The gestalt of revision

Adult woman sitting at a desk writing on a notepad sitting with a phone and laptop

The Hemingway quote “writing is rewriting” is thoroughly wired into the brains of writing instructors, which may be one of the reasons that when I talk to English graduate students about their revision practices, they sound so miserable. They know that, by now, they should have revision practices. But when pressed, they despair that they don’t. Advanced undergraduates aren’t miserable about their revision skills. They’re lost. “Nobody really shows you the process,” a senior English major told me. I don’t want to believe this is true, of course, because since the 1980s writing theorists emphasized revision as a key part of the writing process.

Textbooks like mine devote an entire chapter to the subject. What’s going on? That’s what my colleague Kelly Myers and I wanted to find out when we launched a research project last spring on the revision practices of advanced undergraduate and graduate English students. So far, we’ve learned that most students probably do know more about revision than they think. But they see it in two very limited ways. First, they see the task largely as rewriting their texts to comply with instructor and peer comments, not as an opportunity to generate new ideas or ways of seeing. Second, students are so focused on revising the parts—the word, the sentence, the passage, the paragraph—that they lose sight of the whole.

Though they might mention a thesis, many students don’t really have a rich language to talk about the larger purposes of a piece of writing. In short, they don’t see the gestalt of their drafts. One solution to this might be to find ways to help writing students  actually see that gestalt, to encourage them to literally visualize what a draft looks like as a whole and how it relates to the parts. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. For example, journalism students learn to visualize the inverted pyramid as a form for hard news. Are there other useful visual metaphors? Are there other ways of seeing how information is organized in a draft? These are the questions that I pursue in the webinar. My ideas about this are still tentative, and they need more classroom testing, but my students do seem to find some of these approaches helpful, especially the notion that they should see the “pyramidness” of a draft. What’s that? Watch the webinar to find out.


About the Author
Bruce Ballenger

Bruce Ballenger

Dr. Bruce Ballenger is a professor of English and former department chair at Boise State University, specializing in composition theory, inquiry-based learning, and creative nonfiction. He is the author of seven books, including best-selling textbooks The Curious Writer and The Curious Researcher, both published by Pearson. He has published more than thirty articles and essays in publications ranging from River Teeth: A Journal of Narrative Nonfiction to College English. His latest book is Crafting Truth: Short Studies in Creative Nonfiction.