Make Every Word Count

By Lucy Oliver, Research Fellow, University of Exeter

‘Make every word count’ – a piece of good advice, carefully jotted in margins during a lesson on editing. As students contemplate their first drafts, I wonder how they might interpret this in practice. Make every word count for whom? And what is perceived to count in school writing? In response to such questions, many struggle to identify purpose or success criteria: ‘that’s not for me to say, it’sthe teacher’ (Year 8). So what understandings do young writers bring to the task of revision?

As part of the Teachers as Writers project, we asked students in our 16 classes how they went about improving writing and what goals they set themselves. There was a noticeable shift in responses across all age groups (7-14) as the project unfolded. During early interviews, students associated revision primarily with correction and vocabulary choice. What counted were more and better words: ‘more adjectives’; ‘more ambitious’, ‘sophisticated’, ‘richer’ words; words that ‘make more sense’ and words that are ‘spelled right’. Armed with thesaurus and dictionary, they expected to add, substitute or correct words, but rarely to delete, reorder or change larger chunks – ‘we don’t make major changes because that’s why we plan it out’ (Year 6). They also tended to describe editing as a mundane, sometimes painful task, quite separate from the creativity and excitement of invention: ‘it makes you stress, you just want to feel free and do what you want in your stories’ (Year 3); ‘my dream was just crushed…I have to go and correct it now and it’s killing me’ (Year 5). Someavoided ‘looking back’ altogether for fear of disappointment; others were unsure how to address their dissatisfactions: ‘I really want to change things but I never know quite how’ (Year 8).

In an effort to make this process more meaningful and ‘fun’, many of our teachers and professional writers chose to focus some of their co-teaching on editing. As one writer explained, they wanted to help students bring the same creative energy to revision as to initial writing:
For me re-writing is as energetic as the first draft….and it was giving that experience to students so they don’t see that they just have to do it but it’s something that’s as much fun as the original writing

Drawing on their own examples and practices, they encouraged students to try out different strategies: to read their work aloud (‘if it doesn’t sound right it isn’t ready’); to ‘zoom in’ on the detail (‘what can you see? what did you hear? what do you want your reader to know?); to ‘cut in’ to the heart of the story and ‘crop out’ distracting features (‘focus in on what’s important – get rid of the rest’); to delete unnecessary words (‘a word should do something – if it doesn’t cross it out’) and especially adjectives (‘don’t overdo it – too much flowery language will bog the reader down’); to extract the best sentences or ideas (‘if you can’t decide, it probably shouldn’t be there’); to reorder, bracket, underline and cross out. Importantly, students were given the time and space to reflect on their own and others’ writing, to discuss possibilities and respond to feedback.

During subsequent interviews,students had much more to say about the purpose and process of editing, and about what they felt counted. Content and audience were more often identified: ‘rather than just grammatical errors, I tried to focus more on actual content of the writing because that’s more important’ (Year 8). There was new concern to delete material, even ‘good’ bits, that didn’t ‘lead to anything’ or contribute to ‘what you’re trying to do’: ‘(you) miss out the bits that you don’t really need…they might be exciting but you don’t need them’ (Year 3); ‘it may work but (if) it’s not relevant to the story it doesn’t need to be there (Year 9). They described revision as a recursive process, not just a final check: ‘you have to keep on doing it until you get it right’ (Year 6); ‘we’ve been adding layers and layers and layers of different things’ (Year 7); ‘I changed it, read through it, changed it again…about six times till I gotmy first paragraph!’ (Year 8). And self-confessed ‘ramblers’ said they had indeed begun to make every word count: ‘In the past I used to just throw everything in there; now I think about every sentence I write, and if it doesn’t fit I cross it out and that makes for very messy working!’ (Year 9).

The interview data suggest that when teachers and writers talk about their own composing strategies, write alongside students and share their decision-making, they offer powerful models for learners which can change understandings and practice. Such models may also help students think about themselves as writers, not just as deliverers of prescribed elements.

Lucy Oliver
Research Fellow
University of Exeter

3 thoughts on “Make Every Word Count”

  1. Interesting piece Lucy. It’s heartening to note the change in students’ perceptions about the purposes of editing. Do you think this happens once their editing becomes more readily identified with the personal choices they make as a writer and their actual writing rather than the students’ fulfilment of imposed success criteria?

    1. Hi Sue. Yes absolutely, I do think students’ understandings about revision depend very much on their sense of agency as writers and decision-makers. Indeed, another strong theme in the student data was a perceived increase in personal choice about how and what to write during the project, and consequently in ownership of outcomes. I suppose the greatest challenge is to find ways of reconciling less prescriptive approaches to writing and revising with the obligation to fulfill imposed success criteria…

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