Revising a theme draft sounds dreary. If you had asked me two years ago, “Do you like revising your own work?” I would have said, “No, who enjoys that?” However, a new angle on revising turned it into something pleasurable for me, and this has helped me communicate the same to students in my writing classes.
It’s humbling to realize that our first work on a paper is seldom our best work. If we expect that, discouragement is likely. Writing is more a process, like with painting or sculpting, where the best results come from playing with the medium until satisfied.
With writing, trying to compose, revise, and edit all at the same time will lead most people to see writing in a legalistic and mechanical way rather than a creative and exploratory way. I find that often I discover what I am saying by saying it. If I have to always know in advance, then there’s no safe zone for typing away as part of finding out what I think, thus the value of getting thoughts out first and arranging them later.
But of course, great drafting isn’t the final goal; the theme is. With my own work, I started looking at pieces I had written and seeing that what looked good at first was often wordy and rambling: something reminds me of something that reminds me of something else, and then I ask, “Now what was it I was trying to say?” It’s easy to feel inadequate or to take blame for not doing it correctly the first time.
I learned to laugh at myself and start cutting words or lines and then smoothing connections to keep a flow with the main points intended. When I started to see this as creative instead of legislative, it became art and enjoyment.
A huge influence on me in improving my own work has come from reading student papers. As I noticed things that clog their clear flow of thought, I began recognizing where I do the same things. Part of this comes from getting down in part onto paper what is a whole picture in our heads. We see a thing in all its steps and transitions, but in writing, it’s natural to have gaps where we hope the reader can fill in, as if seeing into our heads.
This rarely happens. Those gaps leave the reader saying, “You were just talking about this, and now suddenly you bring up that. How did you get from this point to that point?” To complicate matters, the reader may be looking at a long paragraph with apparent multiple ideas and hardly any transitioning.
The good news is this is normal for drafting. So when a student brings a draft to me for feedback and I find myself lost trying to follow a long paragraph, I say, “I’m having trouble figuring out what this paragraph is about.” To assure the student, I say, “Don’t think of me as the teacher who has the one correct way in mind. Think of me as a friend you’re sharing this with, and I’m merely saying that I’m having trouble figuring out your main idea here and how these individual points connect.”
This helps put the student at ease, along with more emphasis on “This is perfect as a draft. How can you get these thoughts into a flow that makes for a paragraph with one main topic?
Often too, I say, “This sounds elementary, but I think of it like having colored marbles. Imagine that I have yellow ones, green ones, and blue ones, but they’re all mixed up, and I want to group them by color.” This helps a lot of students.
The excitement in class as students are working on their papers increases when they see their drafts as perfect starting places and that I am not measuring their drafts against a finished standard and saying, “Why is this unclear?” When they believe me that I am responding to them as their audience and not as someone looking to say, “Ha, gottcha,” they get excited about helping me understand what they are trying to say.
And similar to my experience in discovering as I go, they might find out more about what they want to say. Revision turns out to be nothing to fear. An old mentor of mine used to say, “Confusion is the pathway to clarity.” That’s a relaxing thought and good for writing pedagogy.
(pleasureteam note: Brian is one of my office mates, and our desks are separated only by a “cube wall.” I marvel on a daily basis at Brian’s gracious and gentle guidance of his aspiring writers. Anne and I offer our sympathy for the mountain of less-than-stellar themes he tackles with kindness, good humor, and diligence. He teaches not only his students but, by his example, this teacher as well. —- Karen)