The Power of Revision by Giselle

The Power of Revision by Giselle

Joseph Harris, “Revision as a Critical Practice” focuses on writing as a practice, with revision being the key (578).  Here critical reading and writing are one.  He looks for “how ideas get shaped in and refracted by language” (582).  He seeks to help students go beyond plot summaries to deeper levels of analysis.  He suggests that the way to help students get to this level is through teacher comments and peer review.

 This makes me think of a poetry class that I am taking during this study sabbatical year.  In this class, we read and write poetry in tandem.  In this class, either in small groups or in whole class seminar style, we critique one another’s poetry, examining content, style, structure, syntax, punctuation, etc.  I notice that when receiving feedback from my classmates and professor, I have a better analytic comprehension of what I have communicated through the poetry and what remains obscure.  (A little mystery in poetry can be desirable, but ambiguity is a mistake).  In other words, I can never have the objectivity to know what is unclear.  My classmates and teacher explain what the poem achieves and suggest ways to bridge the gaps.  When I articulate the process, they might know what key words need to be added or subtracted.   The entire assignment is the original draft, the revised poem, and a letter to the professor discussing the changes made to the revision and a rationale behind the revision choices.

 For example, I wrote a particular poem about my experiences swimming in a chlorinated swimming pool or, in reality, doing the backstroke in a toxic environment.  My classmates did not understand the transition from the swimming pool in the first stanza to the beach in the second stanza.  Only when I explained that I had seen a small shaving of pink soap on the tiled floor that looked like a seashell did they understand my intended meaning.  One of my classmates specifically said that this detail needed to be included in the poem in order to make clear the change in setting.  Without this revision, my poem was confusing, not surreal.  Ultimately, in my rationale to my professor, I explained this revision in my poem.     Harris refers to this as the role of serendipity [of student comments].  He explains this process as going “from good luck to a conscious practice, and, in doing so, taken more control of . . . . [the] writing” (589).

Another incident, that occurred thirty years ago, comes to mind from a similar poetry workshop class.  I had a most beloved teacher who advised me to scrap a metaphor poem that wasn’t working.  I felt differently, and, tenaciously, held onto the poem knowing that there was something there that I hadn’t gotten to just yet.  Eventually, I understood that the symbol of the poem was about the complexity of the intimacy between sisters.  I just needed some space to figure it out.  As a result, I dramatically revised the poem to a new work.  This is similar to what a student, Charles, experienced.  He realized that revision, or, having a new conception of a work, requires hard work.   He says, “. . . instead of just improving on the same paper, I wrote one with a completely different point” (589).  Then there is the story of Creg who “faced with turning in a revised draft of a major class assignment, decides that he needs to start over, virtually from scratch, in order to get it right” (586).  In other words, it is optimal if students realize that sometimes their revisions require starting anew, in order to create a completely different work.      

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4 Responses to The Power of Revision by Giselle

  1. adouglass says:

    The point you highlight here, Giselle, about the importance of starting totally new with a piece of writing sometimes, is an interesting and thorny one, and I want to think about it in conjunction with Sarah’s comment about her frustration with what can feel like a lack of student interest/effort. I know that I often feel the way Sarah does, and in that frame of mind, it would be very difficult for me to imagine one of my students making the move that the student you refer to does, completely starting from scratch with a new essay. It feels like between these two pictures, we have two opposite ends of a spectrum of commitment. In fact, the the level of commitment needed for the writer to say “This isn’t enough/right” and scrap the whole thing strikes me as something of a ludicrously high bar of expectation for us to have for our students because, if I’m being honest, there have been very few times in my own life when I’ve made such a move — and in the scant cases I can remember, I did so because the thing I was writing had some very real, concrete purposes it needed to accomplish (e.g. the writing I did as part of my application to this program). And yet, when I think about my comments to students, I am often making suggestions that do ask them to reimagine their drafts entirely so that they are closer to the prompt, or so that they better reflect some suddenly insightful digressive comment they make near the end. I just want to use this blog post to remind myself of how daunting and discouraging such a comment must be, no matter how kind the wording, to a new college student who is only beginning to develop the tools to tackle it. Because, actually, when I realize that my own writing needs a rethink, I rarely start from scratch because I have other, more efficient tools for making such a shift, and I realize that what I’ve written so far can probably be redeployed in some new shape. And even if I do start over, I know that I am not really starting over, but that the difficult thinking I’ve done in the first draft will be used to much more swiftly crank out the second. Since my students probably don’t have that knowledge, or at least don’t feel as confident as I do with restructuring strategies, I can imagine that my comments might sometimes seem like a demand that they start over from scratch, and I can understand why a student might reject that task. So what I’m focusing on from our readings this week is the setting of limited, concrete, and reasonable goals for revision in my comments.

  2. Kristi says:

    I agree with Alison; asking students to throw something out completely is idealistic on our part. They’re never going to do it, and I feel like telling them to would overwhelm them. Because they are so new to writing, having them throw something out that they worked hard on would break their confidence in themselves. Maybe it would be more beneficial to have them try this method as an in-class excercise? Where they write out a paragraph or outline some thoughts, then have them talk about it in small groups. Once the groups are done, they put their original versions aside and write a new version of the same item. Then have them compare it. I feel like this could be beneficial to see how writing changes over time, and it would encourage them to go back and extensively edit their work (and not necessarily throw it out after the first draft).

  3. Nick Earhart says:

    Teaching creative writing, and emphasizing revision, I have also wondered what this process entails. I appreciate your anecdote, Giselle, about your recent poem, because it highlights the quality of chance involved in giving feedback—especially for assignments, as with poems, where the “criteria” is less than clear. This weekend I finally tackled the mounting pile of creative drafts on my desk. I struggled to conjure a varied enough vocabulary while striking the balance between “encouraging” and “critical.” Likewise, I had difficulty deciding just how precise I should get with my suggestions, as I’m trying to both encourage autonomy and situate the work in relation to our readings. On top of all this, the immensity of the task limited how much time I could spend with each piece.

    Which is to say, I emphasized (what seem to me to be) the essentials—theme, imagery, creative usage vs. cliché—and offered occasional subjective suggestions, hoping that some of them would click. I’m interested in this idea of, say, parallel criteria, where certain expectations are more concrete than others. I’m still trying to convey this sort of structured creativity, though it’s been difficult even situating the students within the conversation of poetry. But I hope revision will be a place for them to recognize their efforts first in the context of our workshop, and then in the limited scope of what we’ve read so far. I can’t imagine they will re-write their drafts, but I am optimistic that looking over drafts will lead to new connections—and perhaps make tangible the progress we’ve made over the past month or so.

    I’m interested in how the composition people are dealing with revision, since it seems to me self-evidently useful and potentially a tough sell. More particularly: I’d be curious to discuss the idea of “clarity”—what we mean by it, and how students (in both comp and creative writing) perceive this goal.

  4. I apologize for my late comment–like Sarah I had limited time today, but unlike Sarah I did not plan ahead. I want to share my experience receiving my students’ second essay drafts today because it draws on Giselle’s focus on revision and, a little more abstractly, on writing comments. My students found the 2nd essay task tricky, and when I asked how writing their drafts went, they pretty unanimously said “terribly.” 6 or 7 students came up to say they felt like they’d failed to complete or address the assignment, and then briefly explained what they had so far in their drafts. In every case, I could certainly see why they felt their drafts were lacking–they only fulfilled half the task, they were missing a thesis statement, etc–and in almost every case, in hearing themselves describe their papers and explain what they hadn’t done, they recognized what they were missing and articulated to me how they would improve their drafts in their revisions. In the other cases, I just restated the task of the assignment and offered really general advice (“make a claim,” “don’t just summarize”) and they were then able to articulate their plan for how to improve their paper in their revision. One student even said she might scrap her draft and start over (which I wasn’t expecting, especially after reading Harris and, like Kristi, thinking that expecting this of students was idealistic). I got the sense that they felt “terrible” about their drafts because after their first papers, they’d instinctively raised their standards for their own writing and tried very hard to meet those standards, to some degree taken my comments on their first papers to heart, and started asking themselves the kinds of questions I‘d asked them on those first drafts. I also felt like almost every student expressed some degree of appreciation for the process of revision itself, like the appreciation that Giselle is expressing in this post: first drafts are unclear, ambiguous, full of gaps, and revision is the chance to clarify, refine, fill the gaps. I’d felt somewhat discouraged by the “revisions” of their first papers, as many of them looked strangely similar to their first drafts. But I think the students are rising to the occasion of revision now, and they seem to have intuited the purpose, as explained by this week’s readings, of written comments–something I’m still trying to understand and become good at.

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