Dear Incoming Freshman: A Letter on Revision

Written on April 6, 2015 for ENGW 471 (Genre: Open letter for The Wheaton Record)

Dear incoming freshman,

When you hear the word revision, what do you think of?

When I first came to Wheaton, I would have said spell-check. In high school, I usually glanced through my papers, made a few sentence-level revisions, and clicked submit. When my papers were returned, any grammar errors I had missed were marked. I also received an endnote describing my paper’s strengths and weaknesses. I repeatedly received comments asking for stronger “evaluation,” but I was never invited to revise my papers in light of this feedback. Since my grades were pretty good and I wasn’t sure how to fix the evaluation-problem on my own, I didn’t really try. I came to college under the impression that revision was primarily equivalent to copyediting.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who came to college with an inadequate definition of revision. Many students arrive at Wheaton with mixed ideas about the nature of revision. I conducted an online survey to compare students’ experience of revision at Wheaton with their experience of revision in high school. Nineteen students from varied high school backgrounds responded to my survey. Thirty-six percent of these students reported that revision in high school primarily involved correcting grammar and spelling errors. Twenty-one percent of those surveyed continue think of revision as an opportunity to correct spelling and grammar. One student described revision as “taking what you’ve already written and making it pretty.” Another student described revision as a process for “correcting mistakes that you didn’t find in your paper the first time.” The first student focused on the aesthetic function of revision, while the second focused on eliminating error. However, both these students failed to see revision as an opportunity to make improvements on form and argument.

The concept of revision as a micro-level task has been around for a long time. In her article “Research on Revision and Writing,” Jill Fitzgerald traces a history of views on revision and process methods. She notes that during the classical period scholars treated revision much the way I did in high school: as a form of copyediting. Fitzgerald says that “for Aristotle, alterations were confined to sentence-level polishing” (481-2). Educators continued to treat revision as a tool that dealt with micro-level errors till process-writing theory began to develop in the early 1970s. The drift toward process-writing was begun by Janet Emig who offered stages of writing and presented ways for instructors to guide students through these stages. In “Preparing to Teach Writing,” James Williams writes, “The traditional pedagogy that Emig (1971) sought to replace viewed writing as a single act, with papers essentially written in one go” (58). While theory may have arrived at the conclusion that revision plays a significant role in writing improvement, practice has not yet caught up. A quick glimpse at my survey reveals that a large percentage of students still treat revision as a kind of polishing. However, revision has the potential to be so much more helpful.

In a paper entitled “Redefining Revision for Freshman,” authors Wallace and Hayes argue that skillful writers revise a text by engaging it globally. They look at purpose, audience and overall organization (56). You can train yourself to engage global revision by asking questions like these about your paper:

  • What is my thesis? How do my units of text relate to my thesis? How could I push this idea even further?
  • How does my audience inform this piece? How could this piece be more informed by its audience?
  • What is working organizationally? What is not working organizationally?

My writing process has been reshaped by this new definition of revision. For example, in writing this paper I began with a draft, then work-shopped the draft with a classmate and with my professor. My classmate recognized an inconsistency between my original audience and my content, so I shifted my audience to accommodate the research I had done. The shift in audience prompted a genre shift, which required me to create a “works cited” page rather than relying on in-text citations. I also decided to incorporate more focused information from my survey to strengthen my argument, and opted to include this meta-moment. In some papers like this one, I may only choose to make minor structural revisions; in others I may explore a new thesis and rewrite the paper.

Maybe this process sounds a bit overwhelming. I can assure you that not every college paper requires intensive revision. Some professors will require you to make a formal revision and others won’t. Professors who don’t require revision primarily want to assess your content absorption. Those who do require revision want you to improve your writing skills and your arguments—they want you to continue to learn as you write. Regardless of which type of professor you have, your writing skills will vastly improve if you take time to consider the global elements of your paper before you click submit.


Angela Webster

Works Cited

Jill Fitzgerald. “Research on Revision in Writing.” Review of Educational Research 57.4 (1987) : 481-506. Web. 28 March 2015. < >

Williams, James D. Preparing to Teach Writing: Research, Theory, and Practice. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.

Hayes, John and David Wallace. “Redefining Revision for Freshmen.” Research in the Teaching of English 25.1 (1991) : 54-66 < >

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