10 Ways to Help Teen Writers Revise

Teacher friends, moment of truth: in my top ten list of irritating scenarios as an English teacher, one of them is looking at a student’s so-called “improved” draft that looks exactly the same as the last time I saw it.

If I make time to give formative feedback on a rough draft, I want the student to USE IT. If the student got the chance to revise a final draft and raise a grade, then the new one needs to fix the last draft’s problems instead of ignore them.

And if students are asked to REVISE their writing, heaven help them if they only fix a few commas and try to get past me.

Part of the problem is that true revision is real work. It’s difficult. It takes time, asks for focus, and requires really challenging decisions (such as which sentences to cut or where to add more). Plus, not all students are skilled enough to even RECOGNIZE which sentences NEED attention, so asking them to identify weak word choices can be nearly impossible.

Though I can’t solve the world’s revision problems in the scope of one blog post, here are a few ideas to get started.

(P.S. - You might also like the sister blog post, 10 Ways to Get Students to Proofread Effectively.)

1. Establish the difference between proofreading, editing, and revising.
Don’t assume that students know the difference between finding errors, fixing errors, and changing content. (I’ve put these three vocab words on tests before!) Even if they do know the technical definitions, they might need coaching about exactly how to do each one.

2. Use metaphors to explain why it’s important after all.
To really make the differences from #1 clear, I like to explain that proofreading is like checking your teeth, whereas revision is like a makeover. Those visuals help illustrate how proofreading is about the little fixes, but a good revision makeover will create “bigger” changes.

3. Give visual examples of “before” and “after” writing.
Many can be found online, but don’t be afraid to show students your own draft and EITHER revise it in front of them, revise it with them, or show them an already-revised draft and ask them to find the differences.

4. Show them what authors have said about revision.
One of my co-teachers, who is also an author, likes to preach that “revision is radical”, and she has shown them her past drafts (with real editors’ comments on them) to talk about what she changed over time. Another author, Shelley Pearsall, literally stacked all her drafts of one book into a pile that was taller than she was.

If you can find a local OR well-known author to make it visual and add credibility to your case, bring them in for a visit!

5. Require turning in BOTH a rough draft and a final draft…
… or use the revision history of Google Docs creatively. I have sometimes asked students to color-code what they’ve added or changed between drafts (with a highlighter).

6. Encourage them to read their work out loud.
Though I usually teach this as a proofreading strategy, it’s also good for revision. If a sentence is too long or a word choice is bad, those problems and others become obvious very quickly when read out loud. (Need a starting point? Check out my FREE revision read-aloud activity!)

7. Stress peer reading just as much as peer editing.
Peer editing is fine, but I think we teachers don’t ask students to do enough peer READING. To me, the difference is asking students to ignore the grammar and “be a picky reader”, telling the writer where they lost the reader’s attention, which parts they couldn’t visualize, or which moments weren’t clear.

8. Raise the stakes for the assignment.
Students are more motivated to revise when there’s a good reason to push for perfection, whether that’s because the assignment is important for their grade OR, even better, when people OTHER than the teacher will be reading their work. (For more on this, check out this blog post about getting guest speakers and judges into your English class.)

9. Show off the students who do amazing revision makeovers.
When a student REALLY bites the bullet and does dramatic revision (or perhaps starts over entirely), my co-teachers and I try to praise the student quietly AND publicly to show students that revision isn’t just something that authors do.

10. Honor it in a writing portfolio or display.
If you use a digital or paper-based portfolio, keep a tab for revision, and let students show off their best rough-to-final draft transformation. (Want to take it to the next level? Dedicate bulletin board or chalkboard space to showing off great “before” and “after” student writing side-by-side!)

(Click here to see an updated list of ALL my editing, revising, and grammar lessons.)

Do you have more ideas? Tell me in the comments!

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