You’re about to get into today’s lesson: revising a first draft. Before you say the words, you can feel the collective groan gathering strength. When you finally come out with it, they are ready to revolt: “Today we’re going to revise your writing assignment!” And there it is.

They complain. They grunt violently. They look for pitchforks and other pointy objects to take up against you. And one student in the corner quietly Snapchats a selfie of an ice bag on her head. It’s clear. They don’t want to do this.

As I see it, a big problem is students think they are done with their writing. In the eyes of each student writer, what they put on paper looks “good enough.” They are done. If they understand it, then there’s nothing to revise. But even when I get them to see that their writing needs further work, all I get from them are superficial changes. They may change a punctuation mark or two and a grammar mistake, but they almost never revise for content and purpose.

Sound familiar? 

When the Teacher is Part of the Problem

Recently I realized that part of the problem was . . . well, me. I would expect students to understand what they need to do in order to revise their work. Basically, I discovered something hidden deep in the dark corner of my English teacher heart: I thought my students ought to have my understanding of the writing process. And I was frustrated when they didn’t.


When I realized what was going on, I posed a very practical line of questions: What do I want my students to do when they revise their work? What is the outcome? And what are all the processes needed to get the outcome I’m looking for?

It turns out I want students to look at a draft and make good revision choices. So what are all the elements involved in making those kinds of choices? When revising a draft, students need to . . .

  • Really read the draft, really
  • Evaluate the draft for purpose (did my writing do what I wanted it to do?)
  • Evaluate the draft for audience (did it reach who I wanted it to reach?)
  • Decide what to keep, throw out, or tweak to reach the audience with the intended purpose
  • Exercise patience in taking all the necessary steps to make it better

Wow! That’s some sophisticated stuff, right there! If I want them to make all those complex moves, then I need to do some teaching, I think.

They Really Can Revise at a Deeper Level

There is a practical solution here. The students can get a better grasp of the problems  in their first drafts. And getting them to that point is simpler than you might think.

The students need two things:

  1. to hear how someone else reads their writing and
  2. to hear what the reader is thinking when reading that draft.

That’s it. If those two elements are present, then everybody can see where improvements need to be made in their writing. Let me show you what it looks like.

What This Looks Like in the Classroom

To start, I think that students need to do lots of writing. Lots. In my classroom students do several low-stakes writing assignments each week in a Writer’s Notebook. It has been the single best instructional tool at getting students to relax about their writing ability and lower any mental barriers they may throw up in resistance to writing in the classroom, especially when it comes to revision.


Matis 1st draft and 2nd highlighted

But, even if you don’t use the Writer’s Notebook (and you’re never going to), there are still ways to use low-pressure writing assignments to teach students the process of revision.

Here’s the formula: multiple low-stakes writing assignments + multiple low-stakes revision assignments = belief that “I can get better and better at writing”

Students don’t do revision well because they don’t get enough practice. And when they don’t get enough practice, they don’t get to see it work. Usually–and you know this if you are (or were) anything like I was in my first five years of teaching–we do one round of revision after a high-stakes, academically complex essay, which is such a painful experience, we only inflict it on our students (and ourselves) once a semester, at most. It’s hard. Students don’t like it. We don’t like convincing them. Who really wants to go through that?

But if you make revision a regular practice, say once every other week, on small writing assignments of about 100-150 words in length, using prompts students choose, then the barriers come down. If they do this several times, they begin to see how revision improves their drafts. They begin to develop some “muscle memory” for how to complete the revision process. This brings down the barriers and anxiety when revising a big writing assignment.

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Here’s How I Do It

I like bullet lists. They’re straightforward. Let me list out the steps below:

  • The students write a short 100-150 word, low-stakes writing assignment
    • My students do this in their Writer’s Notebooks
    • If you don’t use a Writer’s Notebook, you can simply title the assignment “Low-Stakes Writing” and set the parameters from there
  • The students plan their revisions using a tool taught by the teacher
    • I like Kelly Gallagher and Jeff Anderson’s RADaR
    • It stands for Replace, Add, Delete, and Reorder
    • The students mark up their first draft with their plan for a revision
    • You can download the PowerPoint I use at the end of this post
Student first draft + RADaR Revision = 2nd draft (with reflection).
  • The students write a second draft
  • The students use highlighters to show the changes made from the first draft
    • I have my students use RADaR and they have corresponding colors for each element
    • Yellow = Replace, Green = Add, Pink = Delete, & Blue = Reorder
  • The students then partner up
  • The students read one another’s second draft aloud to each other, sharing their thoughts about the highlighted revisions aloud
    • This is the part that needs coaching and teaching
    • I have a handout with sentence frames to give the students titled “Revision Read Aloud”
    • Each student, listening to their revised draft being read aloud, takes notes on the thoughts the reader is speaking aloud on the “Revision Read Aloud” handout.
    • The “Revision Read Aloud” handout has two simple follow up questions the author poses to the reader, and the author takes notes.
  • After both students have had the writing conversation, the students move into reflective writing centered on how effective their revisions were based on the writing conversation.

Writing Conversation Figure

My students do more than what I describe here, but I’ll save that for another post. With this cycle I’m presenting here, I will have the students do this three times, then they choose one of their second drafts to move on to a third and final draft. That draft will be posted prominently to demonstrate their writing prowess.

When it comes to getting students to truly and critically evaluate their writing, what is a solution you have? What is something the rest of us have missed?

Leave a comment below. 

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2 thoughts on “Getting Students Beyond Superficial Revision

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