I’ll be sharing with my teachers!

  • 19. Kerry  |  June 15th, 2015 at 7:38 pm

    I love the comment about worksheets; in my first years of teaching, I thought my goal was to get each student to master the standards…the same, ONE way, which often included making dozens of worksheets! Luckily, I have learned a lot since then and I am still working on ways to create a writing workshop in class. My biggest struggle is that every student is working on something different, so it is hard for me to monitor 30 students at once and even move around my small classroom. I’m looking forward to reading this book- I need help with the process and would love to provide more opportunities for talk!

  • 20. Sarah Valingo  |  June 15th, 2015 at 9:02 pm

    Thank you for validating our messy and working classrooms! More and more I am seeing this sort of rhetoric about teaching and I hope that it continues. Those of us who have adopted a workshop format in out classrooms frequently struggle against adversity from many angles and we need the support! In my own classroom, I have started using Google Docs to expand the peer revision pool for my students. It works well, especially with students who are very insecure about their writing. They can share their writing with students who may be in other class periods whom they feel more comfortable with. All of the students are still getting the same core revision mini-lessons (many of which are from Jeff), so they can apply the same strategies and know the same language for learning.

  • 21. Hermie  |  June 15th, 2015 at 10:41 pm

    Yes, revision is key to developing good writing. If students are not taught how to revise their work they will not know how. Using the DRAFT strategy will certainly help students get a better grip on learning revision.

  • 22. jill schalet  |  June 15th, 2015 at 11:46 pm

    Thanks for those interesting thoughts.

  • 23. Lisa C  |  June 16th, 2015 at 5:04 am

    Sometimes I find myself wishing for a quite class, all organized in tidy rows, every student with a bowed head WORKING! Alas, that’s never the way it is. My class this year are noise makers. They hum, or drum, or buzz all day. In September and October, I was constantly trying to stop the noise. However, I came to understand that this was part of them thinking. They produce their own white noise. I’m moving with some of them to grade 4 next year and will dig deeper into revision. I think revision is very hard for Primary grade students because they worked so hard to get the first draft done. In my own writing, revision is where the magic happens and I want to help them see this.

  • 24. Anne  |  June 16th, 2015 at 10:11 pm

    I am excited to have the DRAFT strategy in my writer’s toolbox for working with my elementary writers! Thank you so much for sharing.

  • 25. Todd Richard  |  June 16th, 2015 at 10:26 pm

    My favorite part of this post is that revisions don’t always work. We fall in love with the idea that every time we sir down to revise we improve the piece. I often tell my students that this is the goal, that every draft should be better than the last, but it is equally important to be open to failure. In addition to modeling my successful revisions, I must also highlight my failures. Thank you for the post. I look forward to reading this book.

  • 26. Cheryl  |  June 17th, 2015 at 8:40 am

    I’m just getting ready to go back into the classroom after 10 years at home with my kids. I so appreciate the connection to play as I agree fully that it is the experiences that allow us to make connections and then go on to write about them. I love the DRAFT idea to help kids find and follow a purposeful pattern for revision! Thanks!

  • 27. Jennifer Fletcher  |  June 17th, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    This is a deeply reassuring message! So many students think if their writing doesn’t make sense in the early stages, they must be doing something wrong. When I conference with students, I tell them that feeling confused and overwhelmed is a sign that they’re appropriately challenged–and that we all feel that way when we start a big project. We want to start drafting with a big mess, not a blank screen.
    Thanks for a great post!

  • 28. Julie Bauer  |  June 17th, 2015 at 3:42 pm

    I love this!! I had been anticipating over the summer stripping down and rebuilding my writing instruction, so the timing here is perfect. The DRAFT model, combined with the power of peer collaboration through Google docs, has already put many of the pieces into place. Not only do I need to dig out (!) my 10 Things… book, but I also must purchase this text as well! Thank you both for your insights.

    As a side note, has anyone noticed how we all seem to STILL have to fight the unwritten expectation that straight, orderly, and quiet equals good while noisy, spread out, and interacting students equals bad…?

  • 29. Erika  |  June 18th, 2015 at 7:02 am

    Ack- revision is messy, for sure. I read about DRAFT last summer and then completely forgot to use it this year- hope I really do this year, as it is a great way to invite more revision. Writing partnerships have really helped my third graders and this format should raise the bar even more.

  • 30. Cara  |  June 19th, 2015 at 8:45 pm

    Ditto to the above comments. I agree that it is important to model and provide instruction for revision. Too many times students get the idea that any change=revision=better. I like the idea of showing students different ways that might work for revising. The “copy into a new document” idea is a great one.

  • 31. Maria Wadensten  |  June 19th, 2015 at 9:28 pm

    I’d love to learn more about the messy work of writing, so I can use it with my third graders.

  • 32. Dina  |  June 20th, 2015 at 8:52 pm

    So much food for thought. Is DRAFT doable for second graders?

  • 33. Tracy Mailloux  |  June 20th, 2015 at 10:44 pm

    Like many of the previous comments state, I am interested in the connection between play and writing. Play is a foundation for so much of our learning yet seems to be one of the first things pushed to the wayside. I’m always looking for ways to better incorporate the ideas of play into my teaching. I also appreciate what Jeff says about revision not always making it better, but having that opportunity to stretch and change a section is so valuable whether or not the author decides it works in that piece.

  • 34. Bernice  |  June 21st, 2015 at 6:52 am

    As a kindergarten teacher, I like to give students opportunities to talk and share ideas before putting anything down on paper. This sparks ideas and details in their picture stories. It is never quiet in the room, but the noise is full of excitement as students get to voice their thoughts ina safe environment.

  • 35. Rachelle  |  June 22nd, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    One of my goals this year is to be more intentional with using talk in the classroom and modeling how to have a discussion. I did this last year in reading and science, but hadn’t thought about how this applies to writing, too. I love how Jeff talks about when you revise, it doesn’t always work. I think it’s important to teach students that there is room to make mistakes and that the important thing is to try something new.

  • 36. Dan  |  June 27th, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    All these comments just get me thinking how important modeling is to the writing process. Too often, I think, teachers forget that we have been writing for a long period of time, so much of what we believe to be obvious is clearly not to them. Going forward, I need to make what I think is obvious, obvious to my students.

  • 37. Elisa Waingort  |  July 4th, 2015 at 10:33 am

    Revision is probably the most difficult aspect of writing for me and my students. This past year my school tried to get students to do most of their writing work on Google docs. While I love Google docs’ commenting capacity, students still had a difficult time reading and acting on feedback. Often, it felt like I was doing most of the work! The DRAFT technique seems like a good strategy to teach kids WITH LOTS of scaffolding, as you state above. Oh, oh! I think this means I may just have to purchase your book to find out more. 🙂

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