Revision and the Writers Conference

I like the notion of teaching writing as a process. I balked at first. I’d read Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” in high school and thought all I needed to become a great writer was a supply of pencils, a legal pad, and a Paris café. When I reread the book years later, I discovered I’d remembered the vin ordinaire and forgotten the revision.

On rare days, words come, as Keats wrote of poetry, “as naturally as the leaves to a tree.” Mostly they don’t. Take today, for example. I started writing a blog entry at 7 AM and abandoned it at 2 PM when I realized the point I was about to make was what a prof once called “the painful elaboration of the obvious.” Making students aware that words don’t necessarily “flow” is probably the most important insight any teacher can give.

So last summer, when I taught two summer writing classes, I began with a review of the writing process: prewriting, drafting, revision, editing, and sharing. I stressed and will always stress prewriting and revision.

Prewriting saves time, though sometimes a wild goose chase, as my earlier blog entry proved to be, is just what a writer needs. I like graphic organizers. The web has a GO for every kind of writing.  GOs take the mystery out of thinking. Planning becomes mechanical, and that can be a comfort.

After the prewriting stage, drafting, editing, and sharing come easily for most students. Often editing is confused with revising. Revision is the hardest and the single most important stage. Robert Lowell said revision is inspiration, and in the same interview: “Months of false casts, then a day of strikes.” Months might be disheartening for students. Try some other unit of time.

In any case revision is where the real writing takes place. A student has an argument, description, narrative, something to look at and to judge. Does it say what he wants it to say? Does she need to add detail? Has he gone off track? Deleting words is a lot easier if students draft with a computer. What is it about writing by hand that creates an emotional attachment to scribbles?

I’ve tried a number of approaches to revision. I’ve modeled the process. Once I made the mistake of using a well written student essay to demonstrate that even good writing can benefit from revision. The poor boy’s face was as long as an Easter Island head. I promised myself I would never do that again.

I’ve tried the writers’ workshop. What can be a painful ordeal even as a graduate student is avoided completely by young students. They still have too much sympathy for each other. Good for them. They’re channeling Vonnegut: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies…you’ve got to be kind.” How can you be kind and make stronger writers?

In the end, what’s worked best for me is the individual conference. I push a table in a corner and meet with each student. Conferences for a class can take a couple days, but the result is worth it. I’ve given specific suggestions. Each student has had a chance to indicate they understand exactly what I mean, rather than reading my margin notes and guessing what I mean. Instruction is individualized. And you get to know your students better. Not a bad return on investment.

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