(This post takes about 9 minutes to read)

Sitting in a recent meeting of college writing teachers, who were grumbling because they couldn’t get their students to earnestly revise their writing assignments, I realized why re-vision is often nearly impossible for students and how to solve the problem.

Yes, I’ve been there. You give students a writing assignment in a writing class and ask them for an outline before they commit to a first draft. You return comments and ask for a first draft, which you receive, comment on, and return. Maybe you give students a chance to have a peer-editing session as well.

Then you get the final draft. But it looks pretty much like that first draft. Maybe a few typos, punctuation errors, and sentence goofs have been addressed, for better or worse. But, beyond that, there’s really no evidence of the kind of RE-VISION I, the teacher, had in mind, a real transformation from a draft with possibilities to a truly successful text.

I use track-changes to alert my students that there’s a lower order issue in their writing. I use the comments feature to ask questions about issues of content, organization, and document design. I find that my students usually accept track-changes but do much less, if anything at all, to mobilize the bigger-picture possibilities I’ve asked them to mull over.

As a writer, I appreciate it when someone proofreads my writing and catches mistakes or suggests needed improvements. But that’s usually just the lowest of the low-hanging fruit. What I prize most are comments about what’s not there, about dimensions of the writing I would never have dreamed of considering. Addressing such comments is what I mean, as a teacher, when I talk about RE-VISIONING a draft.

There are a few simple reasons why students don’t engage in transformational revision:

1) They don’t really care.

2) They’re too busy.

3) They don’t know how.

Or at least that’s what they’ve told me over the years.

So how can I make it more likely that they put more energy and imagination into revising a piece of their writing in a way that includes the whole text: 1) the content, 2) the organization, 3) the document design, 4) the paragraphs, 5) the sentences, 6) the word choices, 7) the mechanics?

First of all, I can make them aware that any text has these seven dimensions.

I call these “The Seven Systems in any Text that Affect Usefulness and Readability,” the Higher Order Concerns and the Lower Order Concerns…HOCs and LOCs, for short.

By the way, this formulation of HOCs and LOCs is original. It predates and differs from other approaches that mention higher and lower order concerns as they apply to tutorial practice in university writing labs, practices that derive from the incomparable Muriel Harris’ early work with college writing labs—you can see this version published on such helpful sites as Purdue’s On-line Writing Lab—OWL. (https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/690/01/).

We invented our HOCs and LOCs approach to teaching writing in the mid 80s working both for the GAO (Government Accountability Office) and developing an award-winning watershed plain English course, for 8,000 adjudicators in 1995 at

the Veteran’s Benefits Administration, called Reader-Focused Writing Skills. (Read about the history of our course, especially page 10: http://education.illinois.edu/CIRCE/RFW/2history.pdf)

We’ve been refining this approach successfully since then in our writing consulting practice with writers across the country and throughout the world and in our undergrad and grad classes at Johns Hopkins University and Towson University, in-person and on-line.


When you want BIG REVISION, start BIG!

Get students to define their content. CONTENT is not merely information; it’s a four-part system, which includes an ISSUE (the reason the writer is writing and the reader is reading), all the QUESTIONS the reader should have about this issue, all the answers to those questions, and adequate support for each of those answers.

To have REAL content—so you can get students engaged in REAL revision—you must have a REAL reader with a REAL issue. Students should always write to a specific person, a REAL person, not a made-up ghost in a case study or a hypothetical projection, and not just the teacher, unless the teacher is actually the real person who needs the information!

Consider a favorite example. I’m thinking of buying an all-electric car. So I have my writing students write me a paper that advises me what car I should buy and why. I give them my driving habits, my budget, and a few of my concerns. Then I give them 1000 words.

It’s common that I get first drafts telling me how wonderful electric cars are, how much they help the environment, what their history is. I get information on particular models of cars. But the information is usually cosmetic at best. They tell me about vehicle colors, interiors, and possible accessory packages. And even though I specify that I want info only on 2017 models, I’m likely to get information on this year’s or older models.

What I usually don’t see are answers to my specific questions and concerns. 

In such circumstances, it’s easy for me to comment about what’s not there—those comments I value so much from reviewers of my own writing. What’s usually not there is CONTENT.

How can student writers possibly produce great content when there’s no REAL reader? How can a writing teacher give those greatly productive comments that lead to big re-vision when there’s no real reader who needs the information?

Great CONTENT can be judged only by the intended audience. If there’s no REAL reader (audience), CONTENT is arbitrary.

When students feel no obligation to serve a REAL person who needs REAL information about a REAL issue, how can they get the kind of traction they need to do REAL revision…BIG revision that adds important content and takes away what’s not important?

When matters of CONTENT are settled, then the other HOCs and LOCs can be discussed: how should we order this information? What should it look like on the screen or page? How healthy is each paragraph, each sentence, each word, each mark of punctuation?

My solution for weak revisions is beefing up the students’ awareness of how each of the seven systems (that affect usefulness and readability) operates.

We provide this information in our 2016 textbook, and students have been overwhelmingly excited about it (click here to see REAL comments from REAL students) http://qcgwrite.com/studentgallery. We provide this information in our new iBook meant for students and the general public, Mindful Writing at Work (available in January, 2017).

I’ve had great success with this approach. It takes away one of the student’s three main reasons for not doing BIG revisions: see #3 above. I’ve found that once students know how, that the other two reasons why students don’t do much revision also diminish: see #1 and #2 above.

Students don’t mind writing so much when they have a more systematic way to approach it. In fact they seem to like to write to real people about real issues. Self-expression in this environment seems useful and interesting to them. When they’re talking to nobody in particular about nothing that matters much, why should they feel excited? Would you?