Revising Still Critical to Writing

Originally published in the Idaho Press-Tribune, Sunday, May 8, 1994

Real writers revise. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Capote – all legendary for reworking their material and reworking and reworking until it exactly suited or until a publication deadline, until, as Hemingway said, every sentence was true. Even Jack Kerouac, notorious for knocking out On the Road in a two-week, single-draft marathon, had written seven previous versions.

I have done this piece three different ways.

So, it’s curious how small a role revision plays in learning to write. My teachers didn’t stress it when I was in high school in the 50s. Occasionally, we had to hand in a “rough draft,” but we weren’t taught revision strategies. Most of us remained one-draft writers.

Times change. For two decades, we have taught a “process” model of writing that stresses revision. Still, the hardest and most frustrating part of teaching kids to write is getting them to revise. I don’t mean just proofreading, important though that may be, but real revision – rethinking the piece, adding, changing, restructuring, maybe trying a completely different approach.

They’re reluctant because it’s hard.  You can do some of it by crossing out and filling in, but mostly, you write the whole thing over and over and… Who doesn’t remember typing a perfect page only to botch the footnote?

So you clean up the spelling, punctuation, and grammar, at best, or you just turn it in as-is to be shut of it.

“Real” writers cheat. They use computers. The computer is probably the most important learning-to-write tool since Mark Twain bought a typewriter; it is probably the most important learning-to-write tool since papyrus replaced the clay tablet.

I don’t mean teaching “computer literacy,” whatever that is. I don’t mean some gimmicky special curriculum designed for “computerized instruction.” I’m talking about a PC and Word Perfect as very practical tools for teaching writing.

We English teachers have seen it: when kids start writing on computers, interesting things happen. If they have been writing constricted papers that don’t develop a topic, they start expanding. If their work has been error-riddled, they start proof reading, and aids like spelling checkers help them do it. Errors show up in typed form, no longer hidden by illegible penmanship. They are more willing to revise if they can reshape their documents in the machine instead of recopying for each change.

The product looks like something. Those of us with poor handwriting find that no matter how hard we labor over a piece, it still looks incompetent.

For these benefits, kids need routine access to computers, not just for English, but for writing in all their classes. The goal is not mere “awareness,” but actually changing writing habits, and that is ever on-going.

The problem is access. Aside from the business and computer labs, Nampa High School has some twenty machines to serve 1500 students’ writing needs. Access is by no means routine or assured if there is always a waiting line to use the lab. The ultimate problem is cost. Computers are expensive, lots are needed, they soon become obsolete, there is no room to put them, more trained people would have to be hired to supervise, etc, etc, etc.

The “future” is here, and it works. It has only to be afforded.

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