Revision in the Writing Process

By: Fran Lehr
Third grade student writing in elementary classroom

To many students, revision means correction. This article defines revision and suggests ways teachers can encourage their students to truly revise their work.

Although Donald Murray (1982) argues that writing is rewriting, students often see revision not as an opportunity to develop and improve a piece of writing but as an indication that they have failed to do it right the first time. To them, revision means correction. Revision, however, is the heart of the writing process – the means by which ideas emerge and evolve and meanings are clarified. Here's some information that can help in changing students from "correctors" to "revisers."

What is revision?

Revision is often defined as the last stage in the writing process (prewriting, writing, and revision). Sommers (1982), on the other hand, sees revision as "a process of making changes throughout the writing of a draft, changes that work to make the draft congruent with a writer's changing intentions."

How much do students revise?

For the novice writer, however, revision appears to be synonymous with editing or proofreading. An NAEP (1977) study found that students' efforts at revision in grades 4, 8, and 11 were devoted to changing spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Students seldom made more global changes, such as starting over, rewriting most of a paper, adding or deleting parts of the paper, or adding or deleting ideas (Applebee, et al., 1986).

How can teachers help students to revise?

Merely requiring students to revise or just to spend more time revising will not necessarily produce improved writing (Adams, 1991). Direct teacher intervention, however, seems to produce positive results. Robinson (1985) found that children in grades 2-6 produced better stories when they revised in response to teacher questions directed at specific content. In another study, Sommers (1982) found that teacher comments often took students' attention away from their own purposes and focused it on those of the teacher. Sommers suggests that teachers provide more specific comments and design writing activities that allow students to establish purpose in their writing.

Calkins (1986) recommends that students discuss positive rather than negative aspects of their writings. "Why not," she asks, "ask them to find bits of their writing—words, lines, passages—which seem essential, and then ask them to explore why these sections are so very significant?"

Publishing student writings can be a powerful means of motivating revision. Publication instills pride and provides an incentive to produce good work. Giving students the opportunity to share their writing through hardback books, newspapers, or newsletters, or through oral presentations to other students shows them that quality matters, "and that quality is achieved through revision" (Balajthy, 1986). Providing students with in-class time for revision and allowing flexibility in due dates are ways to encourage students to engage in more extensive revision.

Can computers improve revision skills?

The ease with which students can manipulate text with word processing programs has prompted increased computer use in the writing classroom as a means of promoting student revision. However, the research on whether computers lead students to revise more frequently or more effectively is somewhat inconclusive.

It appears, however, that revision, whether done with computers or with pen and paper, will go beyond correction only if teachers emphasize the whole text over its parts. When this happens, students discover the power of writing as a means of shaping ideas and clarifying meanings rather than as a way of correcting errors or fulfilling a class requirement.


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Adams, Peter (1991). "Revising: An Approach for All Seasons." Writing Notebook, (9)2, 11-12.

Applebee, Arthur N., et al. (1986). "The Writing Report Card: Writing Achievement in American Schools." Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service; Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

Balajthy, Ernest (1986). "Do Writers Really Revise?" Paper presented at the Conference on Language and Literacy (Geneseo, NY)

Daiute, Colette (1986). "Physical and Cognitive Factors in Revising: Insights from Studies with Computers." Research in the Teaching of English, 20(2), 141-59.

Flinn, Jane Zeni (1986) "The Role of Instruction in Revising with Computers: Forming a Construct for 'Good Writing.'" St. Louis, MO: University of Missouri.

Hawisher, Gail E. (1986) "The Effects of Word Processing on the Revision Strategies of College Students." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (San Francisco).

Hillocks, George, Jr. (1982) "The Interaction of Instruction, Teacher Comment, and Revision in Teaching the Composing Process." Research in the Teaching of English, 16(3), 261-78.

Kurth, Ruth J. (1986). "Using Word Processing to Enhance Revision Strategies during Student Composing." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (San Francisco).

Murray, Donald M. (1982). "Learning by Teaching: Selected Articles on Learning and Teaching." Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook.

National Assessment of Educational Progress (1977). "Write/Rewrite: An Assessment of Revision Skills. Selected Results from the Second National Assessment of Writing." Denver: Education Commission of the States.

Owston, Ronald D., et al. (1991). "The Effects of Word Processing on Student Writing in a High Computer Access Environment." Technical Report 91-3. York, Ontario: York University Centre for the Study of Computers in Education.

Robinson, Ann (1985). "The Effects of Teacher Probes on Children's Written Revisions." Macomb, IL: Western Illinois University.

Simic, Marjorie (1993). "Publishing Children's Writing." ERIC/REC Digest.

Sommers, Nancy (1982). "Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers." Washington, DC: National Institute of Education.

Tone, Bruce, and Dorothy Winchester (1988). "Computer-Assisted Writing." ERIC/REC Digest.

Womble, Gail G. (1984). "Process and Processor: Is There Room for a Machine in the English Classroom?" English Journal, 73(1), 34-37.

Yoder, Sue Logsdon (1993). "Teaching Writing Revision: Attitudes and Copy Changes." Journalism Educator, 47(4), 41-47.

Lehr, F. (1995). Revision in the Writing Process. ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading English and Communication.


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