I was writing with my friend and current co-author Kate Roberts at her home on Sunday. At one point late into the day, at an official “wait, when did it become 6:30?” moment, we started talking about how hard writing is. How it’s fun, exciting, but also exhausting. We are well into revising mode yet the little line-by-line work and the big nope-that-lesson-didn’t-go-well work both take so much time and energy.
As we were talking… yes mostly to avoid writing for moment… we quickly switched our conversation to thinking about how students write in school and wondered out loud if we as teachers of writing are bringing lessons from our adult writing lives into our rooms.
Revision is horrible until it’s beautiful until it’s exhausting.
I told Kate about a conversation I had about a month ago, I can’t remember exactly where, but a few teachers brought up the point that students seem to hate to revise. I began with my usual stump speech and practical tips and then stopped for a minute.
I had a flash of myself, in front of my laptop, at 1:38AM, on a work night/day, revising and quietly cursing in my head, “why aren’t the thinks I’m thinking getting thunk on the page any faster?!?” I then flashed to a heated debate with Kate over a section (of a now very old draft version we have long since improved upon) that at the time neither one of us was totally emotionally prepared to give in to the other on. I then flashed to a moment of turning on the television and refusing, absolutely refusing, to even turn my computer on because I was just so drained from a day of work I couldn’t even face the screen.
I remember looking up at those teachers and saying, “You know what, if I really think about it, of course your students hate to revise. Writing is a terrible, emotional, time consuming–sure, at times wonderful–thing.”
Revision is as revision does.
Kate and I started reflecting on what it means to commit to revising in our adult lives and how it does or does not look in classrooms.
- Revision involves thinking of audience and a clear purpose. Carl Anderson has written about this, I have even done some of his lessons on this with students. Heck, the standards even say we should care about this. But I don’t bring this up enough with students. Yet, every single word I write and all of the hundreds upon hundreds of nit-picky rewrites I do are all with some reader in mind. “Will this make sense? Are they going to understand my point? A list of three questions stylistically reads more fluidly than just two right?”
- Revision involves heart-ache and letting go. I am convinced you haven’t really revised anything until you’ve taken something you absolutely love that you wrote and deleted it. I do so much teaching of what students should add to their drafts that I do not think I do enough teaching into what they should look for to cut.
- Revision requires other eyes. Hallelujah that I am lucky enough to have great editors in my life. I have learned so much working with each of them. My friend and editor Tobey is always terrific at seeing just what isn’t working as well as it could and suggesting cuts, changes, and needed explanations. What makes her a special talent is that she doesn’t write the book with us, she never says, “in this part I would write this.” Instead she is much more of a writing teacher than editor, she gives big ideas, raises larger issues and then lets go. I always aim to support teachers in leaving students with big strategies — I wonder, though, if I work enough on having honest (not harsh just honest) feedback about issues in writing that need addressing.
- Revision takes time. In our conversation Kate pointed out something that has stuck with me, that I can’t figure out a solution for just yet, but that has really stuck. The simple fact that it can sometimes take hours just to revise one small section of one page. Yet, in classrooms, even in ones that give students time to revise every day for a week, the sum total of in-school revision work is perhaps two and half hours, maybe pushing three. I see the need to keep types of writing going and lots of opportunities to publish. I think there is value in that. I also know that when revision feels painful to students any day spent on it can feel like an eternity. But I still wonder, are we – can we – provide the time needed for students to even feel the power of revision. To get through their own stages of grief to acceptance?
My thoughts are racing with reflections. “Duh”s and “Hmm”s and “What if”s. I guess the biggest idea I will be carrying with me is if I am humanizing writing instruction enough for students. Do I expect them to do miracles that most adults find hard to do? Do I share my own struggles enough? I’d love to hear some of your own lessons from your writing life and what they mean for your teaching of writing.
Happy anxious feelings of dread… er… writing.