How Do We Revise?

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This week’s guest blogger is Rebecca Jensen.  Rebecca is an MFA student at Florida Atlantic University where she teaches two classes of first-year composition. She worked as fiction editor for Driftwood Press, a literary magazine based in Tampa and is currently nonfiction editor for FAU’s Coastlines. After sixteen years spent living in England, Rebecca is enjoying her rediscovery of Florida, using the experience to investigate themes of travel and identity in her own creative work. In this post Rebecca turns the question of revision back on ourselves.  I have to admit that after reading it I realize I can’t readily articulate how I revise either. “But Miss Jensen, how do you revise?” It’s my first semester as an MFA student and instructor of English, so you would think that I’d be able to answer this with ease. Yet the question posed by one of my students took me off guard. One of the most important qualities I have always looked for in a teacher is confidence, and I hope that this is what my students usually see in me. So when I was faced with this question, I hated to admit in front of them all that I don’t actually know how to do it. I don’t have a specific technique, and I don’t hold the key to the revision process. Initially, when I thought about assigning papers, I didn’t think about the time that would pass between students receiving the assignment instructions and their papers appearing on my desk. Monday morning would inevitably roll around and a stack of freshly printed and proofread papers would await me. I assume that my instructions are clear until a student email pops into my inbox, and a face peers around the door of my office. I forgot how much labor really goes into writing and revising, especially for non-English majors. I didn’t realize they would agonize over my papers, I thought of revisions as just things that happen and things that, ultimately, I would have to grade. Instead, I am constantly facing questions: how do I do it myself, and what am I doing to help my students succeed in their revision process? The way in which I tackle revision depends on the type of paper or assignment I am working on. For a creative piece of writing, it might take me hours or days just to alter a few sentences. I’ll play them over in my mind even when I’m not at my desk or in front of a computer screen. But an academic paper usually has some sort of strict deadline, so I’m rushed into making changes. Often I’m afraid to cut and delete sections of my academic work because what if I don’t come up with something else to fill the gap before my class deadline? I’m a hypocrite. I tell my students not to be afraid to remove paragraphs or restructure sentences. Do it! See what happens! Be bold! They look at me with terrified faces, imagining their essays torn to shreds, destroyed. The revision process is a personal journey. I read an article by Stephen Sutherland recently, entitled “Reading Yourself: Revision as Ventriloquism,” in which he explains that the process is something we teach, but we never see in action. The student undergoes this journey alone. The only things that my students have to guide them are their instinct and my written feedback on previous papers. I can only hope the comments I leave are useful. I’m making a conscious effort to steer away from dropping brief hints like “word choice” or “informal language” on their papers. Instead, trying to explain ways they can improve their discourse and acquire the formidable academic tone. In the classroom, I am trying to mirror my written feedback in my lectures. By discussing what it means to receive these vague comments on their drafts, I hope that my students understand that it is not a lack of concern, rather a shortness of time that prohibits me leaving comments that are detailed and fully expressed. That’s what office hours are for, I tell them. I wonder if this is enough. Am I doing everything I can to help them? Is it okay to tell my students that there isn’t one set revision technique that is guaranteed to work, that I’m stumbling through it (and so far succeeding) and so will they? Is there a right or wrong way to revise that I just haven’t discovered yet?
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.