Revising writing

By Teresa Cremin, Professor of Literacy in Education, The Open University

It’s not easy to teach writing. As teachers we not only seek to motivate and inspire young writers, but also to enable them to revise their work effectively. The process of revision is tough – for writers and teachers – and the evidence suggests that novice writers find it hard to do well. Many young people lack confidence in evaluating their writing and many teachers express uncertainty about how best to help.

This challenge is compounded by the fact that schools predominantly teach writing as process and structure the experience into linear stages: planning- drafting- revising- editing, teaching these in chronological sequence. Yet the writing process is not a strictly sequential series of stages, but a recursive and interactive process involving planning, text generation and revising. The very act of writing generates new ideas, which if they are to be used have to be shaped into words and ordered into sentences to form cohesive text. As writers we know that this is not a straightforward process. Moving from an idea to a satisfying expression of this frequently involves false starts, word revisions, altering where information is placed, as well as deletion. Revision happens both as we write, at the very point of composition, and after our words have been committed to page or screen. Additional revisions may happen as we re-read a sentence or paragraph during composing, or later when we return to the text and find it wanting in some way or another.

With all the labour involved it is not surprising that less experienced writers often demonstrate considerable allegiance to their first drafts! They don’t want to have to change anything and want to feel the ‘job is done’- the task completed. Many need to be convinced that alternatives may be more effective. Young writers’ preparedness to revise will depend in part upon their investment in the text, its purpose in the world and value to them as the author. If it has been produced largely to satisfy the teacher- to show that the child can write a Kenning on Winter or produce a paragraph which includes the use of the passive voice for instance – then for they are unlikely to want to make the effort to revise it.  Building in opportunities to publish children’s writing (e.g. in anthologies, on the school website, in the class newsletter) and identifying real audiences and readers beyond the classroom (e.g. authors, MPs, local councils, newspapers, community magazines) can help create interest and commitment. It can also reduce the artificiality of much school writing which is undertaken for the circular purpose of learning to write.

However in seeking to support the process of revision, teachers can feel compromised, on the one hand they are concerned to help and enable the writer to achieve the set objectives, on the other they want to help young writers retain ownership and control over their writing – after all whose writing is it anyway?

Respect for authorial agency was a key characteristic of the feedback documented at Totleigh Barton in the one-to-one tutorials with the 16 project teachers attending the Teachers as Writers Arvon residential week.  Often, and with permission, the work was read aloud by the tutor – this positioned the teacher-writers differently, as readers of their texts and enabled them to hear the voice, cadence and rhythm of their writing. As Michael Morpurgo observed in The Guardian, ‘Once the book is finished in its first draft, I read it out loud to myself. How it sounds is hugely important’. I wonder if we offer enough such opportunities in school, we expect young writers to ‘read it through’, but this isn’t the same. When the tutors at Totleigh Barton read work aloud in tutorials they were honouring both the writer and the writing; in several instances a poem was read twice, once at the start to prompt discussion and changes and once at the close to uphold and celebrate the final iteration. I think we too need to help young writers hear the way in which their writing comes to life off the page, both in its final form and on the journey. As they listen they will learn to notice for themselves the places where alternative punctuation or language might work more effectively, and be supported in making decisions as authors.

Alicia Stubbersfield and a TaW teacher in an Arvon tutorial
Alicia Stubbersfield and a TaW teacher in an Arvon tutorial

Another common practice in these tutor–writer sessions (of which we have 32 fascinating transcriptions and field notes as well as photographs and the writing), was a focus on incision – on ‘stripping it back’ as the tutor Alicia Stubbersfield often described it. Both the tutors’ advice (which was always up for negotiation and often debated) frequently involved ‘paring it down’, recognising that ‘showing not telling’ worked best, and that multiple adverbs and adjectives often distract rather than enrich. As Debra Myhill and I observed in interviewing professional writers in another project, and noticed again here in TaW, their mantra is often ‘Cut! Cut! Cut!’ – yet to take the knife to one’s own writing requires confidence and a willingness to be ruthless and explore the consequences. This is surely another skill which we need to nurture in the classroom, enabling young writers to see writing as a decision-making process over which they can exert their authorial agency.  Revising writing isn’t easy, but it is worth it.

Teresa Cremin
Professor of Literacy in Education
The Open University

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