Revising Our Thinking About Revising

Recently, I’ve been thinking about writing. I’ve been reading research about writers and thinking about how it relates to the writing students do in schools—virtual or otherwise. Of course, there are many kinds of writing students need to learn, much of it used to express their ideas in various domains: essays about history, reviews of books or films, science logbooks, etc. But today I want to think specifically about writing fiction, what, when I was young, we called “creative writing.” A number of authors have studied the creative processes of writers, but they all seem to come back to similar descriptions of the writing process: exploration, initial writing, rewriting, and final revisions.  For example, Oatley (2008) presented Flaubert’s five stages of writing artistic prose. The stages include:

  1. Plan. In this stage the author conceives an idea; daydreaming, imagining, and possibly researching settings or time periods.
  2. Scenarios. Here the author makes notes about potential characters, settings, events, or phrases that could be used in the piece. Few of these notes will be part of the final writing.
  3. Expanded rough drafts. At this point the author begins to write sentences or paragraphs, anything that occurs to them, in any order. Form is not important.
  4. Refined drafts. Here, finally, the piece begins to take shape and events are put in order. Much of the rough draft may disappear as words and phrases are carefully selected. Multiple drafts may be created at this stage.
  5. Final draft.

Very similar processes are described by Bourgeouis-Bourgrine et al. (2014) describing the work of screenwriters.  They move from information gathering and daydreaming to vague plans and sketches, to more structured drafts, and multiple revisions before completing a final product.

As I’ve thought about these models, it struck me that they can be very similar—or very different from—the way the writing process is taught in schools. Most versions of the writing process include planning, initial writing, revising, and publishing. The trick, I think, is in how we define “revising.” It is too easy for young people to envision these stages as “Think of an idea. Write it down. Fix what’s wrong. Hand in your paper.” In this case, no authentic revision has taken place.

It is easy for young people to assume that “really good” writers get it right the first time, so the fewer revisions needed, the better. In fact, the opposite is true. Revision is not about getting the technical aspects of writing correct, although, of course, that must eventually be accomplished. It is not about fixing errors in the first draft; it is a process of exploration. Just as we teach students about fluency, “Your first idea is practically never your best idea.” The process of revision is not looking for missed commas, but seeking further ideas, adding details, or clarifying focus.

Years ago, one of my favorite tools for teaching this idea was a reproduction of the original manuscript of Dickens’ Christmas Carol. Fortunately, it is now available to everyone courtesy of the Gutenberg Project. Scroll down until you can see the handwritten manuscript. It is covered with crossed out words, deleted paragraphs, and inserts. Dickens, one of the greatest English authors of all times, needed lots of revisions to create this best works. Seeing that seemed to help my students stop, take a breath, and feel freer to think about what might be more interesting about their work rather than looking for mistakes. Perhaps it will help your students, too. In these days when—at least in my hemisphere—days are getting darker and so much of the news is full of tragedies, some imaginative writing might be just the thing to raise our spirits and provide escape and adventure. I don’t know about you, but I definitely could use some!

Bourgeois-Bougrine, S., Glaveanu, V., Botella, M., Guillou, K., De Biasi, P. M., & Lubart, T. (2014). Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 8(4), 384-399.

Oatley, K. (2008). Writing as thinking. Review of General Psychology, 12(1), 9-27. DOI: 10.1037/1089-2680.12.1.9

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