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Composition Forum 53, Spring 2024

Fostering Sustainable Student Revision Practices: A Call to Reimagine Revision’s Place in the Composition Classroom

Jayne E. O. Stone

Abstract: In this article, I argue for centralizing revision in FYC classrooms, thereby establishing it as the vital component of composition that it is. I show that engagement with revision in FYC courses tends to be minimal, relegated to the end of a project, or completely omitted. These low standards for revision pedagogy can result in students not having the know-how or confidence to revise their work as they advance in their careers. Thus, one aim of mine is to invigorate the conversation surrounding revision pedagogy and, in doing so, invite composition instructors to consider altering their own approaches to guiding student revision. To this end, I offer FYC instructors several pedagogical strategies which are easy to implement and which may help students establish and build effective revision practices they can carry with them throughout their college careers and beyond.

My interest in student writers’ revision practices was spurred recently after I found myself lamenting with a colleague the lack of transformative revision between students’ rough and final drafts in our respective first-year composition (FYC) classes. Our complaints were not unfounded, but they were also not unique (Isaacs 92; Kirby and Linder 42). We were asking the same reflective questions plenty of composition instructors and scholars have been asking themselves for decades. Why don’t students revise more substantively? Why don’t they incorporate instructor feedback? Why do they seem to resist revision? However, these familiar questions—whether uttered in momentary frustration or probed over the course of sustained scholarly inquiry—carry the limiting assumption that student writers have already developed the strategies and the confidence enough to execute substantive revisions by the time they enter our college composition classrooms (Butler and Britt 70), or that they have even come to value revision enough to understand the benefit of doing it. Such permeating and unfair assumptions suggest that the questions composition instructors often find themselves asking may not be the most productive ones.

Therefore, as I argue in this article, we should instead be asking ourselves proactive questions whose answers may help us implement more intentional and consistent engagement with revision in our FYC classes, thereby hopefully preempting lackluster student revisions. Considering this, we might ask the following questions: What revision experiences do students have upon entering the FYC classroom? What can we do to facilitate FYC students valuing revision? How can we help students practice revision and become more effective and lifelong revisers? To be clear, I am not suggesting that composition instructors aren’t already asking these questions or that these questions are new. What I am suggesting is that the field as a whole hasn’t prioritized answering them, especially with respect to FYC pedagogy. Ultimately, if we want students to write well, we need to make facilitating meaningful student revisions the primary pedagogical concern within the composition classroom.

To be sure, the field has indeed had a longstanding interest in revision, especially as concerns student writers. Since Donald Murray first used the term “revision” in 1978, scholars have researched and published on numerous aspects of student revision. Some have studied if and how students understand and enact revision (Bridwell; Sommers, Revision; Myhill and Jones; Ballenger and Myers), while others have investigated the ways that teacher and peer feedback inform students’ revisions (Magnifico et al.; Treglia). Still others have developed taxonomies of the revision process (Faigley and Witte; Flower et al.). And, finally, while much revision scholarship is written for teachers and scholars working in the field, there are also several publications written for student audiences to help them understand and implement revision (Germano; Giles; Thomson).

However, under the wider umbrella of revision scholarship, since revision’s zenith in the 70s and 80s, relatively little has been written for instructor audiences with an explicit focus on revision pedagogy as a consideration separate from process pedagogy more broadly. However, what has been published with an explicit focus on revision pedagogy is rich in generative offerings, confirming that revision as scholarly inquiry separate from process is indeed valuable. For example, Joseph Harris in his piece, Revision as a Critical Practice, argues that “an intense focus on the actual labor of revision,” among other advantages, helps students “[t]o think of [themselves]… as having a project, as having work to do which [they] have defined, rather than as simply executing a task set by another” (588). In short, sincere engagement with revision provides students an opportunity to gain a sense of agency and voice. Central to his approach is having students engage dialogically with feedback, a concept equally important to Andrea Muldoon. Muldoon calls for “critical revision,” encouraging teachers to “make sure that the revision opportunities we structure for [students] are governed by dialogical, not dialectical, practices” (69). This approach “asks students to thoughtfully explain and defend choices they made in a piece according to the rhetorical context for the specific assignment and within the context of our written response and feedback to their work” (69). Ultimately, she argues that “we must encourage our students to see revision as a complex, often messy process that involves engagement, listening, and even resistance” (70). The “‘talk back’ essay assignments” Muldoon uses (which she supplies in an appendix to her article) support that goal, encouraging students to “respond and react” to her feedback (69). In both Muldoon’s and Harris’s approaches, the students are empowered to make decisions about their writing. Revision is central. The work of revision is made visible. However, until this type of approach becomes standard across FYC classrooms, there remains a need for more research on the benefits of and approaches to prioritizing revision.

Fortunately, revision’s importance to the writing process—and suggestions for instructors to help student writers develop an appreciation for it—are increasingly becoming the stuff of scholarly inquiry, especially within the past ten years. Recent scholarship suggests a variety of ways in which instructors may reframe revision as something separate from a late-stage, momentary step in the process. Staci Fleury and Alexandria Peary, for example, argue for having students approach revision as invention, while Kathryn O’Neill and Renée Gravois encourage instructors to have “students begin their revising efforts early on—at the idea generation stage of writing” (3). Other scholars argue for the pedagogical approach of connecting evaluation to revision: In their study, Charles MacArthur et al. teach the “revising strategy” wherein students use an evaluation rubric to assess their own and their peers’ writing in advance of planning their revisions (817), and Jessica Riddell similarly suggests “connecting assessment and the revision process” (86). Finally, there has been increasing interest in the argument that encouraging metacognition and/or reflection is key to improving students’ revisions (Lindenman et al.; O’Sullivan Sachar; Riddell; Myers).

Each of these pedagogical offerings is valuable to rethinking revision and how we guide our students through it. Thus, it is not my goal to dispute or complicate what has come before, but rather to offer a consolidating perspective: I argue that revision is valuable at every “stage” of the writing process, and, thus, ought to be integrated into classroom discussion and practice on a regular basis throughout the course of composition classes. In this way, my own pedagogical perspective aligns with the instructor of focus in Megan L. Titus’s 2017 case study. Titus centers her article on one of the six FYC courses included in her larger qualitative study, a course taught by an instructor named Ray whose students, Titus writes, “demonstrated the greatest difference in their understanding of revision from the beginning to the end of the course” (9) of all the classrooms studied. A key difference Titus found between Ray’s class and the other classes in her study was that “Ray’s classroom pedagogy fully integrates revision by creating a discourse community centered on revising” (10). It is this general approach to revision pedagogy—one in which revision is central to the course—that I want to call attention to, argue for, and further validate here.

Ultimately, I argue that student writers benefit when composition instructors foreground discussions of revision and when they prioritize revision as a core concept by facilitating regular student engagement with revision throughout the entirety of FYC courses. Such an approach allows students not only to discover and develop their own practices as they build confidence in putting a variety of revision strategies to use, but also to build sustainable practices that they can take with them as they advance through their academic careers and beyond.

What follows then is, first, an overview of my findings from an IRB-approved single participant case study with a student reviser of mine named Grace. Although the data from this study is limited and doesn’t allow me to make inferences about the larger population of student revisers, Grace’s development as a reviser offers a nuanced perspective about the possibilities for FYC student revision practices, as well as for the student-teacher (and larger classroom) conversations surrounding revision. While Grace may be an exception when it comes to student revisers, I argue that the effective revision practice that she has developed is not out of reach for other FYC students; however, helping students develop their own revision practice does require centralizing revision in FYC classrooms.

In order to sustain my argument, I use the case study as a jumping off point for a deeper investigation into the way that scholarship currently positions revision. In doing so, I show that revision has long been a secondary concern in FYC courses, a circumstance which I argue leads to confusion, reluctance, and dissatisfaction among both teachers and students regarding the work of revision. My contention is that by foregrounding revision in FYC, students may have a better chance of developing what Harris calls “a knowable practice” when it comes to revision (Rewriting 99). Finally, because adjusting priorities in the FYC classroom may feel onerous, I close the article with several approachable and easy-to-implement pedagogical suggestions that are designed both to help students practice revision and to help instructors position revision as the primary focus of composition courses.

A Brief Investigation: What’s Working?

Following the conversation with my colleague (reflections upon which opened this article), I decided to conduct a single case study to better understand if a set of revision exercises (a reverse outline, a revision plan, and a sentence-level revision worksheet) I had assigned were benefitting my students’ engagement with revision. My study participant, Grace, initially contacted me to ask if I would meet with her to discuss how she might go forward revising her rhetorical analysis. She hoped to first revise on her own based on the written feedback she had received from her peers and me, and then to meet with me to discuss further revision strategies. I decided after corresponding with her about this that I would ask her to be the subject of this case study.

Two considerations led me to elicit Grace’s participation. The first is that Grace’s desire to revise well and her proactive approach to revision suggested to me that she takes revision seriously. While this may not be true of the majority of FYC students, understanding how Grace came to value revision seemed helpful for developing new ways to promote that same appreciation for revision in other students. Additionally, Grace is not an English major, but a neuroscience major; thus, she represents an area of study not explicitly tied to writing, a circumstance true for most first-year writing students. However, what ultimately made her an even more relatable subject was revealed over the course of the interview: Grace disclosed that she has a troubled history with academic writing, which stems from difficult experiences in her high school writing classrooms, a circumstance true of many FYC students. She developed a revision practice as a way to improve her writing and therein quell those difficulties. Thus, Grace, as a non-English major who utilizes her sustained revision practice with regularity, offers a subjecthood that in more ways than one parallels the majority of FYC students. And while Grace’s revision strategies, as I will show, may be exceptional for her writing experience level, I don’t believe that they are beyond the ability of her peers. Thus, I have found her development as a reviser informative as I work to develop news ways to foreground revision in my composition courses—and, frankly, in my own writing.

Grace’s Development as an Effective Reviser

My initial interview questions centered on Grace’s perception of herself as a reviser, as well as her process of and general relationship with revision, and then shifted to how the revision exercises I had assigned fit into her overall revision practice. She explained early in our conversation that her development as a reviser flourished in high school. I was intrigued to learn that she has since continued to use one of the revision practices that she first began using in high school in her college writing assignments. She described her revision strategy of comparing drafts side-by-side, saying, “So I’ll even, when I’m doing like rough drafts and final drafts, I will leave my rough draft the way that it is, and I’ll copy and paste the whole thing into a new Word document so that I have like a comparison, so I can pull them both up on my screen at the same time and be like, ‘okay, I need to fix this’ and like make all kinds of notes on my one and then start on the other one” (Nunns 13:23–13:43). Being able to look at one’s own work and see where it needs to be “fixed” is not an easy task for a lot of writers, and that Grace did this of her own volition impressed me. This strategy, she told me, “helps [her] brain” and “helps [her to] process… what’s going on” in her writing (12:52–12:56). This is a practice that she has maintained as she has advanced in her education. For Grace, being able to see the progress she’s made over the revision process gives her a “good feeling at the end” (13:06–13:07), a comment which revealed her appreciation for revision.

Throughout our conversation about when and why she started using the side-by-side drafts approach, Grace revealed that she had developed an understanding of keeping audience in mind during revision. She described some trouble she had had in English classes early in her high school education and explained that revising with her audience in mind was crucial in persevering through some of those negative experiences. In one instance, peers had ridiculed her for the argument she was making in an essay. She told me, “I was being bullied because of the things that I was putting in my papers [laughs], so I would use it as a way to scrutinize, like, the way that I was phrasing sentences and the way that I was… communicating with… my peers and the audience through my paper” (14:10–14:27). Grace’s awareness of her audience became necessary in a real way during that early class, a class she describes as not providing a “safe space to express your thoughts and opinions and your feelings” (6:40–6:46). In order to express herself through her writing, she actually had to know her audience. Revising with her audience in mind was crucial for success.

This same concern for audience was clear in the revision plan she submitted for her rhetorical analysis in our FYC class:

When I change the first few sentences of my paragraphs I will make sure that I tie them back to my original claim and make sure that they are cohesive in the order that they are placed in. The logic paragraph can be switched with the paragraph where I discuss how Grandin presents her information because it makes more sense to the reader that way. I can also add a paragraph where I discuss who Grandin’s audience is because I refer to her direct and indirect audience a lot in my essay. This will make my essay less confusing for the reader. (Revision Plan 2, emphases added)

Nancy Sommers uses the phrase “concern for [one’s] readership” (Revision Strategies 384) when explaining the priorities of experienced writers. And here is Grace, in her first-ever college composition class, keeping the cohesion of her argument and the experience of her readership in mind. By considering the reader during her revision process, Grace makes a space for herself among the experienced writers that Sommers studied, writers who “imagine a reader (reading their product) whose existence and whose expectations influence their revision process” (385). Grace’s revision practice, in this way, sets her apart from many of her peers.

What’s even more encouraging is that her practice continues to develop, for in our class she picked up yet another revision-oriented exercise: the reverse outline. She told me, “I really appreciated the reverse outline. … That’s something I haven’t done before, actually, and that helped me kind of look at everything and be like, ‘Okay, well this doesn’t match with this, so I need to fix this’” (20:54–21:10). Whether this strategy becomes one she regularly puts to use matters less than the fact that she knows it exists, has practiced using it, and can resort to it when it serves her in her future writing tasks.

In sum, despite her trouble with English classes, and, in part, because of it, Grace has become an exceptional reviser. Her approach to revising is dynamic and thorough. Moreover, for her, it is simply not optional; it is a necessary part of her writing process. Although Grace does not represent the average student reviser—for her understanding and employment of revision mirror those of more advanced writers— her development as a reviser suggests that students who understand the value of revision and who regularly practice it can build sustained, individualized revision practices that persist and grow over time.

Finally, Grace’s development as a student reviser also reminds us that revising is, indeed, a practice. We aren’t simply born revisers, nor do we become revisers at the stroke of some predestined hour. Instead, we develop revision skills, just as we develop other skills integral to writing. It seems that although our main goal as composition teachers is to teach students how to effectively communicate through writing, we tend to prioritize teaching how to get words on the page and leave the important skill of enacting revision—the skill that refines our writing and thus helps us to more effectively accomplish our writing goals—to develop on its own by simply asking students to do it with minimal instruction or guidance from us (Witte 47).

A Need for Reimagining Revision Pedagogy

Admittedly, Grace is an exceptional student reviser: many FYC students’ “final” drafts are scarcely different from their rough drafts. However, evidence for a systemic lack of attention on building sustained revision practices among student writers in composition courses exists beyond unfulfilled course outcomes made apparent by many students’ final drafts. We can also find evidence for this lack in the documented revision experiences of advanced writers—from upper-level and graduate English students to at least one well-known rhetoric and composition scholar. According to these writers’ own reflections, learning to name, hone, and effectively implement revision strategies didn’t occur until well beyond their early composition classes. And for most, as I will show, it wasn’t until they began teaching composition themselves—when they became the one touting the benefits of revision—that they were forced to find ways to talk about what revision means and entails, as well as how to do it. Regardless of how and where (or even if) these writers developed effective revision techniques, their combined narratives highlight a lack of direct or recognizable ties back to their undergraduate composition classroom experiences.

To begin, the underwhelming nature of advanced student writers’ undergraduate experiences with revision were unintentionally revealed in one recent study that highlighted the disconnect between revision experiences in the composition class and the staying power of those experiences over a student’s college career. In the study, The Emotional Labor of Revision, Bruce Ballenger and Kelly Myers explore the anxieties advanced undergraduate and graduate students in English tracks experience when tasked with revising their work. Through interviews with these students, Ballenger and Myers recognize a consistent disparity between these writers’ belief in the importance of revision and their lack of confidence to successfully execute it. Although the authors are explicitly interested in advanced student writers, key moments in their work reveal the persistent lack of effective and consistent engagement with revision in undergraduate composition courses. At one such moment, for example, Ballenger and Myers briefly detail an unexpected finding:

What was surprising was that while the students we interviewed could talk in sophisticated ways about the importance of revision, they reported that they were rarely taught revision strategies and felt unprepared for the actual work of revision.… These were surprising things to hear, especially from our undergraduates, who at least received instruction on revision in their first-year writing courses at our institution. None mentioned it. (599, emphasis in original)

While a footnote attached to this last sentence offers valid reasons why these students may not have mentioned being taught revision strategies (imperfection of memory, nature of interview questions, etc.), it is hard to ignore the underlying fact: revision approaches that these emerging writers were expected to have “at least received instruction on” did not persist in their memory or in their revision practice (if they even had one).

Furthermore, Ballenger and Myers’s implication that students who “at least received instruction on revision” should be able to recall such experiences invites questions. Should simply “receiving instruction on revision” be expected to result in students establishing a meaningful and sustained connection with revision? What are the consequences of making students the recipients of knowledge rather than the agents of their own learning? These comments by Ballenger and Myers speak to my point that revision is under-attended to in first-year writing classrooms if even those who advance to English graduate positions don’t retain—or develop in the first place— strategies for revision from their early composition classes.

Moreover, it is not uncommon or unusual for even advanced graduate student writers to feel “unprepared” for revision, as those in Ballenger and Myers’s study reported feeling (see also Achen). Take, for example, the established composition scholar, David Bartholomae, who tells of his first-ever experience with revision in his essay, Against the Grain. He explains:

I wrote [my] whole [dissertation], about 350 pages or so… and when I gave it to my adviser he wouldn’t read past page 100, saying that it was all just too poorly done. I think I knew that writers reworked or revised what they were writing - in fact, I think I told my students that this was true - but I had never done it, and so, for the first time in my career, I began to revise. I knew how writers acted, but I did not act and, as far as revision is concerned, had never acted like a writer. (195)

What is important here for my purposes is that Bartholomae, as an advanced graduate student, like the graduate students in Ballenger and Myers’s research, found himself touting the benefits of revision to his students without ever having confidently engaged in effective revision himself. These experiences confirm my own and my colleagues’ experiences with revision, as well. The anecdotal consensus seems to be that we are not generally taught how to revise; we are simply told to revise.

Ultimately, those who pursue advanced degrees in English—and who, therefore, frequently end up teaching undergraduate composition classes during their graduate studies—begin their college writing careers in the same classes as those who pursue other tracks. If these classes offer little to no sustained discussions of revision strategies and approaches, such a lack of instruction affects not only those who will go on to write in other fields, but also the very people who will go on to teach composition—and who, in doing so, will be expected to teach revision. How can graduate student and early-career instructors be expected to teach concepts and strategies that they themselves were never taught or else did not retain?

To be sure, Ballenger and Myers are very aware of the need for a renewed focus on revision in the writing classroom, but they argue that it is in advanced writing courses that individual revision processes ought to be refined: “What we can teach, then, is two kinds of revision. The first, which we do not teach enough in upper-division courses, involves the many strategies for revising drafts—ways to rethink an idea, restructure and redesign the composition, and clarify meaning” (610, emphasis added). This statement gives me pause. Why should exposure to “the many strategies for revising drafts” be reserved for advanced students? Wouldn’t this exposure benefit student writers at every level? And if these strategies are being offered to undergraduates, why aren’t they being retained?

Furthermore, Ballenger and Myers write that their research has made them aware of these “gaps in revision pedagogy for graduate and advanced undergraduate students” (609), arguing that “when students reach upper-division courses and graduate programs, they are convinced of the importance of revision. They know that revision is an organic and ongoing process, not just a final step, but they need further instruction and support in developing their revision processes” (609). These conclusions suggest to me that the “gaps in revision pedagogy” lie not only in advanced writing courses, but also in undergraduate composition courses, where sustained engagement with revision ought to be prioritized by instructors so students have ample opportunities to establish and build individual practices that can later be honed as they advance. Ultimately, what has become a normalized approach—wherein we first tout the importance of revision in introductory and intermediate composition courses and then focus on productive ways to engage with it in upper-level writing courses—is not serving students in the short or long term. Instead, this approach sustains the anxiety in writers which first prompted Ballenger and Myers’ study. One way to assuage these negative experiences, I contend, is to teach the importance of revision alongside having students practice productive and varied ways to implement it, beginning in undergraduate composition courses.

“The Great Secret” of Writing Studies

However, helping students develop effective and sustainable revision practices is no small task. This is true, in part, because, like composing, there is no one “correct” way to revise. Yet, unlike composing—where one begins with a blank page and composes text where there was none—revising requires reworking a text that has already been composed, what Harris describes as “the work of… rethinking and reshaping” (Rewriting 100), and what Pat Thomson suggests is the work of “refining.” Just how writers effectively navigate reimagining their texts during revision has remained something of a mystery. Indeed, Sommers articulates it well when she writes, “What happens between the drafts seems to be one of the great secrets of our profession” (Between 28). Harris, too, reminds us that revising is “an activity that tends to be hidden from view” (99), a sentiment Peter Ho Davies reiterates in his 2021 book, The Art of Revision, writing that “for all the work we share, we don’t get to see very much of one another’s revision process” (10). This secrecy and mysteriousness characterize writers’ individual practices as well as several broader aspects of revision, from its very definition to the myriad perceptions among scholars, instructors, and students about its purpose and utility.

It is telling, for example, that a task as seemingly basic as defining revision often results in contestations and differentiations among those who study and teach it (Haar; MacArthur 30; Witte 40). Some scholars have provided definitions which attempt to encapsulate the gist of revision. For example, Sommers “redefine[s]” revision as “a sequence of changes in a composition—changes which are initiated by cues and occur throughout the writing of a work” (Revision Strategies 380, emphasis in original). Echoing Sommers, Jodie A. Butler and M. Anne Britt write, “Revision is a sequence of changes to any existing text at any point during the writing process” (72, emphasis in original). Yet under these definitions, a common perception among students which equates editing to revising would rightly be considered revision (a claim for which Isaacs makes a strong case), and that limited perception is often one with which instructors are contending as they encourage students to think of revision as a more expansive practice than an exercise in editing.

Other scholars have offered more detailed definitions that seek to highlight such expansiveness, ones that attempt to describe the depth and texture of revision. Donald Murray, for example, suggests that revision involves two “acts”: “internal revision,” wherein writers “develop and discover what they have to say,” and “external revision,” wherein writers give deep consideration to their audience, making changes with the intention of communicating to that audience what it is they discovered they have to say (77). In another definition, describing revision by way of a cognitive process model, Linda Flower et al. argue that revision involves “two major processes, evaluation and strategy selection, [which] work in an active interplay with three kinds of knowledge: the goals a writer has (and may modify as a result of evaluation); the problem representation the writer creates during revision; and the strategies he or she can bring to bear” (2, emphasis in original). While these definitions help shed light for instructors and scholars regarding what goes on during the revision process, they are not easily accessible definitions for students. Moreover, the competing narratives around revision may serve to further confuse students just getting acclimated to the concept. While I offer ways to ameliorate this potential confusion towards the end of this article, what is important here is the point that with such varying definitions for revision, it is no wonder instructors have a hard time teaching revision and students often struggle to enact it in the ways instructors expect them to (Feltham and Sharen 111).

Further, what the actual work of revision entails, as well as the purpose of that work, is often a source of contention between students and teachers within individual classrooms. Such disconnects between teacher expectations for student revisions and student perceptions of successful revision are ubiquitous (Fleury and Peary 1; Flower et al. 16; Lindenman et al. 582; Perun 253). It’s been well-established that students often treat revising as editing, making minor changes on the sentence level (Fleury and Peary 1; Hembrough 50; Sommers, Revision, 382; Witte 35), while instructors desire to see more global changes between student drafts, changes which would signal to them a student’s reworking of a text with the intent to clarify meaning and develop ideas more deeply.

As to why this disconnect persists, I am in agreement with Fleury and Peary when they suggest that part of the reason that students see editing as revising is because of the way revision is positioned in many FYC courses: “Since revision is often taught as a stage of writing that is done once or twice at the end of the writing process, students tend to turn to late-stage aspects—grammar, spelling, diction—and rarely to content-related issues” (7). This makes sense; when a student works hard to “complete” a draft, we ought not to expect them to want to “go back” and reconsider large swaths of their content, especially if they don’t have a working revision practice replete with reliable strategies and the confidence to utilize them. Because correcting grammatical and syntactical errors necessarily fits under the broad definition of revision as “making changes to a text,” why would students look any further at a draft?

If this is what revision is reduced to for student writers, it’s no wonder they sometimes see being asked to revisit a text and make changes to it as busy work, or even as punishment (Becker 48). Sommers writes that “[b]ecause students do not see revision as an activity in which they modify and develop perspectives and ideas, they feel that if they know what they want to say, then there is little reason for making revisions” (Revision 382). However, she also reminds us that it’s not that students don’t want to revise and revise well, but, rather, that they resist revision because they haven’t been taught the strategies for good revision practices (383), a contention echoed by others (Perun 260; Feltham and Sharen 111), and one this article also echoes and aims to address. The mystery that surrounds each of these aspects of revision in the minds of teachers and students alike contributes to the decades-long consensus: teaching revision can be difficult (Hembrough 52; Kirby and Liner 41; Lindenman et al. 582). Shelbie Witte states it well when she writes, “Ultimately, if teachers are confused about what revision is and what purpose it serves, so, too, will be the students” (47; see also Berthoff 20). Initiating and sustaining discussions of revision throughout composition courses, I argue, is the first step in amending this confusion.

Still, perhaps the greatest difficulty regarding teaching revision is not in trying to settle on a definition or reach a consensus about when and where it happens or what it looks like; instead, it is in helping students to develop an individualized and effective revision practice that grants them agency as well as the confidence to enact revision throughout their writing process. After all, as Doug Downs writes in Naming What We Know, “When we teach the centrality of revision to writing development… we must also teach writers to develop workflows that anticipate and rely on revision and to discover what methods of revision best suit their own writing processes” (66). Therefore, if we allow revision to persist as an under-attended and mysterious aspect of writing and as a source of misunderstanding between teachers and students, there will not be sufficient opportunity for students to explore revision approaches and develop effective practices or the required confidence to use them. It is past time that exploring the secrecy and uncovering the mystery become the stuff of sustained and regular classroom research, practice, and conversation.

Prioritizing Revision in FYC

Understanding where students stand on revision upon entering FYC is only the first step to centralizing its importance in the composition classroom. Implementing pedagogical shifts will take further research and creativity. As previously mentioned, several scholars have already begun this work and have located inroads to empowering students to make substantive revisions by giving them a voice in the process. To this scholarship, I’d like to offer several ways instructors can help students develop their own revision practices by making revision a central and consistent concern in their composition classrooms. The first group of pedagogical offerings below contains suggestions for establishing revision as a core concept of the course early in the semester. The second group contains ideas for helping students build an individualized revision practice.

In posing these pedagogical suggestions, my main goal is to highlight just a few ways that instructors can establish and maintain a prioritized focus on revision in light of my argument that revision is often relegated to a secondary position. What is distinct about these suggested exercises is that integrating them doesn’t require a major reworking of one’s pedagogy, for they are easy to implement, adaptable to multiple writing courses, and effective for prioritizing revision as an attainable, evolving, and important practice for student writers. Additionally, these suggestions are designed to act as starting points. The possibilities for expansion and development are many and will depend, largely, on class context.

Establishing Revision as a Core Concept

Ask Students to Reflect on Previous Experiences with Revision

My first suggestion is to ask students within the first week of classes about their relationship to revision, in the same way instructors commonly ask students early on about their relationship to writing more broadly. This suggestion is inspired by my conversation with Grace, through which I learned about her relationship to revision, her history with it, and some strategies she uses during revision—all valuable insights.

Asking students early on about revision can take a number of different forms, but one way to do it is to have students reflect silently on their relationship to revision and jot down some of their reflections. Then, ask students to offer aspects of their reflections out loud as you collect them on the board or screen. You might then have another round of silent reflection over several prompting questions. Some examples include, Do you have an established revision process? If so, what does it look like? If not, why not? Do you perceive revision as an important part of writing? Why, do you think, do writers revise? Again, have students share their answers with the class. If it isn’t feasible to work a discussion of revision into the first week, at least have students reflect on revision in a similar way through a journal or short writing assignment. You can later collate responses and share them with your students to kick-start a class discussion.

Asking students to reflect on their experience with revision does several things. First, by speaking early and clearly about revision before it needs to be enacted on a writing project, instructors signal to students that revision is an important concept in the course (Titus 24). Secondly, this exercise helps to make instructors aware of some revision practices used by students, as well as perceptions of revision that students hold. With this awareness, instructors are better equipped to address any prevailing gaps in revision practice or knowledge. Additionally, this early conversation can serve to normalize and make visible the act of revision. Hearing one’s peers talk frankly about their own relationship to revision may serve to corroborate one’s own feelings or else to inspire a new way of thinking about revision. Even if neither of these is true for students, encouraging openness about such a mysterious process may hold a lot of potential for future conversations about revision as the class unfolds.

Establish a Working Definition

Over the course of this article, I’ve highlighted how revision is inherently variable, from how it is defined to how it is enacted. Therefore, one step instructors can take in uncovering the mystery of revision is to use the early discussion about revision as an opportunity to establish a working definition of revision with students. This definition ought to include what it means to revise as well as what the purpose of revision is, at least within the bounds of the individual class. Establishing a definition as a group serves several purposes. The first is that by deciding on clear parameters as a class (guided largely by the instructor), expectations for revisions are made explicit, and students have a hand in setting those expectations. Welcoming students into this process also initiates the student agency and voice that is so central to successful revision. Finally, this early task serves to provide a baseline definition that can, itself, be revised as the course unfolds. In setting an agreed-upon definition of revision, instructors initiate a conversation with students that can serve as the basis for future conversations, making speaking about revision much more accessible for everyone because the same established, working definition undergirds each conversation.

Connect Revision to Real Life

Part of building an effective revision practice is recognizing the value of revising. Thus, helping students see how they are already practicing revision on a regular basis may help them recognize its value. After all, as Witte puts it, “We live in a world of revision. Whether it be the ways in which we approach our lives, alter a recipe, accessorize an outfit, or modify our golf swings, our world evolves because of the revision that happens within in” (33). However, because revision is a part of our quotidian existence, the ways in which it is at work in our lives may go unnoticed, especially for students that may not have forged a connection between the academic concept and their daily use of it.

An exercise that may help to bring an awareness to the real-world importance of revision is to have students think about their process of composing a post for a social media platform or a text message to a friend. Ask them to reflect on the following questions: Do you rewrite or alter the content of your posts or texts before you post or send them? What motivates the changes you make? Think of a time you posted something that was misinterpreted; how might you have revised that post so as to have avoided negative reactions or solicited more positive reactions? Having students share their experiences may solidify 1) the fact that they are already revising regularly, and 2) the importance of learning to revise well.

Helping Students Build a Revision Practice

Each of the following offerings are meant to be implemented several times over the course of a semester. The idea behind this approach is that the more that students interact and engage with revision, the more opportunities they have to apply what they are learning to their own revision practices, and thus, the more comfortable they become with revising their work.

Show Student Samples of Revision

A standard practice among writing instructors is to collect student work and use it for samples in subsequent courses. This is certainly a standard practice for me; offering student writing samples has allowed my students to feel more confident in drafting an assigned writing task because it gives them a sense of what I am “looking for.” If having models of successful student writing reassures students in their own drafting, the potential exists for student samples of successful (and unsuccessful) revision to also act as models. Thus, my first suggestion, and one that I believe holds a lot of power, is to share students’ multiple drafts (pre- and post-revision), revision memos, revision plans, etc. from prior classes.

Engaging these texts in class can take shape in several ways. It may be that instructors provide two paragraphs of a student sample rough draft to current students, asking them to revise for clarity/succinctness/cohesion/etc. After some time is spent revising (either in class or as a homework assignment), open the conversation, asking students what they revised and why. Instructors might also share the revised version from the original author, having students draw comparisons between the original draft, the author’s revised version, and their own revised versions. Encouraging open conversations about these revisions is key to bringing awareness to the difficulty and imperfectability of revision. It also brings visibility to how others are approaching revision, an experience that may inform one’s own practices. Instructors might even consider inviting former students to the class to talk with current students about their experiences with revision and the choices they made along the way. This positions students as experts on their own work, with the potential of being a kind of revising role model for current students. Ultimately, by practicing and discussing revising on a low-stakes activity such as this, students gain experience with and insight into how writers approach revision in varying ways.

Regularly Introduce New Revision Approaches

As I hope I have shown, closing the gap between students’ understanding of revision as important to the writing process and their ability and confidence to actually engage with revision requires that we put new attention on ways to embrace “revision as a knowable practice” (Harris 99). However, just as writing processes differ from writer to writer, so, too, do our revision practices differ. Therefore, it is crucial that as students begin developing their own knowable revision practices, they are provided multiple exercises and strategies for seeing their text in new ways. Because my aim here is not to provide strategies for revision, but to provide strategies for instructors to foreground revision as a crucial concept in their FYC classes, rather than detail different revision exercises, my pedagogical suggestion for sustaining a focus on revision is to allocate scheduled time dedicated to introducing and demonstrating revision strategies (some strategies to consider might include: “Cut-and-Paste Revising” (Elbow 146), creating a reverse outline, reading aloud, using the “Montaigne Method” (Fleury and Peary), writing revision memos, etc.). A schedule for introducing revision strategies may align with units (a new strategy each unit) or with weeks (a new strategy every 3-4 weeks), but ought to be incorporated with regularity so that students know to expect them.

Provide Opportunities to Practice Revision Strategies on Low-Stakes Assignments

Simply introducing students to new strategies for revision will not necessarily result in effective use of those strategies, however. Vital to student success, then, is having students put these techniques to use in low-stakes ways well before they would need to use them during revision on a major writing assignment. Thus, by way of explicitly tying my previous two suggestions together, upon the introduction of every new revision strategy, have students practice using the strategy to revise student writing rough draft samples collected from previous classes. Not only will students be revising writing that has the same goals and purposes as writing they will do or have done themselves but practicing in this low-stakes way allows them to chance what might ultimately be ineffective revisions without their grade suffering. In the best situations, it allows them to see how effective revision can transform a piece of writing, inspiring them to treat revision in their own writing as something worth doing.


Both learning to revise and teaching revision may, for some, be just as mysterious and difficult an activity as revising itself. Evidenced by the reluctance and lack of confidence that writers at every level experience when faced with revision, it is incumbent upon FYC instructors to incorporate a sustained focus on helping students build revision practices that work for them and that they can carry and further develop throughout their writing lives. By implementing small changes such as those I have suggested, beginning and burgeoning writers might have the opportunity to do just that. To echo Berthoff’s description of composing, when we position revision as “a dialectical process of which revision is not a stage but a dimension” (22), we offer students the chance to develop a revision practice that will serve them not only “between the drafts” (Sommers), but before and beyond them as well.

Therefore, by making changes to revision pedagogy for first year composition classes—changes which foreground discussions of revision and regularly provide ways to approach revision—we stand to affect a new trend wherein a student’s development as a reviser is inherently coupled with their development as a college-level writer. Similarly, students will (hopefully) come to value revision not only in theory but simultaneously in practice. As a result, students may more readily understand revision to be a necessary and empowering aspect of the writing process rather than an afterthought. It might even become as intuitive to their writing process as it has become to Grace’s. Prioritizing and centralizing engagement with revision in our FYC classrooms creates potential for student writers to develop skills they can bring with them throughout their careers, regardless of their field. The simple shift in revision pedagogy also has the potential to provide students with a firm base from which they can revise their own work, feedback on others’, and maybe even teach revision. In the best cases, it may provide for them a relationship with revision that produces less anxiety and more of what Grace describes as “a good feeling.”

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