Revision: Lessons from Artists and Writers

April 20, 2007

Why is Revision a struggle for teachers and students? Why do students seem baffled about what they are meant to do when asked to revise an essay, story, poem, or paper? What does it mean that teachers complain that they cannot "get their students to revise their papers and why do teachers often shy away from talk about revision, or even from workshops that model how to revise?

The Institute’s one-day April conference seeks to re-define revision and asks the questions: Why do students, and often teachers, experience revision as a task outside of, apart from, writing? Where is revision in the act and construction of writing? Where is revision in a sequence of freewriting, close-reading, collaborative learning and "writing to read" activities through which the writer explores, plays with, rejects, and clarifies her ideas, perceptions, and questions--constructing the elements of an essay, story, or paper along the way. Through presentations and small group workshop, we will ask, what if part of revision is the restlessness that invites rethinking, questioning, wondering? What if it is all part of the creative process?

To enrich our thinking about revision, this conference looks outside the classroom and lessons on the teaching of writing to ask what we can learn about the process of revising from the arts where revision is often collaborative and public. We imagine that from learning more about the decisions made in making a film regarding how a section of a film is cut and shaped into scenes, background music added; how an initial concept for a dance is changed as dancers perform initial steps; and how a director works with actors to interpret a play’s meaning, will offer teachers a unique frame for thinking about revision.

Both teachers and students are often short of time. How many teachers have time to read and respond to multiple drafts? How many students expect to re-write/revise papers once submitted? But the question itself implies that revision is a separate part of writing; something done following submission of a first "draft," or that revision is fixing, where the only revisions for which there is sufficient time are correcting errors of punctuation, spelling, grammar, and final proof reading for words or sentences omitted. Revision in many cases is already happening, it's in the writing and preparation for writing an essay, it's in the thinking, in the note-taking. Reflecting on where revision is in our assignments for students and in class work helps us become more aware of revision as construction and the revising happening that we may take for granted. By becoming more aware of our expectations of revision as a "part of writing," we will have more agency in helping students develop as more confident and skillful writers. One way of re-seeing revision in writing is to look at it from an odd-angle, from different perspectives.

The presentations/demonstrations will allow conference participants to step back from the concerns and preoccupations about how to "get students to revise their work" and to enter into another way of doing and thinking about revision. By considering definitions of revisions from film, dance, and editing, we hope to enlarge the field of thinking about revision in the secondary and college classroom.