Blogstitute: The Messy Process of Talk and Revision


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.



37 comments June 15th, 2015

Wrapping up the Revision Decisions blog tour

revision-decisionsI hope you had a chance to visit all of the blogs during our week-long blog tour talking about Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean’s new book, Revision Decisions! Today is your last chance to leave a comment on any of the blogs — including this one — for a chance to win a free copy of the book!

Here are some highlights from the tour:

The Two Writing Teachers

Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean have a new book that deals with revision in grades 4 – 10.  Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond is a professional book that will help students realize that reseeing, reformulating, redesigning, rethinking, recasting, reshaping, and retweaking isn’t so scary.  In fact it can be fun!  (Yes, I wrote FUN!)

Writing is messy.  As teachers we need to provide our students with opportunities to see our struggles as writers.  When students see us revise (i.e., rewriting, throwing out chunks of text, adding new parts), they’ll come to understand that revision is a natural part of the writing process.

Great writing usually doesn’t pour out in first drafts.  All writers need time and space to revise sentences, paragraphs, or whole pieces of writing multiple times to get it right.

The Reading Zone

Q: In a school system where standardized tests only value quick, rough drafts, how do teachers help students value revision?

Jeff: Great question. A few things come to mind. This same conundrum faces middle and elementary teachers as well as your high school students. First, when we revise often, our first drafts get better each time, right out of the chute. So, the playing with sentences we call for in Revision Decisions lessons, prime our writers best craft to the surface. In exploration and discovery of how sentences can be put together, young writers minds are opened to possibility. These possibilities eventually get applied (sometimes with our nudges). As the Writing Next report (2007) concludes sentence combining is a proven pedagogy for improving student writing in grades 4-12. So there’s that. But also most standardized writing test have a test on revision, editing, and grammar. To pick the best sentences, students need practice at this kind of evaluating, and this is just the kind of practice they’ll get in Revision Decision lessons.

Deborah: We’ve had quite a few teachers ask this question; there is so much concern about testing! But we both believe (and our work with student writers seems to show) that this kind of playing with sentences improves even students’ one-shot writing, which is often all they have time for on tests. After this kind of playing around with sentences and paragraphs, they have more ways of using language effectively stored in their heads, so they can use it spontaneously as well as in situations where they have time to revise and craft more carefully.

The Nerdy Book Club

When Jeff told me that he was working on a new book with the brilliant Deborah Dean, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. If these two thought leaders had something new to teach me, I wanted to learn. Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond pushes our thinking as Jeff and Deborah introduce a framework for teaching students how to revise. By framing and naming revision techniques in ways we can model and practice with students, Jeff and Deborah help teachers understand the revision process and move students forward as writers and thinkers.

Focusing on the importance of sentence combining as the foundation of good revision, Jeff and Deborah offer a framework that supports writers first, then their writing. Trust, practice, risk-taking, play—without these fundamentals it’s difficult to engage students with revision.

From this supportive foundation, Jeff and Deborah move teachers step-by-step through model lessons that show young writers how to examine mentor texts, reflect on techniques, and hone in on targeted changes that improve their own writing.

Rich with resources, Revision Decisions offers lesson sets, anchor charts, authentic sentence models from children’s authors like Sarah Albee and Albert Marrin, and conversations from students as they ask questions and learn to revise.

Digital Writing, Digital Teaching

Q: How do you balance teaching “revision decisions” with authentic pieces of student work against these constraining types of test questions? In what way are we able to have students transfer their knowledge of grammar from their “revision decisions” into the reality of test prep?

Jeff’s Response: The cool thing about the concrete acts modeled and experimented with in Revision Decisions is that they are based in a sound research-based instructional methods and help prepare kids for test. Sure, it will work best for critical thinking, revision, and sentence combining questions that students are sure to encounter. It’s not so much about editing; however, since we only use grammatically correct sentences to play with and combine, they are getting exposure to correct texts as they reformulate and revise.

Thinkers. That is what we want our students to be in our classroom, in the world, and even on tests. Thinkers. Thinkers evaluate what best communicates and idea, analyzing, testing it. This is all built into the lesson cycle or progression in Revision Decisions.

2 comments November 14th, 2014

Now Online: Revision Decisions

When students talk about their ideas for writing, they often exhibit spark, personality, and pizzazz, expressing interesting ideas fearlessly and creatively. Yet the writing they submit lacks this same enthusiasm and originality. They have the ideas, but what happens between that talk and the written draft?

Jeff Anderson and Debbie Dean provide a practical framework for smoothing the space between ideas and drafting in their new book, Revision Decisions. Starting at the sentence level, Jeff and Debbie show you how to create learning experiences where students discover and practice the many options available to them as writers.

The heart of the book is a series of ten lesson sets with printable handouts that will give your students a repertoire of revision techniques using elements such as serial commas, interrupters, and sentence branching. A key part of the lessons is talk—collaborating in small groups on revision decisions and developing a writer’s vocabulary in whole-class discussions.

Revision Decisions helps teachers engage their students in the tinkering, playing, and thinking that are essential to clarify and elevate writing. You can now preview Chapter 1, “Revision Decisions Are Possible: Actively Processing to Develop Options for Revision.”

Add comment September 15th, 2014

10 Questions for Jeff: Holding students accountable

Question 10: I believe it is extremely important to have students attend to conventions at every stage of the writing process but it’s hard for students and teachers to manage this.  What are some suggestions for holding students accountable for editing/conventions throughout the writing process instead of just at the editing stage?

Sarah Cordova

Jeff’s response: I agree that we should have students attend to conventions at every stage of the writing process and it can be tough to manage. Certainly, telling kids that all of their writing should be perfect at every stage would be counterproductive, but using what you know as you write is a good idea for making meaning. What we want is their attention to conventions. Not fear. Not worry.

To keep the conversation going and their attention piqued, I recommend using the invitational grammar and editing process described specifically in my book Everyday Editing (2007). In short, I display a mentor sentence that models a particular editing or grammar skill I want my students to know and use.

Let’s say I want students to use a comma after an introductory clause or phrase. I don’t start with definitions or rules. I start with a model or mentor sentence like these from Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants:

George and Harold were usually responsible kids. Whenever something bad happened,  George and Harold were usually responsible  (p.2)

If I want my students to attend to conventions and how they merge with the craft of writing, then I set up a bite-sized chunk of text like this to get the conversation started. According to neurologist David Eagleman, by having a conversation about anything we bring it to the brain’s conscious level of attention. This process is followed by imitation and some other invitations—more than I can put in a blog entry—but do check out Everyday Editing if this is a method you’d like to look at closely. It is the focus of the book.

Revisit Question 1
Revisit Question 2
Revisit Question 3
Revisit Question 4
Revisit Question 5
Revisit Question 6
Revisit Question 7
Revisit Question 8
Revisit Question 9

Add comment December 21st, 2012

10 Questions for Jeff: The pressure of high-stakes tests

Question 9: In my state, high school students must pass a high-stakes writing test in order to graduate.  I teach students with learning disabilities – and many speak English as a second language. Although many of my students pass, it’s heartbreaking to see so many others struggle. One former student failed the test so many times that she asked if there was such a thing as a “brain transplant.” She looked at me dejectedly and said, “I think I need a new one.”

It can feel overwhelming, trying to get high school students who read and write at an elementary school level to pass a high school level test. I know we shouldn’t have to “teach to the test” – but when you’re pressed for time, it feels like there’s no other option. What do you recommend for teachers of high-stakes writing tests? Which of your books I should focus on to give students maximum improvement in the shortest amount of time?


Jeff’s response: I think we all feel the pressures of high-stakes testing—both teachers and students. The students you ask about—ELLs and students with learning disabilities—often suffer more under high-stakes testing’s reign.  Whether we teach high school or elementary, it’s important that we hold fast to best practices in writing instruction. It is helpful for a teacher to understand what is tested and how, though this does not require us to “teach to the test” to help our students succeed. Out of fear, some teach to the test and ignore best instructional practice. Information on best practices can be found in the Writing Next report.

In addition, as a high school teacher, you may also be interested in what Judith Langer and colleagues found on how to get the best test scores. Surprise! Best practice. And the report shows how “test prep” often has a negative effect on scores.

My experiences working with the populations described do benefit from best practice.. If you are looking for ways to use models to teach writing in general—narrative, explanatory/informational, or argument—see 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know.  If you are looking for ways to improve grammar and editing skills, see Mechanically Inclined or Everyday Editing.

I do think there are many things we can do. Writing fluency is a huge concern. How much time are students spending doing the things writers do? That’s how they’ll become better writers. As teachers, we orchestrate an environment where writing behaviors happen. The amount of time students spend collecting, drafting, conferring, revising, editing, and publishing—writing—will directly correlate with how well they are able to do it.

Revisit Question 1
Revisit Question 2
Revisit Question 3
Revisit Question 4
Revisit Question 5
Revisit Question 6
Revisit Question 7
Revisit Question 8

Add comment December 20th, 2012

10 Questions for Jeff: Collecting great sentences

Question 8: In Everyday Editing, you show how valuable it is to share good quality sentences from good books. Can you offer suggestions or advice on how to collect these treasures? What works for you? Thank you in advance for the answer!


Jeff’s response: Collecting wonderful sentences is a joyful process that you most certainly want to involve your students in, no matter the age. To get started on collecting the treasures, I give you a trove of sentences and in all three of my books, as well as for free on the Great Sentence Blog you can find on my website, But I can see, you’ve caught the sentence-collecting bug.

First thing you need to know is what skills you want to have demonstrated through models in your classroom. Make a list on a bookmark or note card and keep it with you when you are reading. It’s better to have a list than to look for just one sentence pattern in one book. The list allows you to stumble upon the sentences rather than frantically search.

Besides using the models I provide, the second easiest thing to do is look at the leads of the books and articles you use. Check out first sentences or paragraphs of each chapter in a novel or article or essay. Writers spend so much time crafting them that there is often a treasure on the first page, ready to be plucked and studied with the invitational process.

Once you’ve modeled sharing sentence patterns with your kids, they start finding them in their reading and other classes and want to share them. Make this easy. The best thing I ever did was make some documents for different sentence patterns and have the kids type them in when they find them. Make your list and start today!

Revisit Question 1
Revisit Question 2
Revisit Question 3
Revisit Question 4
Revisit Question 5
Revisit Question 6
Revisit Question 7

Add comment December 19th, 2012

10 Questions for Jeff: Is writing left behind?

Question 7: With all of the emphasis on Common Core reading and math, it seems like writing is being left behind.  What one strategy do you think is the easiest for teachers to implement in a school where writing is now on the back burner?


Jeff’s response: I hope that the common core doesn’t leave writing behind. I don’t see evidence of this in the documents, but I think you are talking about the panicked process schools go through when they are afraid of poor performance in math and reading. And, yes, often when the school’s or district’s focus is reading, writing does get “left behind” in terms of the amount of time it is given or the amount of writing students do.

Letting writing lose focus, however, is very short sighted as writing and the study of writing models will be the very thing that will help students understand author’s purpose and many of the higher-level reading skills the Common Core requires. Not to mention the complex higher order thinking it takes to compose and revise.

You ask for one writing strategy. If I could only have one, this is the most elegant writing strategy I know. It’s a combo of a short read-aloud and a series of free writes.  Find a short effective example of the kind of writing students are studying—narrative, informational, explanatory, or argument.

Share the example aloud. Ask students, “What words or phrases stick with you?” Discuss and name their responses. They tend to be effective writing strategies that they highlight. Then, read aloud a second time. You may even have students follow along on a copy of the text. Then ask what else stuck with them. Name again the things they highlighted as ways writers successfully achieve the type of writing you are studying.

After the read-alouds and discussions, students do a quick free write and share. Repeat the process over three to five days, capturing the essential elements of that type of writing on a wall chart.  Next, students pick one of the pieces they’ve started in one or two of the free writes and develop that into a fully-processed piece of writing.  (FYI: All three of my books have selected model or mentor texts that can act as the springboard to these lessons.)

Revisit Question 1
Revisit Question 2
Revisit Question 3
Revisit Question 4
Revisit Question 5
Revisit Question 6

1 comment December 18th, 2012

10 Questions for Jeff: Displaying student writing with errors

Question 6: What are your thoughts on displaying students’ writing  that include convention errors?

Jeff’s response: This is a hot question that tends to be a bit controversial. I think it depends on a few the things: the level of the students, the types or frequency of error, the length of writing, and the audience for which it is displayed. If I am displaying K-2 writing, there are certain things like writing in all caps, or using only initial letters that I would not display. In fifth grade, when students have written a two- page narrative, I may not be concerned if the dialogue isn’t punctuated perfectly iff there was improvement or movement toward correctness throughout the process.

The error-free essay can be a bit of an overreach. I think it is a worthy goal to move toward, but I am not sure of the value of NOT sharing work that is in process or imperfect. I see plenty of conventionally correct writing displayed work that is vapid and shallow, but we wouldn’t worry about that as much—depending on the child, the grade level, the length, and who is seeing this. If an essay is going in a district magazine or a class book, then I think every attempt should be made to make it as correct as possible. However, we have to balance the cost of an error-free draft. What damage does it take to get there? We have to be aware of such things as writing teachers.

Some worry that the Common Core Standards state that “by the end of Grade 4, students will use correct capitalization and use references for spelling checks.” They may. And I think this should happen. But there will still be errors. I think the important thing is that we are moving toward correctness, not always achieving perfection. When perfection is required, much is lost in any endeavor—especially as young writers learn to write.


Revisit Question 1
Revisit Question 2
Revisit Question 3
Revisit Question 4
Revisit Question 5

1 comment December 17th, 2012

10 Questions for Jeff: Helping students who are afraid to write

Question 5: I recently moved from middle school teaching to the high school level, and I have a couple of students in my classes who absolutely freak out when they are asked to do any writing.  Some of them would rather just take a zero on an assignment than attempt to write something.  One young girl cried all over her paper when I asked her to write something for me.  How do you help students who feel that they have absolutely nothing to write about, or who feel paralyzed at the thought of having to write, especially for a state writing test?

Shirley Rutter

Jeff’s response: This is a painful question, Shirley, but one I hear too often. Across the nation students are being diagnosed with PSTT. Post-Standardized Test Trauma. Okay, so I made up the disease name, but not the problem. Many struggling writers believe they don’t have anything to say, nor do they have the skills to do so if they happen to have an idea.

One of my friends — a high school English teacher– says the most important thing we can do to improve writing is to simply get out of the way and let them write. And all the while she says we should talk to them about what they are writing. Sounds simple. Most good ideas are. Let’s go with the premise that my friend Marsha is right.

To get the ball rolling, we have to create a space where writing happens. I write at length about this is my latest book. I call the concept motion. Once a writer starts writing, more writing comes. Writers can get feedback that makes them want to write more or less.  (“Motion: Getting and Keeping Writers Motivated,” chapter 1 of 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know.)

As writing teachers, the trick is to know the kinds of activities that get kids writing and the type of feedback that motivates rather than humiliates. To get kids writing, we know freewriting activities of all kinds, especially those that involve prior discussion or read alouds get the most reluctant writers moving. Secondly, students need to share what they have to say with their peers, and they need to hear how writing is responded to thoughtfully. Telling the writer what is strong and then offering focused feedback on one thing they can do better. For more specific information read another one of my recent Stenhouse blog entries.

Revisit Question 1
Revisit Question 2
Revisit Question 3
Revisit Question 4


1 comment December 14th, 2012

10 Questions for Jeff: To prompt or not to prompt?

Question 4: My question is as follows:   Should early elementary students be allowed to write about anything they’d like in their daily journals, or should the teacher supply them with various prompts?

Gloria Wilson
Eldred, PA

Jeff’s response: That’s a quandary, isn’t it? Do we supply a prompt or let them simply write about their own interests or thinking? And when we do let them write whatever they would like, sometimes they say, “I can’t think of anything.” If we always give them a prompt, we take away their belief that they can come up with writing ideas on their own. They can, so they need the opportunity to do so.

It isn’t an either or question. Give a prompt along with the choice that they may choose another topic instead if they prefer. And how do they come up with topics? That’s something writers do.

To collect ideas, teachers go to great lengths making lists: things I can’t wait to write about; the people and places they spend their lives in; their favorite activities and not so favorite activities. Heart maps, Writer’s Eye (Mechanically Inclined, p. 35-39), you name it. But often I notice kids don’t keep using that list when they can’t think of anything to write about. Make sure you keep modeling that we return to the list for ideas. And of course, keep adding ideas to the list. It’s a process.

In my books, I talk about the power of reading aloud as something that stirs the kids’ thinking, and then allows them to write about any thought that came to them. Perhaps it reminded them of something or made them think of something in a new way.  When we read aloud, we are showing the kinds of things people might write about (modeling), plus we are filling their syntactic stores. Brian Cambourne reminds us that whatever we listen to and reads “spills over” into our writing. I find that to be so. So we can prompt writing without a prompt.

The important thing is students are writing—daily.

Revisit Question 1
Revisit Question 2
Revisit Question 3

Add comment December 13th, 2012

Previous Posts

New From Stenhouse

Most Recent Posts

Stenhouse Author Sites




Classroom Blogs