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Reading & Literacy Opinion

17 Approaches for Encouraging Students to Revise Their Writing

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 07, 2021 15 min read
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(This is the final post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here; Part Two here; Part Three here, and Part Four here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How do you get students to want to revise their writing?

In Part One, Melissa Butler, Jeremy Hyler, Jenny D. Vo, and Mary Beth Nicklaus shared their recommendations. All four were guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Matthew Johnson, Emily Phillips Galloway, Robert Jiménez, Holland White, Joy Hamm, and Alexandra Frelinghuysen offered their commentaries.

In Part Three, Alexis Wiggins, Keisha Rembert, Alicia Kempin, Sara Holbrook, and Michael Salinger contributed their ideas.

In Part Four, Tara Bogozan, Michelle Shory, Irina McGrath, Mary K. Tedrow, and Donna L. Shrum provided their suggestions.

Today, Sarah Falbo, Jonathan Eckert, Dr. Tracy Edwards, Dr. Rebecca Alber, and Tamera Musiowsky-Borneman “wrap up” this series.

“Authentic audience”

Sarah Falbo began her career with Teach For America in Compton, Calif., and has since taught writing in public, charter, and private elementary and middle schools in the Pittsburgh area. She has also taught at WPWP-sponsored Young Writers Institutes for many summers and coaches students through the college-application essay-writing process:

Six ways to answer the magic question: How do we get students to want to revise their writing?

  1. Offer them authentic assignments, not arbitrary prompts. I find that when my students are invested in the assignment, they are much more likely to care about their writing and want to make it better. Let them take a stance on a controversial issue that matters to them for a debate, propose a solution to a real-world problem as a TED-talk script, or have them choose two high-interest topics to compare/contrast.
  2. Have them appeal to an authentic audience. Find opportunities to have someone other than you their teacher read and respond to your students’ writing. Some options for an additional audience include blogs, writing contests, letters to the editor/principal/CEO, or even the class down the hall.
  3. Show them the underlying structure to their piece to help them see what they can add or don’t need. This can be a revelation—especially to our students to whom the writing process can seem mysterious or too touchy feely. One good way to do this is to add color, literally. Have students color-code reasons, elaboration, and examples in a persuasive essay or details in a memoir. Is there a balance?
  4. As motivation, help them see that their favorite authors often spend more time planning and revising than drafting. The following blog has lots of practical advice from famous authors and even a handwritten plot chart that J.K. Rowling used while planning out The Order of the Phoenix (See 12 Contemporary Writers on How They Revise.)
  5. Explicitly teach students how to use the tools already at their fingertips. Students having trouble typing the words? Use the voice-activated microphone. Finding or spelling the perfect word? Check out the online thesaurus or dictionary. Detecting grammatical errors? Try the grammar checker. I know that this can be controversial, but since these tools are here to stay, why not teach our students how to use them responsibly to improve their writing.
  6. Pick out positive student examples to share with the class during the revision stage. Too often, students equate revision with correction; instead, share an excellent transition, a terrific metaphor, an original thought, or a perfectly chosen word to motivate students at the start of a revision lesson.

I hope that you and your students find these six tips useful as you embrace the messiness of revision—this essential, yet often dreaded step to improved writing.


“Three principles”

Jonathan Eckert is a professor and the Copple Endowed Chair at Baylor University. He has taught elementary, middle, undergraduate, and graduate students outside of Chicago; Nashville, Tenn.; and now, Waco, Texas. He is the author of The Novice Advantage and Leading Together:

I am convinced that I cannot intrinsically motivate any student to want to do anything …. But don’t stop reading.

I have taught 4th graders through graduate students over the past 25 years and have come to realize that by definition, intrinsic motivation comes from within. That is not something that an external person can force.

This does not mean I have given up on getting students to revise their writing well. I am just starting with a different premise—this one: As teachers, we can create conditions where students are more likely to be intrinsically motivated. We do this by providing honest feedback and helping students realize improvement is possible and observable. Here are three principles that have helped me:

Principle #1: Make improvement valuable to students

As a college professor, it makes me sad to see other professors write numerous comments on an assignment that has been graded. What do college students do with these papers once they see the grade? Most recycle the paper or click to the next screen without internalizing the comments.

College students are almost exactly like the middle school students I taught in this regard. In fact, this is true of almost all human beings. Whether we do well or not, the comments do not mean a great deal if there is nothing we can do to improve upon our performance and the subsequent evaluation because the final judgment has already been rendered. At a minimum, students should have an opportunity to improve their grades, but more importantly, they should be able to identify ways in which their work improves over time. This is not about grade inflation. This is about giving students the feedback they need to demonstrate deep, meaningful learning through their writing.

Principle #2: Give concrete feedback on students’ best efforts

As teachers, we need to create opportunities for students to get feedback from peers and from us when they can still improve their final product. That means two things: 1) We have to train peers to give clear, specific feedback for improvement; and 2) as teachers, we need to be sure that we give feedback on “first final drafts.”

Students need specific things to look for in their peers’ writing with training on what good writing would look like; otherwise, peer feedback becomes pooled ignorance. I got the phrase, “first final draft,” from another professor. What it means is that we need students’ best efforts so we can give them meaningful feedback. For many students, a “rough draft” is whatever they can get together the night before, on the bus, or right before class. As I tell my students, the quality of my feedback is dependent on the quality of the work upon which it is based.

Principle #3: Remember that students are just like us

We all want to get better. We want feedback to improve, not evaluation that feels like judgment. Teachers are far more receptive to an evaluation process that focuses on improvement than one that feels like judgment. Our students’ writing should not be any different. Our feedback should point them toward good examples, provide direction for improvement, and facilitate their ability to grow as writers.

While we cannot intrinsically motivate other human beings, we can create conditions where they are more likely to want to improve as writers. As Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia, writes, “People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.” This is especially true for writing, so the key is to tap into curiosity and improvement as we engage in the writing and feedback process with our students.


“Nobody reads this stuff but you anyway!”

With nearly 20 years of educational experience, Dr. Tracy Edwards has an extensive background in teaching, literacy, and curriculum development. Tracy currently works as a 5th grade teacher and curriculum developer at Odyssey Charter Schools:

“A significant part of the writer’s practice—maybe the only part that matters when it comes to attitudes—is recognizing that writing is difficult, that it takes many drafts to realize a finished product, and that you’re never going to be as good as you wish.”

- John Warner, Why They Can’t Write

Writing can be tough. It’s particularly challenging because it never really seems finished. For students, the sense of dread often comes when they realize revision is a natural part of the writing process—one that requires them to make some sophisticated decisions around when a piece is done.

The Power of Authentic Audience

Many teachers make the mistake of ignoring the importance of audience in conversations around student writing. However, the reality is, students, do not want to write for US. They simply don’t.

Writing is a valid, authentic expression of the millions of ideas and questions students have swirling around in their heads. When writing, students want to give their opinions, debate, or simply express things they’ve been deeply contemplating. However, having them write simply for us is not enough for them to want to revise. I discovered this while doing my unit on persuasive writing years ago. Students initially let out the usual large groans when they found out that they’d have to revise their drafts, perhaps several times. “Why? Nobody reads this stuff but you anyway!”

At the time, I had given them the writing prompt, “Should students have to wear uniforms?” Yes, students had plenty of valid opinions about this idea. Yes, they had researched and even cited sources and written the first draft. Yet, they couldn’t fathom why they needed to further clarify ideas and content if it was just for me. “Well, who do you think should be reading these?” I asked. “The principal, assistant principal, and anyone else who can actually do something about it” was the consensus.

So I made them a deal. When they completed the assignment, I would give every single letter to our administration. I even asked the principal to come in and reassure them that he would read them. The resistance to revision began melting away almost immediately. They were suddenly extremely invested in revising their work. Their ideas and voices mattered, and they wanted to make sure that these ideas came across clearly, even if this meant replacing large chunks of their original texts.

They ended up creating their own peer-editing circles, requesting appointments with me when they wanted my feedback, and holding discussions on our social network where they gave each other tips on how to make sure their messages were clear. It was truly glorious and it forever changed my views on what revision can look like for developing writers, especially when they’re intrinsically motivated to do so.



Dr. Rebecca Alber is an instructor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education. A teacher educator and literacy specialist, she advocates liberatory education and literacy in all K-12 classrooms. She is an ardent follower of the Abolitionist Teaching Network @ATN_1863 and Rethinking Schools @Rethink Schools:

First, share with them that revision is about reseeing a draft, not correcting or editing it but making the writing stronger and tighter. (Correcting comes during the editing process.)

Next, share the reason and rationale for revision. For example, I would show my high school students Tupac Shakur’s The Rose That Grew from Concrete poetry collection. I’d take the book, open-faced, and on the left-side page is a scribbled poem from his journal with cross-outs, words replaced, and arrows rearranging phrases and words, and on the right-side page is the published poem in its new form. We then look closely at Shakur’s handwritten draft on the left and compare it with the more polished typed version. Students quickly see how tinkering with the words and the arrangement can make one’s writing have way more of a punch.

Next, I teach students explicitly a revision strategy. This means I take them step by step through a revision activity using a draft of their writing so they can see how a simple activity, such as one called “looping,” can improve their draft.

Here’s how looping works: Ask students to find a golden line from their draft and then write it at the top of a clean page of paper. Then, give them five or six minutes to firewrite (write without stopping) below that golden line. I then ask them to read over this new writing piece and I then ask, Do you like it better than your original draft? More than half the class would say yes. Even those who decide to stick with their original draft tend to see the value in the exercise and usually transfer some of the new writing to their original draft.

Another explicit revision strategy: Color-coding helps students identify exactly what they can replace, rearrange, omit in their drafts. For example, give your students colored pencils and have them go through their draft. First, with a green pencil, for example, they underline lines where they tell (“she was so tired”) and then they can rewrite it to show (“with eyelids drooping, she shuffled across the room”). Have them take an orange pencil, for example, and underline all the “dead” words—those words overused and common (good, bad, nice). They can then replace those words with less common words (worthy, wicked, pleasant).

What I found is that if I provide space and time in writers’ workshop for these explicit revision activities, and time for them to share, they actually enjoy revising their drafts.


“Be the model”

Tamera Musiowsky-Borneman is an international educator, adviser, and coach who has taught in Singapore, New York City, and Edmonton, Canada. Follow her on Twitter: @TMus_Ed:

Student writers will write just to get it done! To get their teacher off their back! And honestly, there is triumph in completing a rough draft! Writing is a challenging process for even the most gifted writers, and revising can present additional stress, impeding the flow of completing written work. Revising a draft is a commitment requiring stamina and another set of skills.

Because revising writing can have the appearance of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as a teacher, you will want to alter the appearance so what students’ experience in the revising process is actually a sheep in sheep’s clothing.

Four ideas to get students to want to revise their work:

  • Be the model for how revision looks and sounds. Take your students through your own process of revising your own writing. Always have some writing pieces in a notebook or in your Google Drive that you can revise in front of your students. I show students all the drafts I have started, open one, and go through my process. I do a natural flow of thinking out loud and make revisions, connecting that to the process taught in class.
  • Partner up. Kids love to talk and share. So let them! When I asked students what motivates them to revise their writing, responses were overwhelmingly the same: a partner and colored pens. Give students checklists and some nice pens, and set timers for focused partner revision sessions.
  • Use social media. Reach out to students’ favorite authors! You can tweet, direct message, send a snap, or create an Instagram story. With the accessibility teachers have to social media for school use as well as published-author public accounts, it is entirely possible that you and your students can send a tweet to a favorite author asking about how they revise their books!
  • Schedule a Skype call. Again, given accessibility to writers in the digital world, you can potentially set up a Skype call with an author to discuss the revision process with students. If you are unable to set up a call with an author, check their websites for videos or tips about the writing process. YouTube can be your next choice for finding authors working through the revision process.

I find joy in teaching writing. It does not need to become a chore or stressful. If you enjoy writing, likely your students will, too.


Thanks to Sarah, Jonathan, Tracy, Rebecca, and Tamera for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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