Invention, Drafting, and Revision: A Practical Approach to the Writing Process and Commenting on Student Work
As educators and writers, we are fully aware that writing is a process consisting of several steps like invention and discovery and composition and revision. The discovery process allows students to generate ideas or topics to write about, while the teacher and peer revision processes have two general outcomes: assessing and resolving superficial grammatical and formatting issues, and, more importantly, addressing deeper issues regarding content. For example, the process of revising content raises several questions such as: Does the essay communicate its ideas in a logical, concise, and coherent manner? Are any counterarguments or other relevant issues addressed? In short, these revision processes and commenting on student work presents the writer with a reader, a reader that will help the writer question their own work in order to make it stronger. In the following paragraphs, I’d like to offer my classroom approach to implementing these practices in a freshman composition course.
Invention & Discovery
In a typical freshman composition course, students are asked to write several academic essays, which usually incorporate the use of sources and supporting material and abide by the current standard formatting and grammatical conventions. However, before any essay is written, one must first have an idea of which to write about. For me, the writing process begins here. It begins with that first kernel of thought that, with work, will grow into a full essay.
This process starts in the classroom. Please keep in mind that this kind of assignment doesn’t come into play until about at least a month into the semester, by which time we have covered what I call “the greatest hits” of academic essay writing—the basic elements of an essay, research, sources and citations, plagiarism, etc. After giving them the rudimentary requirements of the essay assignment—for example, 3–4 pages, four college library sources, etc.—I tell them that the next class period they are to come to class with three topics they would like to write about; I ask them to generate these topics by answering these two questions: Is there something you know nothing about but have always wanted to learn more about? Is there something you really know a lot about and love?
The goal is that their essay either explores something they know nothing about, or it perceives a known subject in a new way. Both ask the writer to think and learn, and the essay is really the transcription of this process. My overarching goal for my students regarding writing is to always think of the writing process as an argument or debate they are having with someone, but they are not there to defend it. Formulating these topics in this way sets up the essay to be an exploration in thought; the writer will have to make “moves”; that is, question, formulate a thesis, investigate, anticipate, counter, etc.—all the “moves” good compelling writing makes. Whichever they choose, the idea is that students will pick a topic they care about. And anyone who has tried to write about something they didn’t care about knows how much better their writing is when they write about something they are invested in.
As a class, we go one-by-one, and each student tells us his or her topics. Usually they have a favorite, so we go with that. Often times, either I or another student will help refine the topic or idea by offering counterarguments or new avenues of exploration. Some students show up and are debating between two topics, or a few students share the same topic or are dancing around the same issue. Sometimes I will pair or group students to work together but write individual essays; this way they can share sources and information, working collaboratively if they so choose. This process has several beneficial outcomes: it empowers the students by letting them choose their own topics; the student is invested in the topic, and the hope is that this enthusiasm transfers over into the writing process; the classroom becomes a writing community. I tell them that they have just built a writing a community, a place to share thoughts and ideas, a space in which to examine possibilities and formulate arguments and counter arguments, a site in which to share sources and support information they have culled as a class. At the end of this process, students are asked to begin drafting.
The next time we meet as a class, students have been instructed to come to class with two copies of their rough drafts and the peer revision rubrics. The rubric is the same rubric I use to grade their essays. It consists of categories and values for essay elements like grammar, thesis, sources and documentation, etc. I have borrowed my rubric from Terry Doyle’s Helping Students Learn in a Learner-Centered Environment. The students are asked to review each other’s essays using the rubric and assigning numerical values to each category and averaging these scores for a final letter grade. Each student will leave the class with two revised copies. They are instructed to revise those essays and then meet with me individually for one more round of revisions.
In my experience, this process tends to fail unless you know the individual proficiency levels of your students. We all know that there can be huge variances in proficiency levels amongst students in a class, so grouping according to levels of proficiency is key here. I always group at least one weaker writer with two stronger writers. The goal is that everyone gets practice in revising, in becoming more familiar with what to focus on in the essay. The theory is that students will become better writers by “backwards engineering,” so to speak, their essays. This round allows students to “finalize” their drafts; that is, clean up any grammatical and formatting issues and focus the essay by addressing any issues raised pertaining to logic, argument, support, etc. Students are instructed to revise their essays based on the feedback from their peer reviews and then to meet with me individually to go over this “final” draft.
Students come to me with their draft printed out and we go over it together as I leave comments, suggestions, and reminders on the draft. At first, I address grammatical and formatting issues, but by this round, this is usually not too bad. Usually, what will happen is a student will repeat a grammatical or formatting mistake throughout the essay. This is quite easy to address with a refresher or mini-grammar lesson. With these issues out of the way, the student and I focus on any weak spots in content. Does the essay say what the student wants it to say? Is the essay clear? Does it anticipate counter arguments? And so on.
This round of meeting and commenting is geared toward revision, to motivate the student to examine what meaningful changes in content will make the essay stronger. After conferencing, students turn in a final draft to me, which I comment on and grade according to the rubric they used during the peer revision process. As I’ve mentioned before, when commenting on student work, I do focus on grammatical and formatting issues, but I also focus heavily on content. The idea of the two revision processes is that by the time the final draft gets to me, I, the writer, and two other students have had a chance to “weed” these issues out. The goal is that the revision processes allow me the luxury of focusing more on content by the time I get the final draft because earlier revisions have addressed these issues. I always tell them that if they fully participate in the process, they will already know their grade before they even turn it in. For more information about specific comments that strengthen writing, check out Nancy Sommers’ “Responding to Writing.”