I often joked with my students that rather than reading their drafts at all, I could just print out a set of comments and hand those out depending on where they were in the writing process. Of course, I never did that, but I did find many many similarities among all the student work that I read.
Just about every first draft was too short and too vague—students left a lot in their heads that didn’t get on the page. Eight times out of ten, I told them to cut their first paragraph altogether (and that number hovers around 98 out of 100 when it was personal narrative writing). And somewhere around the second or third revision, students finally started to figure out their actual main point (which was not the same as the main idea when they first started writing).
Another common characteristic that I found among almost all of my students was that they were not very comfortable revising their work. They didn’t have a lot of practice, and even when they were eager to give it a try, they didn’t really know where to start. So giving them specific and concrete suggestions went a long way in getting them to experiment and play with their precious first drafts.
I’ve learned a lot about how to teach writing, but probably the most important lesson is the importance of revision.
Here are 10 suggestions for revising writing—written in the order that students will most likely need them. They will work for just about any kind of writing from argument essays to personal narratives to literary analysis to short stories.
1. Did it take you hours and hours to write your first paragraph while your second was faster and much easier? Chances are that your reader will feel that pain. Cross out the first paragraph and start with the second instead.
2. What is the most important image, example, or piece of evidence in your essay? Does that detail support the main idea? Why or why not? Do you need to revise your thesis or change that detail? (Likely it’s the thesis that isn’t quite right yet and the detail that is.)
3. Did you realize what point you wanted to prove when you were mostly finished with your first draft? (This is the way that many writers work, so don't worry if you did.) Are there examples or scenes or facts at the beginning of the essay that are now irrelevant and could be cut?
4.Now that you do know what you want your reader to learn by reading this piece, are there examples or anecdotes or facts or details that you should add to help get that point across? Add them now.
5. Are there any details that are important, and that fit your main idea, but are somehow lost among the rest of the writing? Try rewriting a sentence from that section to make it a “special sentence.” This would be a good place to try your hand at figurative language, an especially astute word choice, or combining sentences to create a compound, complex, or compound complex sentence.
6. Could you be more innovative or original with your grabber? Is it interesting but not really so different from the majority of the essays written on the topic? Try a technique that you saw in a mentor essays—preferably one that seemed too difficult to pull off.
7. Quickly circle five words from what you have so far. Cross them out and rewrite them as new words.
8. Add details so that you describe all five sense in your piece (including smell!).
9. Write out the first word of each sentence. If you notice that you have started with the same word more than two or three times, rewrite those sentences.
10. Add specific names or verbs whenever possible—so instead of saying that you got into your car, say that you climbed feet-first into your running Maserati.
Very motivated students could work through this list on their own, but most kids will need a little guidance to try these changes. Showing them examples of student work—or your own!—that has been improved by these specific suggestions will go a long way in getting them to try these suggestions.
Do your students resist revision? What questions do you have about teaching students to revise their work?
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.