Adapted from Teaching Nonfiction Revision: A Professional Writer Shares Strategies, Tips, and Lessons by Sneed B. Collard and Vicki Spandel
Remember the scene in the movie Alien where the baby alien bursts out of the crew member’s chest cavity? The same horror we felt watching that monster erupt onto the screen is what many students experience when facing revision. Really, who can blame them? They just finished sweating over a writing assignment—and that was hard enough. Now you want them to go back and revisit that very same piece? Have you lost your mind?
Student resistance to revision often comes from a perception that revision is not only tedious but an indication that they have done something wrong. After all, if they had not failed in some way, why would they need to revise?
Professional writers view the process differently. For us, revision reflects a deep commitment to both audience and message. While an early draft provides a beginning point, good writers are driven to refine that draft until it conveys their thinking as precisely, completely, and compellingly as possible.
In The Story of Charlotte’s Web (2012), biographer Michael Sims tells us that author E. B. White “kept revising, crossing out, starting over” throughout the many days it took him to write his best-selling book. White spent hours “wrestling to get sections right,” often drawing large Xs across whole pages, framing sentences in multiple ways to see which one sounded best, and writing himself marginal notes such as “Fix” or “Make this better” (194–205).
Sharing these kinds of anecdotes with students helps show them the pains top writers take to create something people actually want to read. But how do we encourage E. B. White’s kind of determination and experimentation in students? One way is by creating an environment that presents revision not as an ordeal or threat, but as an opportunity.
• • •
What would such an environment look like?
Well, obviously, writers who are revising need tools—a comfortable workspace, highlighters, tape and scissors, resource books, and with luck, computers. But an environment that truly supports revision goes beyond the physical. Below are six steps you can take to turn your classroom into a safe, rewarding—even exciting—“revision ecosystem.”
Choice: Give students opportunities to choose their own topics.
Collaboration: Provide writers multiple chances to share and confer with one another
Modeling : Model revision often. Do you feel shy about this? No worries. You don’t have to aim for a Pulitzer Prize. It’s the process students need to see.
Ownership: Let students own their writing. As hard as it might be—and it can be one of the hardest things to do—resist the temptation to make revision choices for the writer.
Risk-Taking: To revise effectively, students must be willing to take risks—often big ones. If students fear losing something good while trying to make it better, have them copy the section they are working on into a new document so they feel safe to take risks required for bold, effective revision
Examples : Fill your classroom with the best nonfiction writing you can find. Read sections of great texts aloud to your students. Share photos and diagrams. Examples show students how nonfiction writers handle special challenges.
• • •
All of the above steps share a common goal: to make your students feel comfortable taking charge of their own writing. A supportive environment doesn’t guarantee that students will start pounding on desktops, demanding more revision time. It will help them view revision as a dynamic, exciting process—one that, with practice, will let them achieve their full writing potential.
• • •
To learn more about Teaching Nonfiction Revision, and to download a sample chapter, visit Heinemann.com
One of today’s favorite nonfiction children’s authors, Sneed B. Collard III has written more than 80 books, ranging from captivating picture books to middle-grade novels to award-winning science books. He is the 2006 recipient of the Washington Post Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award for his body of work. To learn more about Sneed, his books, and speaking activities, visit www.sneedbcollardiii.com.
Vicki Spandel has spent her professional life working with students and teachers of writing—as a classroom instructor, online writing coach, journalist, editor, technical writer, and curriculum developer. She is the author of multiple books on writing, including Creating Writers, Creating Young Writers, and The 9 Rights of Every Writer. Visit Vicki online at http://sixtraitgurus.wordpress.com to see writing lessons based on contemporary literature.