Blog Post

05. The Revision Cycle

Teaching revision is a delicate art. Different instructors have their own idea of what constitutes revision. Often when I comment on my students' work, I write "re-word" or "revise for clarity" next to phrases or passages. When I first started teaching, I assumed my students knew what I meant. I will never make that assumption again: It only leads to messiness. 

Revision is more than just a point in the writing process. It's a vital part of our everyday experiences, as we think about situations we wish we could change or go back and rewrite. Fortunately, in writing and other discourses, students do have the opportunity to revise based on feedback and evolving constraints. In-class time should be devoted to revision. Students should have the chance to practice in class before being asked to engage in revision outside the classroom. In this way, they can rely on their peers for help and readily ask for help from the instructor. 

For a great practice cycle on revision, I ask students to revise a piece of their own writing many times. This occasionally elicits groans because it can become tedious, but many students later relate to me how revision practice sessions helped them understand how to streamline their writing and where to focus most of their energy. Generally, the revision cycle lasts most of the class meeting time, though it could be trimmed down based on other class plans. A typical revision cycle in my class might look like this:

First, I ask students to write a one page personal narrative. Initially, I choose a personal narrative because it'll be writing that students are more fully invested in. It's their story, so they'll love every bit of it. Of course, this is partly the point: They need to learn how to work with something they really care about and change it. So, they write a one page personal narrative, and bring it to the next class meeting, which is when we'll practice revising.

Second, I ask students to share their stories and talk about their favorite parts. Then, after a bit of discussion, I have students revise their one page personal narrative down to one paragraph. They can handwrite the revision or use their laptops (if they bring them to class). We take five to six minutes for the first revision. 

Third, I have students share how and why they revised what they did. I ask them to talk about how their narrative has changed. After some discussion, I have students revise their one paragraph personal narrative down to one or two sentences. Once more, they can handwrite the revision or use their laptops (if they bring them to class). We take about five to six minutes for the second revision. 

Fourth, I ask students to share their revisions again. By now, they’ve trimmed their one page down quite a bit. Some students struggle with crystallizing their narratives and ideas from one page down to a couple of sentences. It can be daunting, but by doing this exercise in class, students can feel comfortable to mess up and struggle with a strong safety net.

Fifth and finally, I have students take their one or two sentence personal narratives and revise them to a tweet. A tweet is one of the greatest exercises in revision. They have to make strategic and well thought out choices because they only have 140 characters. Students usually find this revision particularly difficult. They struggle, ask for help, and do their best (which is all I could ever ask for). Then, everyone in the class shares their tweet length personal narrative, which they have been encouraged to craft in the conventions of the tweet medium.

The goal of the revision cycle exercise is to show students how they can say a lot in a few words. The overriding question throughout this exercise always is, “What can I take away from this writing while still maintaining its meaning?” It is often true that less is more, and this is a key tenet of revision. We don’t always need a ton of words to get our message across to others.

I’ve used variations of this exercise for several years, and students always seem to get a better idea of how to distill their thoughts and words into concise prose. Importantly, this exercise usually prompts laughter and cheer among students, as they try to tell their stories in less and less space, and, as such, they learn how to talk about their writing, how to revise their writing, and how to make tough decisions about meaning and importance.

This post is a contribution to HASTAC's Pedagogy Project.

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