This semester, I’ve been thinking a lot about revision. Well, okay, I always think a lot about revision; it’s essential to my writing center work, my classroom teaching, and my own writing (I am the queen of Shitty First Drafts, as described in the second chapter of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird). But lately I’ve been thinking about it even more than usual. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how important it is to ask writing consultants — tutors, writing fellows, writing center instructors, even teachers — to do, on a regular basis, the kinds of things we ask writers to do: to share and revise our own work.
I mean, let’s face it: writing is hard, and sharing writing is hard, and accepting comments on writing is really hard, and revising… you get the picture. But these are the things that we ask writers to do all the time. And while I think there is value in normalizing those activities (”Of course I’m asking you to read your paper out loud, everybody does that here, it’s no big deal”), I also think there is value in remembering that for a lot of writers this stuff is difficult and intimidating and counterintuitive, because remembering that will make us more sympathetic and generous in our comments and interactions, and it will also allow us to speak with the conviction of personal experience when we say “Look, I know this revision thing sucks, but it is so worth it.”
So asking my students (and especially my new writing consultants) to share and revise their own writing isn’t a new project. But this semester, I’ve been going about it in a new way.
First, a little background: I teach a course called Understanding Writing, modeled partly on UW-Madisons’s Composition and Collaboration in Theory and in Practice (usually just called English 316) and partly on Oberlin’s Teaching and Tutoring Writing. Understanding Writing is required for all students beginning work in UMM’s writing center, but plenty of students in the class never end up working in the writing center; they just want to take an advanced composition course in order to practice their writing and get a better sense of how writing works.
The first paper I assign in this class — lifted directly from UW’s English 316 — is a literacy autobiography, a brief paper (4-6 pages) in which students explore and analyze some aspect of their own history as readers and/or writers. I love this assignment for many reasons, including the fact that while it looks really simple on the surface, it poses a couple of challenges for the writers that they don’t anticipate. The first challenge is focus: trying to narrow down twenty years’ experience with reading and writing to such a short paper is hard; almost everyone tries to cover way too much in the first draft. The second is voice: combining analysis with personal experience is, it turns out, pretty tricky; the writers most comfortable with academic writing usually have trouble incorporating specific personal experiences, and those who are excited about the creative possibilities of the assignment often struggle to make their narratives do analytical work.
These challenges make the assignment a great fit for a course in which we talk a lot about revision. The early drafts raise all kinds of questions — about focus and voice, as I’ve said, but also about audience, purpose, meaning, interpretation: good questions for any writer to grapple with periodically. Almost everyone in the class discovers that the things they thought they wanted to write about are not really what they want to write about, or that their initial analyses of their own experiences are kind of simplistic, or that the way in which they’re writing about those experiences is, for any of a variety of reasons, not working. And, perhaps more importantly, they get to see that everyone else in their group is struggling with similar issues.
It probably won’t suprise anyone to learn that these students haven’t done much revision before. They haven’t had to. They’re talented enough that, at least in high school and in many cases well into college, their first drafts have made acceptable final drafts. Even if they’ve started to suspect that revision might be a good idea, they don’t necessarily have any idea what real revision (as opposed to sentence-level editing) would look like, especially because in many cases they’re the very students who place out of the first-year composition course in which they would have been required to practice revision. And so most of them have internalized the myths that 1) good writers — real writers — don’t revise, and don’t need to revise, because they get it right the first time, and 2) writing is a solitary endeavor, a solo project.
For the record, I internalized the exact same myths as a high school student, and I didn’t start to unlearn them until my junior year of college when I took the Teaching and Tutoring Writing class I mentioned earlier. But the attitude that sharing and revising are for losers is not a good attitude for any writer to have, and it is especially not a good attitude for a writing consultant to have.
So we’ve always worked on revising in this class — revising drafts, but also revising long-held ideas about writing.
This semester, I decided to try working on it in a new way: I made some changes to the literacy autobiography assignment. Or, rather, I changed the way the assignment got turned in: I had everybody upload their literacy autobiographies to GoogleDocs and share them with each other, and then I got rid of a day’s worth of published composition studies readings and had them read and discuss each other’s essays instead.
Up until this semester, I’d always said that the audience for this essay includes not just me but the other people in the class, but in practice this wasn’t true, or was only partly true: the essays were read in draft form by a small workshop group made up of three or four people, but the final versions were read only by me. Last year, one of the comments I saw over and over again on the final evaluations was that the students were bummed they hadn’t gotten to read the final versions of the literacy autobiography drafts they’d seen in workshop groups. And I thought, “You know, we have the technology — there’s no reason we can’t do that.”
I have to admit that I felt kind of weird about the change at first. In particular, I felt bad about cutting some of our other readings: there’s always so much I want us to cover in this class, and we’re pressed for time as it is. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that maybe what the class needed was not just more coverage of content but more connection among the participants; maybe what we needed was not just a discourse community but a writers’ support group. Maybe what we needed was for me as the teacher to say “I think these essays are important enough that we are going to devote a day to reading and talking about them — about your words, your experiences.”
What happened was kind of amazing.
I asked them to make a few comments on each other’s essays; they filled the margins with comments not only about the content of the essays but about the revisions their workshop groupmates had made. I asked them to write their journal entry for the week on the essays; I got some of the best entries they’ve written, including terrifically smart observations about the themes and patterns that ran throughout the literacy autobiographies. I think, in retrospect, that knowing they’d be posting the essays for each other, knowing that they’d be sharing not just with me but with our whole little discourse community, really did affect the way they approached the papers. I think that reading and commenting on each other’s essays bolstered class camaraderie and their sense of the class as a shared endeavor. I think it made them take revision much more seriously, which was in many cases stressful but ultimately, I think, helpful as well. I think it prepared them for the way we approach writing the research paper, which is, as I told them, a process of entering a scholarly conversation not unlike the conversation they’d been having about their essays. I think the whole experience made some of the arguments from our other readings — particularly the claims that writing is a fundamentally social activity — resonate in fairly specific and immediate ways. And I suspect, though I can’t prove, that it made the new writing consultants more committed advocates of meaningful revision in their conversations with fellow writers.
I don’t want to make it sound like everything went perfectly. While the comments and journals were terrific, our classroom discussion of the essays got off to a fairly slow start; I don’t know whether this reluctance to talk should be attributed to a sense that they’d already said everything in writing, the awkwardness of discussing the essays with the writers in the room (not the way class normally operates, obviously!), the difference between the literacy autobiographies and our usual readings, or something else altogether. But discussion did pick up after a while, so even the most wobbly part of the ride was far from a disaster. On the whole, I’m pleased with the results of our little experiment — and I think the writers were too.
I’m really grateful that my Fall 2010 students nudged me to try something new and that my Fall 2011 students made it such a success. I hope that some of them will chime in with their own comments, including perhaps some comments that complicate the admittedly rosy picture I’ve painted of our experience. And I’d love to hear from other instructors of tutor education courses and other advanced composition courses about your own experiments with (or reservations about) devoting syllabus and classroom time not just to workshopping students’ drafts but to reading and discussing their finished papers.