California English Journal
In her book of instructions on writing and life called Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott dispells the illusion that perfect prose drips naturally from anyone's pen. "People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter."
Anyone who writes would find such a picture laughable, but student writers assume that this is exactly how writing works. When they can't produce a first draft that earns more than a C from their teacher, they take this to mean that they are no good at writing. Revision? What's that? Oh, they understand about recopying to tidy up the handwriting or maybe running a spell-check program on their computers, but the kind of revision that actually involves a rethinking of content and a reshaping of sentences is inconceivable.
For years writing teachers have tried to formulate lessons whereby students edit one another's papers, offering suggestions for improvement and helping one another spot errors, but this can result in the blind leading the blind. It also tends to annoy the better writers in the class who pour over a classmate's paper with great care only to have their own draft given a cursory glance and token, "Good" scribbled at the bottom. I continue to use peer editing with students but am careful to pair students so as not to penalize the diligent.
Looking for other ways to move apprentice writers from a sorry first draft to a more accomplished final draft, I began experimenting with self-editing strategies. After all, most writers don't have the luxury of a colleague to read their work in progress. Revision is lonely work. When students arrived Monday morning with first drafts of their essays, I proceeded to hand out crayons. (This in itself got their attention, something that is not easy to do at 8:15 a.m. with teenagers.) I proceeded to take them step by step through the following instructions:
o Circle in orange
all "to be" verbs (is, are, was, were, am)
I then asked for volunteers to put sentences that needed help on the board. Together we made suggestions for revisions to what had been written, always leaving final decisions about what would ultimately appear in the paper up to the writer. When the bell rang to signal the end of the period, everyone in the room had a very good idea of how his or her draft could be improved.
As Anne Lamott explains, "Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something - anything - down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft - you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft - you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it's loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy."
By helping students self-edit, I try to provide them with the skills they need to give their drafts a regular check-up. The articles that follow in this issue of California English offer other methods for helping students revise. I hope you find them as valuable as I have.
Revision: It Doesn't Get Any Easier, But It Can
For our purposes here, we offer two instructive perspectives. One is a single quote that seeks to capture the essence of writing, a significant portion of which is revision. The other is a compilation of practicing-writer insights about revision. We'll take them in turn.
and Subtraction Perspective
Adding means getting black on white. It's what most everyone thinks of as drafting, even though drafting includes, if not by traditional definition, certainly by writer self-report, planning and revision in iterative interaction (i.e., continuously occurring) beginning with the earliest mental construction of language that rolls out of a pen or pencil or onto a keyboard. So we begin with adding because without it there is no subtracting, but don't assume that adding and subtracting occur in a neat linear sequence. We don't want (remaining with the arithmetic metaphor) to contribute another layer of linearity to how people think about how writing works.
Drafting vs. Copying. The first objective in revision, then, is to ensure a draft. A draft is a very specific kind of writing. It isn't bad writing. It certainly isn't purposeful "sloppy copy." A draft is what a writer's thinking looks like when it's first written down. We've worked with countless writers, both young and older, novice and more experienced, asking them to make a mental image of a hawk floating on a warm updraft, then to write the image in two minutes. Then we've asked the writers how many knew what they were going to write before they began. Typically, about 15% of the people in just about any group raise their hand. We make note of those and come back to them later in the lesson, but first, we ask the others, "If you didn't know what you were going to write before you began, how did you write the piece?"
There are various responses to that question. Most often they say that they had an image, and that's how they started, but as they wrote their first sentence, the next part of the piece began to take shape and that took them into their next sentence or more. Those who didn't have their piece formed before they began tend to self-report that the image they had in the beginning changed as they went, and they recorded the changes in their writing.
When we ask these writers to read aloud for peer-audience feedback, we sometimes ask when they got their idea about one of the details in their writing. Often, they can identify almost exactly when because it's where they crossed out and wrote in another word or phrase, or where they inserted a line, or where they made a note in a margin. The draft is a map of their thinking, as they were thinking. That's what a draft is. It may be sloppy, but not because it was written that way on purpose. If it's sloppy, it's because that's what drafting looks like.
But young writers don't often draft; they write what we would call first copies. They first make lists of their ideas. They make categories of larger ideas, maybe "main" ideas. They sometimes outline their notes. Then they often orally rehearse from their notes or their outline, so when they take pencil in hand, or they tap their first key, they're mainly copying what they've mentally, and sometimes orally, already done. The resulting written piece tends to reflect their capabilities because they wrote the piece about as well as they could. It isn't as though novice writers, or experienced ones, for that matter, write badly on purpose just because it's the first copy. Writers write about as well as they can, and when there is, in fact, a draft, rather than a first copy, it reflects the sometimes unorganized and incomplete process of invention, as it occurred. However, for so many young writers, that process of invention occurred before the first copy began.
Then we ask them to revise. Most evidence shows that their revisions tend to be, at best, superficial (Nold, 1981). Many of our students react to the revision direction with confusion because it's already just about as good as they can do. They already thought it through, made their outlines, and notes, and then copied the ideas into their composition. We then make a point of explaining that they are to "re-vision" their writing, but that isn't very helpful because they have already studied it carefully. Nevertheless, they try to comply with teachers' directions, so they check spelling, add commas, and change a word or two.
Causing a Draft. We have directed hundreds of writers, both novice and more experienced, to select one of two words (e.g., pony - mountain) and "use it as the topic on which to write as much as you can as well as you can, but you have only one minute. Go" (Fearn, 1980; Fearn and Farnan, 1999). After the first one-minute "round" of this Power Writing, we direct the students to count their words and raise their hand when they hear their number. Then we call ranges of numbers: 0-5, 6-10, 11-15, and so forth, recording the number of hands on a hastily drawn chart on the board. Then there is round two with two different words (e.g., orange - running) from which they select one and write as much as they can as well as they can in one minute. Again they count and we record on the chart. Round three has two more words (e.g., mosquito - taxi); count and record. The numbers always go up pretty much in proportion to the extent to which there is a decrease in the quality of the writing.
Then we ask them to circle their second or third round and "fix it up so you could turn it in for a grade or hang it on the refrigerator door. You drafted it in one minute; you have twice that much time to revise." Most go immediately to work and sustain the effort for most of the two minutes. Then we ask, "Specifically, what did you do?" Some volunteer that they fixed the spelling and punctuation, but most say they did one or more of the following things.
1. I wrote something
to start it off because I didn't have time before.
They add, organize, and rewrite. We write their comments on the board and remind them that that's what revision is, that they already know it because that's what they said they did, and that we should all practice those things in our writing. Over protracted time, some catch on and begin doing those kinds of things with their own writing without being reminded. But for many, it's an exercise. They enjoy the drafting because they like seeing how they can make their numbers go up. They also do the revision because they've written something that really needs some work, and they can see how it gets better. But it remains an exercise for many students. In basketball, the exercise is shooting jump shots. They do it and like it, but it isn't playing basketball.
How do we take them more authentically into their own writing, and the writing of others in the room? It does little good to remind them that revision is different from editing. They know that and still "revise" superficially, just as they know that sentences are supposed to have subjects and predicates and still write nonsentences. They need productive ways to think about revision. We need to give them revision strategies they can understand and use and that make their writing better, in ways they can see. Four strategies from the lives of experienced writers are clear and unambiguous.
A Revision Strategies
By way of example, Jerry Hannah asked a writer in that short fiction workshop what his story was about. The writer said his story was about Peter and his benign attempt to show that he could use his extraordinary intelligence to foil the banking system. "No," Jerry said, "the story you read aloud is about how to counterfeit United States currency." Go back and count the number of words you devote to counterfeiting and see whether there's any reference that explores Peter and his character. After studying the manuscript, the writer discovered that of the story's sixteen pages, seven were devoted to how to counterfeit US currency, and Peter's character wasn't expanded or revealed in any of it. Even though the pain was excruciating, the writer cut the equivalent of six of those pages and added two new ones that revealed the workings of Peter's mind in the counterfeiting process. The writer can't revise until it's clear what the piece is about. The first revision strategy is to find the focus.
Notice that the writer in Jerry's workshop cut over a third of the draft because that third didn't serve the focus of the story. After determining the focus of a draft, it's time to use two more revision strategies. After clarifying the focus, the one mobilized above is called Cut to the Core. This is where the rifle is taken off the wall if it's merely atmosphere. If the description is of a rustic cabin where the value system is utilitarian, nothing is merely atmosphere. Find the point of the piece, and cut everything that doesn't serve the point. Given the severity of that sentence, we're not sure about the paragraph above that begins "By way of example..." We decided that the example is important to the point of this piece, but we had to discuss it to come to that conclusion. The decisions writers make when they cut to the core are judgment calls. They aren't always right. That's revision, too.
The writer in Jerry's workshop also wrote two new pages in place of the six he cut. His piece was short fiction, and his stories are character-driven, so everything in his stories had to develop and serve characters. (Other fiction is plot-driven, so everything develops and serves plot. Grisham is essentially plot-driven; Welty is essentially character-driven.) He cut six pages that didn't serve his character, and he added two that did. The two he added represented a third revision strategy: Mine Deeper.
It's almost axiomatic that no one includes all of the critical details that texture a piece of writing in the initial draft, if only because the process of getting black on white is iterative (Fearn and Farnan, in press), which means drafting and idea development occur simultaneously, each feeding the other throughout the draft. The result is a jerky affair, inevitably missing critical texture that can be known only in the context of the whole. The initial draft is the earliest whole, providing the context that reveals to perceptive writers, who know what they're trying to accomplish, not only the nonfunctional debris that must be cut, but the indicators of the ideational ore that need to be mined more carefully. The mining is revision.
And finally, there is the draft that moves around, even dramatically, but doesn't go anywhere. It's what writers call motion without movement. Writing has to move, go somewhere. Otherwise, it leaves readers with the impression that they've been on a trip, but when they look around, everything's just as it was. They danced around a lot, but they never went anywhere. A fourth revision strategy is Movement as well as Motion.
There are occasional (some teachers would say routine) explorations of subject matter (e.g., term papers or reports of information) that are like that. There might be impressive information about Johannes Brahms, for example, including reference to the Hungarian Dances in a list of his prodigious output. But the paper is just a compendium of lists among other information about birth, death, Schumann, and Vienna. The young writer didn't ask about Brahms' legacy, so readers aren't led to his role in taking simple gypsy melodies, harmonies, and rhythms to a higher artistic level. Readers cannot draw any conclusions from the writing because there aren't any reasons for the information offered in the paper except that it fits under the topic of Brahms. There are no answers because there are no questions, no speculative solution because there's no problem. The young Brahms report writer provided motion, but no movement. The report, as they say in Texas about artificial Texans, is all hat and no cattle.
That writer needs to know not only what the piece is about, but how it matters. Only when the significance of the report is clear to readers, and the writer explores the significance, does the report go somewhere, solve a problem, answer a question. An important revision strategy is to make a piece of writing move rather than merely kick up dust. Writers read the draft, and their own motives, to determine what the writing can accomplish. Then they rewrite to clarify the destination and make sure the writing goes there. That's revision.
Young writers need strategies that help them think about using various revision processes. The following thinking strategies are designed around the revision processes we've described.
Find the Focus
Cut to the Core
Well as Motion
Jerry Hannah's "pirate workshops," to which we referred above, are read and feedback sessions. They're called, generically, Writers' Workshops. Small gatherings of writers, they usually function without a leader, and writers read their work aloud and get feedback from everyone else in the group. An investigation of a one-year implementation of Writers' Workshops in the middle school appears in Middle School Journal (Farnan and Fearn, 1993). If Writers' Workshops are important to the work if many experienced writers, they are critical to the lives of young writers, especially because it's so difficult for young writers to "vision" their writing from the perspective of readers.
The Role of
Audience in Revising
The Writers' Workshop (reading aloud for feedback), as distinct from the "writing workshop" (ways to organize time and activity), offers young writers an opportunity to vision their work from the perspective of an audience. That occurs, however, only if certain guidelines are followed.
The Writers' Workshop can circumvent the problem that Bereiter and Scardamalia document and with which teachers have abundant experience. Especially for young writers whose writing interferes with their ability to use a reader's perspective, Writers' Workshop is useful because it provides readers' perspectives. It is very important to keep the principles of feedback clear because the value of Writers' Workshop is the readers' perspective revealed in their feedback. If readers get caught up in positives and negatives, writers get criticism, some "good" and some "bad." We've found that young writers can revise on the basis of feedback, not criticism, positive or negative.
We've also found that young writers who participate in Writers' Workshops, over time, become accustomed to the sound of feedback in response to their writing. One of the commentaries that came out of the middle school study (Farnan and Fearn, 1993) is that the young writers began "hearing" peer audience feedback when they wrote, and they found themselves adjusting their drafts in response. That's revision.
Revision is a way of thinking when good writers write. We have posed some isolated instructional strategies that feature revision, and we have explained several ways for young writers to think about revision. It won't come easily for anyone, and there is no implication here that as young writers become better writers, they will find their revision responsibilities easier. But they can learn to revise more effectively. So while it won't get easier, it can get better.
Focusing in on Content and Communication
The students had obviously spent several class periods working on the assignment. The topics were very similar, yet the results very different. In both classes, students had written drafts, talked with other students and/or the teacher about their writing, then rewritten their pieces to a "final" product. Yet one set of papers was lively and well written; the kind of papers where readers wondered what would come next and were disappointed when the last paper in the set had been read. The other class' papers were predictable, each one sounding similar to the next. What made the written products differ so greatly?
This last year, a team of teachers from the National Writing Project and researchers from Educational Testing Service have been looking again at student classroom writings, what students said about the assignments they were responding to, and teacher interviews that were collected as part of the 1998 National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) Special Study on Classroom Writing. Why was it that the students from some the 100 fourth grade and some of the 100 eighth grade classrooms produced clear, precise and lively writing in response to some assignments and not to other assignments? While this research team focused on the characteristics of the writing assignments, the team also reviewed, discussed and debated how it was that some "final" products looked so much like earlier drafts (errors and all), while other "final" products were clearly better written and "cleaner" than earlier attempts. After looking carefully at about 60 classes from around the country, a few patterns seemed to emerge.
FOCUSING ON CONTENT
For example, an assignment that resulted in weaker writing asked students to read a story and describe one of the characters. Students were, in effect, simply locating and restating information. Whereas, an assignment that elicited stronger writing asked students to read a story and compare the motivation of two characters. Such an assignment required that students examine the characters and select information about each character for comparison. Students had to analyze and transform the information from the story.
Another assignment that resulted in stronger writing had students interview an older relative and tell about three stages in that person's life. This assignment required interaction with the content; students had to make sense of what they'd heard. A similar assignment asked students to report on an interview they had conducted. Most of the responses to this assignment simply listed what was said. This assignment did not require students to explain, question or reflect on what they'd heard. However, assignments that asked students to move beyond simple reporting often resulted in products with a more genuine, individual voice and perspective.
Moreover, intentional work on revising the content of a piece tended to result in stronger writing. Such focused work sometimes included working on parts of an assignment separately (e.g. working on just the lead sentence, or revising only a particular paragraph). Focusing attention on refining the content was essential because once attention was drawn to issues of format (number of sentences, paragraphs, references, etc.) or technical correctness (punctuation, spelling, grammar, etc.), the content of writing seldom changed from one draft to the next. Getting students to first clarify what they were trying to say before turning attention to how to say it seemed to make for stronger writing.
WITH AN AUDIENCE
In order to focus on the act of communicating, students had to have an authentic audience for the writing with opportunities to share, read, or send writing to the intended audience. Stronger writing assignments went beyond the usual practice of specifying a potential audience (such as "write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper" or "write a children's story") into communicating with a "real" audience. At times, classmates and the teacher acted as the audience.
One way teachers helped students hone in on communication was by providing opportunities for students to discuss on-going work. Usually these discussions happened between students or between the writer and the teacher. At times, students read drafts out loud to the class or broader school community. In the cases of written products based on interviews, writers often checked out a draft with the person they had interviewed. Presenting a draft provided the student writers with an opportunity to interact with an audience in order to identify places in the writing that were not clear or ideas that were not understood as written. Following up with occasions to rewrite the piece to make the message clearer (more than to correct errors), and to get feedback from readers again before the final draft, resulted in stronger writing.
Another way teachers helped direct students' attention toward communicating ideas was to engage students in various activities that would highlight what and how sections of the paper were to communicate with an audience. For example, in one assignment, students were to describe something at which they were expert and explain it in such a way that the reader (a classmate or the teacher) would understand how to perform the task. Students chose to describe many activities including how to bake cookies, or teach a dog to do tricks, or play a musical instrument, or make a jump shot in basketball. After students had selected their area of expertise, the teacher conducted a lesson, including modeling, about how to write effective leads. Then students practiced writing leads and opening paragraphs. The teacher conducted lessons on, and students practiced, writing transition sentences, clear directions and sequencing steps, and a closing paragraph. At each stage, the emphasis was on making the writing clear for a reader.
Teachers sometimes stressed communication through their scoring criteria. In the example in Figure 1, among the criteria that an eighth grade teacher used for evaluating a research paper (I Search) were criteria intended to focus the student capturing a reader's attention and writing from a personal perspective. Note the attention to the audience in the criteria for the introduction and the conclusion: "an effective hook is used to capture the reader's attention" and "the ending leaves the reading with something to think about." The "organization" criteria provides guidelines for the presentation while still focusing on the message the writer has to convey to the reader ("What I Knew, What I Wanted to Know, What I Found Out, and What I Learned"). Strong attention is given to presenting ideas in an individual writer's voice. In the "research" section, the criteria require, " research is an effective supplement to, but not a substitute for, your own ideas." The "personality" criteria state, "the author's voice is clear in tone and point of view-it doesn't sound as if it had been copied word for word from your sources". For this assignment, the scoring criteria focused the writer on clearly presenting the content as well as the communicating with the audience.
THE I-SEARCH PAPER
TITLE PAGE (5
RESEARCH (20 points)
In this study of classroom writing assignments, the research team found that the qualities of writing assignments strongly influenced the writing outcomes. Stronger assignments engaged students in interpreting what they read and/or experienced, and transforming knowledge in some way. Strong assignments also reminded students that the overarching purpose of their writing was to communicate to an audience.
For more information about this study on classroom writing assignments, contact Barbara Storms (email@example.com) or Claudia Gentile (firstname.lastname@example.org) or review the materials that will be posted on the NCES web page http://nces.ed.gov/ later this year.
It may be a truism that life itself is an on-going composition, constantly subject to editing for correctness and revising for content (or, perhaps more globally, as "re-visioning" for goals), but that TRUTH is in no way trivial. In this eighth and final column I write as President, the force of that insight hits me heavily.
In July of 1998, as I relaxed from the school year and wrote first to you, at that time of the pleasures of summer, with its time to read, attend dramatic performances, and study the holdings of museums, I scarcely realized the degree to which the exigencies of the Presidency would quickly be reprioritizing my time ("editing," if you will, some lifelong habits). When I joined the electronically-wired universe as one of the necessities of my new "job," allowing the internet and CATEWeb, email, and most importantly CATENet, they provided whole new worlds of "content" with which to re-envision my goals, methods, and successes. It has been both exhausting and exhilarating to "connect;" most days have added ten or more communications from the world outside my "regular" life of wife, daughter, and teacher of 150+ daily students. One recent memorable day had 50 incoming messages on top of already known needs. But it is also a vital truth that knowledge is power, and CATE has provided knowledge without which my universe would be greatly enfeebled.
So I take great pleasure in saying I have relished being able to serve you as President and to work closely with the thirty outstanding people of the CATE Board. There is an adrenaline rush in "revising for content," seeing ways to solve problems and do the job better, and a powerful satisfaction in addressing the big issues outside my personal world. All of you who have followed my writings here are aware that part of my pleasure has come from the on-going practices of CATE, especially the honoring of outstanding teachers from local councils. Each year at the annual convention I have had the honor of introducing and sharing from the recommending letters loving tributes to the kind of teaching that can truly change the world. I could wish for each of you the opportunity to have that close contact and I encourage you to nominate outstanding individuals to your local council for future honors.
CATE also is directly facing the intensity of politically-driven suspicion of education, mandated high-stakes testing to prove we're doing more than warehousing students, and a governor whose public speeches first declare our chosen profession to be one fit only for short term volunteerism (cycled out after five years) and most recently in need of the paradoxical appeal/stigma of charity (income tax exclusion). CATE seeks people to serve on the Resolutions Committee, to formulate policy statements during the annual convention, statements that are then shared with and hopefully influence those pressure points. The CATE Board itself also undertakes official reactions, as needed. As President, I have had the chance to get far, far outside of my personal comfort zone (as I constantly exhort my students to do if they are to grow) and communicate directly to the legislators and curriculum specialists, by letter, by serving on committees, and by visiting in person. This has contributed the powerful satisfaction of learning whole new ways of action, and I invite you to become part of the process as well. There will be a leadership development and political advocacy workshop this fall for those involved in local affiliates, so become one of the leaders by being an active member of your local council. (Notice the listing of names in the masthead; contact any of us with your willingness and with your ideas.)
CATE has always, of course, been founded on bringing together teachers from throughout the entire state to share insights and practices to improve all classrooms, via workshops and general networking time (conversations in the halls and around meal tables) at local and state conventions and writings in publications like CATENet and this fabulous magazine. I have been astounded by the creativity, whelmed by the energy, and inspired by the knowledgeable caring you all have shared with me in such settings. Please continue to be a part of these on-going forums yourself, re-invite some of the experienced teachers who haven't recently participated to rejoin you, and bring in those new colleagues. We need to fortify the hope we have for an ever-better future, knowing that more will join the commitment to "edit" the beliefs in which we have grown too comfortable and revise our content of established practice, making the CATE future strong.
I salute the new people taking office on July 1, especially new President Aaron Spain and new Vice President Cheryl Joseph. May their terms of office be personal and public "compositions" of strength, delight, and inspiration. I know they look forward to shared re-visioning.