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Radical Revision
Teaching Revision Techniques
What does it mean to revise?
What is your revision process?
How has your revision process changed over
the past few years?
How did you learn about revision?
What are your general feelings about
revision? What about those of your
The word revision comes from the word revise,
which means “to see again.”
Re (again)
Vise (to see)
How can we teach other writers, and ourselves, to
see again? How can we become confident and
enthusiastic about the revision process so that we
can, in turn, excite others by the process?
What do our students consider
revision to be?
Some students may not meet our expectations for revision because they understand the term very differently than we do.
When Nancy Sommers, a researcher at Harvard, asked student writers and professional authors what "revision" meant to
them, they gave her wildly divergent answers:
"…just using better words and eliminating words that are not needed. I go over and change words around."
"…cleaning up the paper and crossing out. It is looking at something and saying, no that has to go, or no, that is not right."
"…on one level, finding the argument, and on another level, language changes to make the argument more effective."
"…a matter of looking at the kernel of what I have written, the content, and then thinking about it, responding to it, making
decisions, and actually restructuring it."
Whereas the students described revision as a process of making adjustments at a more superficial level ("just using better
words" and "cleaning up"), the professional authors described revision as a process of making fundamental changes to a
paper ("finding the argument" and "actually restructuring"). Instructors of Comm-B and WI courses, no doubt, have the latter
definitions in mind. But when students and instructors understand the term revision so differently, it is no surprise that
students don't undertake the kinds of revisions instructors have in mind.
Yet other students may be willing to revise and may comprehend the kinds of revision that their instructors have in mind, but
still make only superficial corrections to their drafts because they lack specific strategies to help them successfully undertake
more fundamental revisions.
How much do students revise?
For the novice writer, however, revision
appears to be synonymous with editing or
proofreading. An NAEP (1977) study found
that students' efforts at revision in grades 4,
8, and 11 were devoted to changing spelling,
punctuation, and grammar. Students seldom
made more global changes, such as starting
over, rewriting most of a paper, adding or
deleting parts of the paper, or adding or
deleting ideas (Applebee, et al., 1986).
Resistance to Revision from Acts
of Revision
Revision is trivial, the nitpicky correcting of
superficial niceties.
Revision is unnecessary.
Revision makes things worse.
Revision is wasted time.
Revision is drudgery; only the first draft is creative.
Revision is a sign of failure, and criticism a personal
You don’t have time to revise.
You don’t know how to revise.
Modeling the Revision Process
Show your students examples of revision
Particularly your own revisions. Show an essay you wrote and
the many versions that you wrote before coming to the final draft.
Present the story “A Good, Small Thing” or “The Bath” by
Raymond Carver, both of which have two published versions
which are each wildly different. If you have time, you might also
show clips from the film “Short Cuts” in order to show how the
stories were revised by the director and producer of the film and
talk about what makes the film version of the story different from
the two versions they have read.
Revision Exercises
Try a descriptive outline.
Read your writing out loud.
Draft generously and cut down later.
Highlight the Center-of-Gravity sentence in each paragraph of
your draft. This is similar to but not the same as composing a
descriptive outline, which asks that you create a new
summarizing sentence for each paragraph. Peter Elbow
suggests that the center-of-gravity sentence in freewriting is that
sentence which calls attention to itself, seems core, crucial,
provocative, evocative, and so on.
At the end of each day of drafting a text, write down what you’d
do to this draft if you had one more hour, one more day, one
more week, and one more month to revise. As you begin the
next drafting session, start by reading these notes to help you
reenter the draft.
More exercises…
Instead of a fat draft, which entails a bit of
freewriting and sometimes unmindful expansion,
expand more mindfully. Add a paragraph (or a
stanza) between each paragraph (or stanza) that
already exists. If you have only one paragraph, add
a new sentence between each old sentence and
see what that expanded paragraph tells you to write
Write a contrasting paragraph to each assertion you
made in your draft.
Still more…
Insert a list into your text and then explore the items in the list.
Instead of using the list to compress an idea, use it to open up
Two days after finishing your first full-breath, shareable, draft,
copy your conclusion to a new file and write two pages, using this
conclusion to begin your new draft. When working with a
research paper, resist including any quotes. Now that you’re
more learned and expert about your subject, try to detail your
points in your own words (you can include and attribute sources
later). If you can’t do this, you have a clue that the sources in
your full-breath draft may be shoring up a discussion that you
don’t really understand.
Yes, more…
Play transition cop. Highlight your transition.
Footnote each with an explanation of how each
transition (word, phrase, or even paragraph)
functions in the text. Look for predictable patterns
and try to alter them in conventional and
unconventional ways. Review the highlighting to
identify overtransitioned sections and
undertransitioned sections.
Give your text (physical) voice. Add dialogue to your
text, no matter what the genre. Let the addition of
quoted, spoken words complicate and open up your
Grammar B
English 101
Grammar B
Grammar is essentially a set of conventions that everyone agrees to follow. Grammar A is the set of conventions that produces formal,
standard English, the set you’ve been learning and required to reproduce in all your papers for school. Grammar B is another set of rules
that only certain professional writers get away with, but which produces meaning much more accurately and expressively for certain
occasions. Winston Weathers’ article “Grammars of Style” (in Rhetoric and Composition, Ed. R. Graves, 1984. Porstmouth, NH:
Boynton/Cook Heinemann, 1984) is my source for this handout.
Below are some ways that you can use Grammar B in the next version of your paper:
Crots. A crot is a “chunk” of sentences or text that all goes together in some way. It looks like a “note” without the text that it’s notating.
You could write a series of crots as “snapshots” separated by space or asterisks.
Labryinthine Sentences. A long, winding, endless sentence which usually follows Grammar A within phrases but not necessarily in the
sentences as a whole, which may use parentheses, series set off by semicolons, embedded phrases, explanations within explanations
(such as why this particular sentence is not really a very labyrinthine sentence because it is too short and too straightforward.)
Sentence Fragments. Use them. Often. To give a sense of uncertainty. Or separation.
Lists. Generally
A minimum of five
Usually Independent of a sentence
Possibly Written horizontally or vertically or otherwise
Looks like a poem
Double-Voice: Two or more competing or complementing perspectives can be written in the same text “breath” using parentheses,
italics, spacing, questions, or just much different styles. Yeah, right, I’m sure they understand double-voice with that incredibly hopeless
sentence. Double-voicing is a dialogue without Grammar A dialogue punctuation and without the framing devices for dialogue. Geez,
maybe I should write this in columns as a better example and don’t I need to warn them not to overuse the computer-font/styles?
Changing fonts or print styles is not double-voicing, though, so don’t use the computer tricks instead of thinking out your meaning. No,
this belongs below with the guidelines.
Synchronicity. If the writer scrambles verb tenses and time markers, the reader got the sense that the point will be less about had a
point that about becoming a point.
Collage/Montage. Crots, lists, fragments, and labyrinthine sentences, poems, descriptions, maxims, schedules, stories can be combined
into a collage, a loosely organized group of different kinds of text.
Grammar B, continued…
Guidelines for Producing a Grammar B draft:
Don’t change topics/it’s too late now.
If you conceive of a Grammar B-like device that fits what you want to say (that is, breaks
one rule of Grammar A to good effect).
Do it.
Don’t change font styles every other word or add obscure symbols and call it Grammar B.
It won’t B.
Have fun. Play. Take a Chance. If it Fails because you tried something that didn’t work, it
didn’t Fail. If it fails because you didn’t try, it failed.
Do as the handout describes, not as it does. This handout uses too many different
Grammar B techniques because it’s trying to illustrate possibilities rather than make sense.
The POINT of this assignment, which I place at the end of the handout instead of the
Grammar A position at the beginning of the handout, is to understand better what Grammar
A is all about by using Grammar B, to explore what Grammar A (and Grammar B, perhaps)
fails to express, to be politically aware (instead of politically correct) of who gets to make
rules like Grammar A and who doesn’t, who gets to use Grammar B and why, what the
rules of Grammar A accomplish in terms of communication, expression, meaning-making,
to explore further the concept of revision, by writing a radically different version of a paper
(or, in your case, a post) and to imagine more possibilities and power in language than
Grammar A (or our assumptions and ignorances about Grammar A) allow us.
Reading and Sources
Bishop, Wendy. (1997). Elements of
Alternative Style: Essays on Writing and
Revision. Portsmouth: Boynton Cook.
Bishop, Wendy. (2004). Acts of Revision: A
Guide for Writers. Portsmouth: Boynton
Hoaning, Alice S. (2002).
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