Revision and Patience

May 13, 2011

I've taught high-school and college writing for nearly 15 years now. And I've directed a university writing program for three. In that time, I’ve found countless risible examples of student writing. I try not to share these. But temptation occasionally gets the better of me.

Here's a gem from this past semester. A student in a required first-year course recently sought to explain what he had learned. (I require such a written explanation at the end of the semester.) He wanted to show that he grasped something about "presentation," a category including grammatical correctness and stylistic felicity. So he wrote: "My improvement in presentation has improves also, I’ve gone from writing long and confusing sentences, to writing more clear and readable ones."

This is like hearing a cologne-soaked man intone: "We should talk more about how I’ve stopped philandering, perhaps over a drink at my apartment." Nevertheless, I’d like for you to consider something. Something that I had to remember myself. Writing is different from casual romance in a very important regard: the writer gets to revise. And the revision erases the first performance altogether. Would that all were so.

Perhaps, in some teaching practicum or graduate seminar, you were exposed to the glory of composition pedagogy, so you know the glittering magic of process and the transformative luster of revision. Those of us in rhetoric and writing delight in such terms, so we readily forget that others aren’t so dazzled by their appearance. Allow me to illuminate.

The student mentioned above did write a poor sentence at an inopportune time. But I won't say that he learned nothing of grammar and style. Over the course of this semester, I watched as he wrote and revised several papers. The first drafts typically featured many sentences like the above. But subsequent drafts improved. As the class practiced editing techniques, as they learned a few choice grammar rules, I noticed that his ability to improve … well, improved. He got better at sentence-level revision. He learned to write concisely, clearly, and appropriately. Just not in the first draft.

By the way, the ability to revise for correctness and felicity improves all writing. It improves my writing. The second-to-last sentence in the paragraph above started out like this: "He really did learn to write clearer, more concise, and more readable prose." Then it became, "He did learn to write more clearly, more concisely, and more readably." Somewhere during the third iteration, I settled on a form but misspelled "learned”: "leared."

Even the writing teacher needs a chance to rewrite.

Since my students submit their materials in electronic portfolios, I can revisit various stages of their work. I can see evidence to support this student’s claim. His ultimately elegant expressions evolved from hideous, writhing syntactic monsters. Unfortunately, he did not have an opportunity to reconsider the sentence quoted above. While professing his ability to revise for style and grammar, he could not revise for style and grammar.

And so, this end-of-the semester self-evaluation that I require of my students is a cruel little puzzle with no satisfactory solution. This is like evaluating a professional dancer’s merit based on an impromptu oration that describes his most recent and successful performance. Or evaluating an orator based on an interpretive dance version of her best speech. Perhaps the impropriety under investigation is not stylistic but pedagogical, not my student's but mine.

It's easy to chuckle at a single sentence, easy to focus on what's written and to overlook the writing. Good writing instruction, as you may have heard, requires attention to process and opportunity to revise. Or so a diligent, though not initially eloquent, student reminds me.


Mark Longaker is associate chair of the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin. He is grateful for his student’s patience and permission to reprint the quote in this article.


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