revision

A 5 Step Process for Revising Bit by Bit

During conversations with teachers last week, one mentioned how overwhelming it is to move writers through the revision process and how, all too often, what comes from the effort is more a reflection of the teacher’s thinking and work rather than the writer’s.

“If I don’t do the work for them, their revisions are never deep enough. Their final drafts are still pretty weak,” she said.

Truer words are rarely spoken, and this is why I tend to be skeptical when I’m greeted with bulletin boards lined with perfectly composed pieces. Often, that’s not how the work of inexperienced writers really looks. This is another reason why I prefer displays that make learning visible to those that showcase finished products.

It’s easy to cover a kid’s draft in an ocean of feedback, correct all of their errors for them, and tell them to revise in order to create a solid final product, but that’s not teaching. Teaching writing requires that we let go of our unrealistic expectations. It requires writers to immerse themselves in the study of craft, and to revise their drafts bit by bit, depending on what their lenses might be.

When young writers are expected to improve every element of craft, they often buckle under the weight of their overwhelm. The resulting revisions are superficial at best, and often, they can’t speak with any level of sophistication about why they made the revisions that they did. This is why I’ve come to value the 6+1 Traits of writing: they provide lenses for writers to study craft through. They help new writers recognize craft well enough to become masters of it.

I’ve found that it’s important to name things. The Traits to do this.

I’ve also found that it’s important to expect writers to revise bit by bit…not draft by draft…..and this requires me to be patient.

Even after substantial learning and revision, there is often much work left to do. Sometimes, particularly if kids are ready to move on, it must be left undone. If the goal was to help writers establish an internal and external story arc and show me how a character changes over the course of several scenes, then this is how I will measure the success of the experience: by their abilities to do these specific things. I won’t become exasperated with myself (or more importantly, with them) when they fail to use dialogue brilliantly or paragraph appropriately.

Here’s how revision looks in our sessions right now and in the classrooms I coach in:

revising bit by bitTry this five step process with the writers you support:

1. First, coach writers to read their drafts with a lens. Where will they focus their revision efforts? Will they work to improve idea development? Organization? Word choice? Sentence fluency? Voice? Another aspect of craft? Tightening their vision will deepen it. They need to isolate the elements they hope to attend to.

2. Invite them to lift these bits from their texts. Working outside of the draft inspires writers to tinker. Invite them to pull passages from their works in progress and place them in their notebooks, in separate documents, or on sticky notes, where they can be easily manipulated. Make the text movable, and expect them to get out of their seats to play with it.

3. Teach them to tinker. Show them how to mess around with their writing. Take a bit of your own draft and revise it 3-5 different ways in an effort to improve some element of craft. Move your words around. Let them bump up against each other. Illuminate the unexpected ideas that rise to the surface. Writing is experimentation. Model this.

4. Support the peer review process. Helping writers seek and provide high quality feedback is some of the most important work we do. Approach it with intention, assess strengths and needs, and provide direct instruction. Scaffold the process, and don’t expect perfection. Plan to make peer review work when it doesn’t. Here are five tips and a bunch of tools for making it work when it doesn’t.

5. Remember that it’s all about choice. Tinkering and peer review should leave writers with a variety of options to consider as they approach revision. Resist the urge to tell writers how to “fix” their drafts. Support their choices, and model the processes you use for making your own.

I found that when my students write bit by bit, tinker with text, and mix and remix their ideas and words, they achieve a depth of revision that is satisfying and satiating. When I give them the time and space to do this without pressure, the results of their efforts are incredibly motivating. This is what a maker’s moves look like in the writing workshop. If you’re interested in learning more about the connections I’m discovering between making and writing and how this might transform your workshop, take a peek at my new book, Make Writing, or connect with me here or on Twitter.

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