After comprehensively editing the hundreds of college compositions and articles that come across my desk each semester—and having waded through tens of thousands of essays and papers from students I have taught in grades 5 through 12—I am dismayed by the fact that most, if not all, of those students who revise according to my written and face-to-face suggestions make precisely the same mistakes again and again.
A majority of revised papers submitted by my students, ranging from those in a middle school language arts learning center to senior English honors students, have amounted to little more than a retyping. Students are wonderfully cooperative when it comes to mechanically, not intelligently, correcting errors that have been blue-penciled. They tweak, but they rarely internalize the underlying problems with their pieces. Why should they bother? The work has already been done for them.
Allowing students to revise previously submitted compositions for higher grades—a practice that is continued through college composition courses—is doing them a disservice. It supports the idea that there is little value in doing something correctly the first time around.
I could provide a roster of mistakes—simple ones like failing to understand how to insert commas inside quote marks or not providing full names for sources in a news or feature story—but I’m sure my list would be duplicated by tens of thousands of those engaged in teaching writing.
Allowing students to revise previously submitted compositions for higher grades is doing them a disservice.
However, I have a deceptively simple solution to propose: Simply abandon the popular practice of encouraging students to revise all their works for a better grade. Instead, they should be cautioned that what they submit after the first assignment, which can be revised, will receive the grade it deserves.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m against teaching writing as a process. I’m all for it. But I am opposed to giving students a second and third chance to rectify easily correctable slovenliness. All that’s needed for a good composition are focus and a respect for the printed word that, in this age of abbreviated text-messaging and acronym-saturated e-mail, might be a bit difficult for our technologically bedazzled students to handle.
To teach writing as a process requires a willingness to set aside the misguided notion that one might damage a student’s self-esteem or thwart self-expression if a low grade is awarded. Decades ago, these concepts didn’t enter the minds of my college writing professors or my newspaper and magazine editors—those who thrived articulately during the pre-instant-messaging age. They were stern, uncompromising, and deeply concerned about the quality of my work. This was dramatically demonstrated when they gave me a lousy grade or threw my article back in my proverbial, and sometimes literal, face.
These actions didn’t harm my self-esteem or weaken my capacity for self-expression. In fact, they only strengthened my resolve to do better the next time. Suddenly, the uncompromising but affectionate sentence-diagramming drills Miss (Mama) Lurch drilled into our 8th grade minds in the 1950s began to make sense.
Very quickly, I learned that writing was a process I had better master right away, with or without their guidance. To me, good grades and steady jobs were riding on the compositions I proudly honed and submitted without any hope of redemption.
Helping today’s students come to a similar realization would be a gift.
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2007 edition of Education Week