A Culture of Revision
riting is often distilled into a one-person job. For some college students, that means solitary confinement in front of a computer screen from late night and into early morning, diligently pounding at the keyboard while sometimes simultaneously pulling out hairs. Other students may prefer the multi-draft process of honing their writing alone into a self-satisfying final paper.
In both cases, revising the paper is ultimately limited to an internal conversation the writer has with himself. But effective revision can go far beyond self-checking for grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, and incomplete sentences - a lesson I learned firsthand as a Writing Associate in Training (WAIT) last semester for Swarthmore's Writing Associates (WA) program.
As part of the training course for all newly hired WAs, my fellow WAITs and I focused on various aspects about the writing process over the course of the semester. Chief among them was the WA program's emphasis of the important interpersonal connection between the writer and the reader during revision. Joseph Harris, director of Duke University's writing program, describes this as a "social process of reading and response" that can "[encourage] students to be more ambitious in adding to and rethinking their texts" and "[push] students to articulate a sense of an intellectual project." Ideally, a paper is not just an amalgamation of thoughts and keystrokes on a computer screen, but instead an active and living conversation between the writer and the reader that is captured concretely on a page and not floating abstractly in the air.
For some writers, it takes a bad draft that needs serious revision in order to purge the myriad of ideas and half-complete thoughts floating in the writer's mind. Whether the paper exists as five full pages of writing or two full minutes of oral explanation, however, the revision is a prime opportunity to go beyond surface-level thinking. Harris describes the revision stage as a "chance to ask students to rethink not just what they have to say but also what they are trying to do as writers." WAs assist in this process as they engage writers in conferences by lifting their thoughts from the page and reexamining them in conversation together, either through in-person or written feedback on papers. The WA's questions and comments allow the writer to think critically about her paper based on not only her own perceptions of the paper but also that of a reader.
Nonetheless, at this point of the writing process, as Gerald Graff suggests in Clueless in Academe (2004), "those outsiders' questions that at first sight seem clueless - 'So what?' 'What's your point?' 'What does it have to do with me?' and 'Why does any of this matter?' - often turn out to be the smartest and most clarifying."
These smart, "clarifying" questions, on the surface, seem to ask for obvious answers. But in fact, the obvious is sometimes ignored by the writer to the detriment of the paper, and as a result, connections between thoughts and ideas are not fully formed. Often, asking these "so what" questions reminds and redirects the writer back to the basics of the main argument.
And what is obvious to the writer may not be so obvious to the reader. The questioning during a WA conference helps to ensure that the writer's ideas are comprehensible not only to the writer but also, more importantly, to the reader, who may require more clarification or explanation to understand than the writer may. Thus, revising allows the writer multiple opportunities to some greater ownership and responsibility for her words and thoughts, not only for improving a paper's clarity, but also for continuing the writer's thought process. This revision goes beyond the mere tinkering of paragraphs and sentences to foster greater engagement between the writer, her writing, and ultimately the reader.
The existence and growth of the WA program - which serves 20-25 courses each semester - is a testament to the College's belief that writing is a critical aspect of the learning process, and that revision is an important step of that process. The WA program's continued support for students in the process of revision, and thus for a culture of revision, ultimately helps to provide and strengthen the tools of the student writer for his college career and beyond. This culture of revision frames the reexamining of a paper as a natural, social part of the writing process. For just as a student formulates and then rebuilds thoughts and concepts in her mind, a student should be able to draft and then revise thoughts and concepts in her paper.
Top center photo by Cheryl Tse '09.