Building Revision Into the Syllabus

Muriel Harris usefully posited the notion of “one-draft writers” and “multi-draft writers” in 1989. For anything less than a novel, I tend to be a “one-drafter”, meaning that I resist revision because I do most of my deep revision on the planning end of things. My outlines are basically my first drafts, and by the time I have something that looks remotely like my final goal, I’m pretty much done.

Different writing processes for different folks. Wait, not quite how that quote goes…
Image by Milos Milosevic via StockSnap

Not everyone writes this way; there are “multi-drafters” who are throwing things onto the page and then teasing out what’s worth keeping. I liken the difference to a sculptor who works in clay (one-draft) who builds up and then occasionally cuts away versus a sculptor who works in stone, who makes big cuts and then makes fine cuts, but ultimately spends all their time removing what isn’t working. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but it works for me.

The problem is that the classroom models of teaching seldom allow both kinds of processes. Too often we say multi-drafting is best, where deep revision should happen after a first draft, but we also model and enforce one-drafting, where we require outlines and timed-writing situations, which privilege one-drafting. Assignments are often one-and-done draft situations. After all, we have too many students and not enough time to read the same paper over and over, right?

I’ve experimented with a revision policy before to try to reconcile this disconnect between what we say and what we do in the classroom, and to support multi-drafters in the classroom, but no one really took it. This semester, though, my revision policy has been actually working–several students are taking advantage of it and they are truly making deep revisions in light of the feedback they’ve gotten on their graded work.

So what’s working here? Well, here’s the policy as written in the syllabus:

You may revise any major assignment that earns less a B or lower in order to have the revised version regraded. To revise, you must notify Dr. Cox in writing of your intention to revise and submit your revised assignment along with a short (1 page, double spaced) reflection on what choices you made in the revision process and why. This must all be submitted within 1 week of receiving your original assignment feedback and grade, unless you make alternate arrangements with Dr. Cox. Dr. Cox will then re-grade the revised assignment, and the new grade will replace the original assignment’s grade.

I worried that the policy might be too onerous for myself, or that it might be too generous, encouraging students to submit half-finished work and rely on the revision policy to game the system. However, so far the requirement of the reflection page has accounted for all of that.

In fact, the reflections have been deep and useful; they show how students are reading the feedback and help me know what kinds of feedback are working.

Now, do not think that simply including the policy in your syllabus is enough to support such a policy (although you are welcome to take the policy, even verbatim, if you like; I’m not stingy with my syllabi). I have reminded students frequently that the policy exists, often as a way to help them overcome anxiety about an assignment so that the deadline isn’t quite so final. I have also taught them about multi-draft and one-draft processes and had them reflect on their own writing processes in order to assess their own needs as writers.

But it’s also supported by another policy that’s had some unexpected effects in the classroom: my due date policy.

At the beginning of the semester, I wrote about trying out a new way of assigning due dates: this semester, my students choose their due date within a range of a “due week” (with some restrictions). I’ll discuss how that’s going next week (this week is actually a “due week” and I’m in the middle of it, so I can’t really assess how it’s going just yet), but I have already observed that it’s caused some unexpected effects–students actually seem more proactive about seeking help in advance of due dates now, but they also seem more willing to revise after the fact as well. I’m not sure why, but it’s worth noting that I’m not sure the revision policy alone is sufficient to support deep after-the-fact revisions.

Of course, some students will resist revision no matter what. I was one of those students, so I understand that. But I’m fascinated that, for whatever reason, this semester’s attempt at a revision policy seems to be truly working.

What’s your favorite revision tool?
Image by Jeffrey Betts via StockSnap

What are some ways that you encourage revision on writing assignments or in the writing classroom?

2 thoughts on “Building Revision Into the Syllabus

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