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Addition and the Aggregate: Getting Students to Revise and Edit

I’m coming to the time in the semester when I focus more on getting students to revise and edit their essays. After we finish our third major project, we will move into portfolio revision in the period after Thanksgiving. For this portfolio work, I ask students to revisit essays and projects they created earlier in the semester and rethink (practice deep revision) on at least one section of each project while making needed corrections throughout. I offer a major grade boost in that the revised version of a project counts for more of the overall grade than the original graded essay.  I build in revision during the drafting process throughout the term. Students exchange peer review drafts, help each other invent and shape topics, practice writing intriguing introductions, create outlines, and engage in many similar writing process activities. Several of my students also visit the writing and reading center.

I know the research shows that such writing workshop activities decrease the rate of plagiarism and increase the likelihood of success with writing projects in other classes. However, I’m always amazed at how few changes are made to drafts through this process. For most of my students (⅔ of any given class), once a complete draft meeting the basic requirements has been composed, it’s very difficult to elicit major changes even after offering a bonus grade incentive. Many of the changes made are cosmetic, and sometimes even very basic editing problems noted (by me in a grading rubric!) in earlier drafts are left unchanged in portfolio drafts. Maybe there’s a complete draft superstition. Maybe students think “Well it’s done now, but if I mess with it and make too many changes, I’ll break it.”

The latest tactic I’ve been using, with a bit more success, is describing potential revisions in terms of what’s “missing.” For example, rather than say “your logic is flawed in your discussion of X,” I’m more likely to say “your discussion of X is missing evidence and examples to support an appeal to logic.” Even something as basic as “vague pronoun reference” can be described this way: “Intense use of generic pronouns in paragraph Y is creating placeholders for missing details and examples.” There is a point where I just have to say “you need to edit for Z error” or “your phrasing here is confusing,” but I’m finding that the more I can get students to think in terms of adding what is missing, the more their final drafts change. Yes, new mistakes may be introduced in the process, but the addition process seems to help them create a stronger piece of writing in the aggregate. Maybe they catch typos and confusing phrasing as they rework a passage to add something that’s missing.

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