Food for Thought

Nancy Sommers’ “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers” was a tasty meat-and-mashed-potatoes look at some effective and ineffective revision strategies.  My one main issue with the article, the scallions-I-asked-the-waitress-to-leave off, sort of enshrined in its title, is that Sommers assumes that students (usually young) are less adept at the task of revision than their “experienced adult” counterparts.  I can assure you, working in a public high school, that neither age, or enrollment status are an accurate determinant of revision ability.  But once I picked each and every one of those nasty little unnecessary green specks off the paper, I was able to thoroughly enjoy the rest of the meal.

Sommers is right that there’s a critical difference between writing and speech, and that one of the main failings of “traditional rhetorical models” is that “they were created to serve the spoken art of oratory.” (p. 378)  I had never thought about that, but once I began chewing it over, the difference was pretty obvious.  She states that “What is impossible in speech is revision.” (p. 379)  This is a savory idea, and almost entirely true, and even when “revision in speech” is needed, it has the unpalatable effect of seeming insincere, disingenuous.   Speakers are often accused of “walking back” their previous statements, or they fall on tired excused like, “I misspoke.”  Speech, once uttered, is the final draft; there’s no time to revise, once the words have passed the lips.  

Sommers then goes on to discuss her methods and findings, and comes to the conclusion that the primary difference between successful and unsuccessful revisors (yes, I’m using “no scallions, please” terms) is that novice revisors are concerned with the “selection and rejection of words,” and what she calls a “‘thesaurus philosophy of writing’,” and “lexical substitutions”, (p. 381)  while more experienced revisors are more apt to rethink “the form or shape of their argument.” (p. 384) I find the same to be true in the classroom of students (and teachers) who struggle with revision, versus those who excel at it.  

So, I think a main aftertaste is that in teaching the act of revision, we want our students to think critically, not just about word choice, but about sentence choice, the order of their ideas and what they are writing.  And since they are “writing” and not “saying,” there’s time and space enough to take a second look.

And then I had dessert!  It arrived on a tiny, ungarnished plate, and I thought to myself, that’s it? But one bite in, I realized this teeny little confection was rich and complex despite its diminutive portion!  I savored the bitter and slightly acidic diction of the introduction: “autopsy,” “dissect,” “destroy.”  Lines like “for conscientious, doggedly responsible, repetitive autopsying doesn’t give birth to live writing” (p. 3) were deliciously metaphorical!

Donald M. Murray’s “Teach Writing as a Process Not a Product” was delectable.  Something that really rose to the surface for me was the suggestion that “Instead of teaching finished writing, we should teach unfinished writing, and glory in its unfinishedness.” (p. 4)  How simple, but how true! We don’t “reverse engineer” our way to a better understanding of academic subjects. We don’t give students a solved math problem, and tell them to “figure it out.”  So why do the same for writing?

My favorite line, though, and one I actually read to my 10th period class just now, was “First by shutting up.  When you are talking he isn’t writing.  And you don’t learn process by talking about it, but by doing it.” (p. 5)  It was met with thunderous, although inaudible, applause (I could see the agreement on their faces as they clapped while muted).  And I really enjoyed the Implications sections, among which was No. 7, about using both “unpressured” and “pressured” time.  

Murray then finished the course with possibility, with “respect[ing] and respond[ing] to [our] students, not for what they have done, but for what they may do.” (p. 6)

Check, please.