Monday, September 12, 2011

Notes on Revision

My husband and I met, in a roundabout way, through our church choir.  He played guitar; I played flute. Then, in fairy tale fashion... we fell in love, got married, had kids... and suddenly one of us had to spend most of Mass in the vestibule with a screamer.  Choir became a fond memory, as have many other creative pursuits in these first exhausting years of parenting.

Yesterday we decided to join a community band.  My husband broke out his trumpet, we left the kids with his sainted sister, and off we went.  It was fun.  It was terrifying.  Because you know what?  When you make music... once you play a wrong note... it's out there, and everyone's heard it, and there's no way to take it back.  I played a lot of wrong notes yesterday.  I will practice.  It will get better.  (I hope.)

But I am reminded once again of the uniquely wonderful ability we have as writers to make something exactly as we want it BEFORE it goes out into the great, wide world.  How many times have we said or done something that we wish we had not, that we desperately wish we could take back?  When we write, that need  not EVER happen.  As someone with chronic foot-in-mouth disease, I believe this ability may be one of the very best gifts that the writing life has to offer.

It is therefore quite interesting to me that my writing students tend to be extremely resistant to the concept, let alone the practice, of revision.  I have been experimenting, in my disorganized way, for several semesters in ways to coax my students to take revision seriously.  Writing textbooks typically cover the following obvious points:
1) DEFINING revision is critical.  Our text compares the art of global revising to that of sentence-level editing.  (We write definition essays and comparison essays over the course of the semester, so we are also practicing useful skills here.)
2) Providing EXAMPLES of effective revision is also crucial.  Some writing texts do a fairly good job on this front, though actual student writing makes the best example. 

When all this is said and done, students theoretically have the tools to understand what's expected of them.  However, I typically find the effects to be negligible.

In kindergarten, my daughter learned to answer really insightful questions about the fiction she was reading:
Who are the characters?
What is the setting?
What is the main problem?
How is it solved?

I swear that if I could so simply boil down and answer all of these questions in my own writing, I would have it made!

This semester, in an attempt to make peer review more useful for my college students, I found a rubric that asked very specific questions, which I was able to tweak to suit the purposes of the assignment. What is this paper about?  What is the main point?  How is it organized?  What evidence is included that does not seem to serve the thesis statement?  Where could the author SHOW more and tell less?  Where is more evidence needed?

I also learned that many students equate a 'rough draft' with a scribbled-out version of their papers that, when typed nearly verbatim, magically becomes a 'final essay.'  In the past I have been wary of interfering with the all-important "process," but for the first time this semester, I required students to type their rough drafts.  If this means that two iterations must pass before a single draft is turned in, then fine.  All the better.

My official day job title is now "editor." My daughter looked over my shoulder recently and said, "The setnences start with capital letters and have periods at the end.  Everything looks good."  She's not so far off.  I have been through the grueling process of having a book edited, copy edited, re-edited -- and this after approximately 126 drafts before it ever reached the editor's hands.  On a soap opera, we typically finalize seven hour-long scripts per week.  I realize that I am asking my students to spend more time on individual papers than we are able to spend on scripts that are watched by 3 million viewers.  No wonder they resist! 

Nonetheless, tomorrow I will be seeing the fruits of my new peer review methodology.  I'll be back with an update.  And if anyone has a foolproof strategy for encouraging revision, please do share. -- Jeanne Marie


jan godown annino said...

A big flower vase of Thank Yous for this wonderfulness!

Students are so stressed in their balancing acts,
it must seem to them that once a check mark is
next to an item on The List - that's it. They may rush
on to the next item without a look back.

Here's a link to one of my favorite online Revision Vitamens

It feels fortunate for us older folks to have the time to revisereviserevisereviserevise...

Teaching Authors, keep keepin' on here - many thanks.

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for this, JM. I'm looking forward to your update--I want to know if the rubric helped.

Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford said...

Thanks, Jan! I feel the same rush you describe every moment of my life. I appreciate the awesome link.

Carmela, the rubric definitely helped! I saw some really substantive revision -- not across the board, but definitely more than I am accustomed to getting students to do. Many of the peer reviewers also gave wonderful and insightful comments. Yay!

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for the update, JM. That's terrific that the rubric had an impact. Hooray!