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Unsettling Drafts: Helping Students See New Possibilities in Their Writing (English Journal, October 1997)

Author: Susan Tchudi, Heidi Estrem, and Patti-Anne Hanlon

Novice writers have trouble revising. Perhaps they struggle because they have so little experience with rewriting; or, perhaps they have been misled by teachers who sometimes focus on neatness or correctness of writing at the expense of more global issues (Erika Lindemann, 1987, A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers, Second edition, New York: Oxford University Press). In addition, they don’t see revision as re-vision or as a re-seeing of their work, but simply as making minor, more local changes (Donald M. Mur-ray, 1993, Write to Learn, Fourth edition, Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). Often they commit themselves to a particular plan or approach and seem unwilling or unable to veer from the rigid scheme (Lindemann 1987).

Teachers have tried a variety of strategies for making revision a more significant part of the writing process. Some collect drafts to give extensive comments and pose provocative questions to help students re-see their work; they establish peer groups in which group members give written and oral questions and suggestions; they conference with students about their drafts; students go to writing centers to receive advice from tutors about how their work might be improved.


Still, students resist. Some teachers believe that students are simply unwilling to do more work, and in fact, students will occasionally admit to that. In answer to a question about whether she would have done the revisions on her own, Kathy says, “If I didn’t [make the changes on my own] it was probably because I was just too lazy.” Chris shares a similar view: “To tell you the truth I really don’t know if I would have made the changes on my own because I don’t know if I would have felt up for doing such a task.” Students also find time to be a problem: “I don’t think that I would have made these changes on my own because I would have thought it to be too time-consuming.” In addition, students worry about undoing the work they have already done. For example, Julie says, “I used to think too many revisions took away from the paper.” Rose, an ESL student, states, “I learn one thing that much details make reader to understand what I’m trying to tell them, but sometimes I lost my point of the story because I’m too busy to put the details in my story.”

These students see little value or use in revising. As Erika Lindemann suggests, revision for these students is a “dirty word. They see it as a punishment, a penalty for writing poorly in the first place. . . . For almost all writers, rewriting remains an unpleasant chore, a process which confronts them with countless inadequacies in the draft and convinces them that words manipulate writers, not the other way around” (171).

It’s important to us that our students begin to see themselves as writers who can manipulate words, and revision can teach them this. However, we believe that students often fail to revise because they don’t know what is expected of them. In asking our first-year college students about the value of their work on revision, we received a number of confused comments. Rick’s vagueness, for example, indicates his helplessness: “I don’t think the revisions help me. I’m about done with my first paper so I couldn’t really add much more to it. I tried to add some stuff to it, but it didn’t sound very good.”

Students sometimes block on revision because they don’t see the purpose for it; they sometimes feel they are doing revision for the sake of revision. For example, Craig states that “There were a couple of times when a question would be asked to elaborate on one specific thing and if I would have followed up on this question, my paper would have sounded like it was about that one idea. The other reason why I would not elaborate on some things is that most of the time it did not seem all that important and if elaborated on the paper would not flow as smoothly.”

Sometimes questions designed to help students rethink their papers only baffled them. Andy describes his confusion: “I could not find an answer to the question that would fit into the essay. It seemed like the answer I was coming up with had nothing to do with my essay. I came up with answers and I wrote about them but they weren’t the answers that I was looking for that would help me out. Nothing in my response said anything to me that could at the least help me come up with ideas.” In fact, students are so uncertain about what they are supposed to do about revising that they often want us as teachers to do it for them. Bill states that “In almost every paper I wrote, I depended on you to write me questions about a certain area of my paper that needed work. It helped me to use better detail and extend my paper.”

Of course, as teachers we want “better detail,” and often novice writing students do need to “extend” their papers. However, we want them to discover that revision should help one achieve one’s own intentions, not be a pro forma or a please-the-teacher activity. We want to give students revision ideas with-out appropriating their work. We have been experimenting with a revision strategy that we believe can help students see new possibilities in their drafts, while still allowing them to maintain ownership of their writing.

In our first-semester college composition classes, we ask students to do “experience-based” writing assignments. Using topics such as “physical self,” “the self and others,” “values,” and “authority,” our students explore, describe, and analyze the worlds in which they live, developing insights based on their own observations and experiences. Their papers are meant to be analytical narratives which allow them to generate new knowledge and reflect on experience.

Our attempts to help students revise involve “unsettling” drafts by having them create alternative sections for their essays. Rather than just suggest that students do this or that or asking questions that point students to additions or revisions, we ask students to generate new aspects of their topics. When students bring rough drafts to class, we use a variety of in-class writing activities to help them see other possibilities in their work:

• Write two new introductions

• Write two new conclusions

• Switch the point of view (from first to third person or from third to first person)

• Add dialogue where you just have description of an event

• Rewrite your conclusion as the introduction and then write a new conclusion

• Write a dialogue with a friend describing your paper, telling why you thought it was important, what you thought was important

• Create a stream of consciousness about what is going on beneath the surface of the action or arguments or explanations

• Describe a place alluded to in the paper

• Create an opening that starts in the midst of the action

• Describe a person mentioned in the paper

• Describe what happens after the paper ends

• Describe what happened before the events of the paper

• Describe a personal experience related to an argument in the paper

• Argue from your opponent’s point of view

• Create a dialogue representing two or more points of view

• Write an argument as a narrative

We emphasize to students that these in-class writings may or may not become a part of their paper. Our attempt, we explain, is to help them see a new angle, another perspective. We also emphasize that there may be bits in this new piece of writing that may be useful additions to their papers. We also sug-gest the possibility that all of the new writing may fit into the paper. Finally, this in-class writing may suggest a whole new approach to the topic and necessitate a whole new draft. Students, in fact, did all of these things.


Henry’s first draft opened on a very general note: “Since most people spend most of their lives working, the jobs they have influence their personality. Many would deny the fact that their jobs have any affect at all on their personalities.” Henry’s introduction continued in this general vein as he discussed how jobs might affect people’s personalities, which finally led him to his story about how his two jobs had affected him. In response to this first draft, I wrote, “What about showing us a specific day/experience at Safeway vs. a specific day/experience at Home Base so we can see the difference?” Even though I had emphasized revision, Henry was still unsure of himself as he began to revise his papers for his showcase portfolio. He questioned me repeatedly in class: “So, you really think I need to change this paper?” And I told him several times, along with his classmates, that, yes, every one of their papers could be changed and made better.

As a class, we had brainstormed a number of the techniques listed above as ideas for revision—“things we could do to change a piece of writing”—and I suggested that Henry try one of those. Henry chose to use dialogue to open his paper. His revision began this way:

The glaring customer asked, “Hey, bag boy, where is your shoe polish?”

“If I am not mistaken the shoe polish is on the eighth or ninth aisle,” I said in a hurry for I had to give a cashier a price check on a bag of potato chips. As I was walking away, I felt a hand grab my shoulder.

“What do you mean the eighth or ninth aisle? I am in a fucking hurry, and I don’t have time to dick around with your sarcastic attitude. Whatever happened to taking the customer to the product? I should report this to your boss, you shithead.”

Henry then adds some of his thoughts about this customer and goes back into dialogue again when he returns to the check stand and the checker berates him for his slowness. Though Henry’s addition may have been created in part to shock his readers, his revision does demonstrate much more forcefully his frustrations at his job as a bag boy and how work pressures affected his personality than his earlier pseudo-analysis. The positive responses of his peer group to his new beginning allowed him to see the power of his new approach. Henry’s changes, not only on this paper, but on his other showcase revision are a direct result of the in-class writing activities. He wrote: “Most everything we did in class I added into the paper . . . if it wasn’t for the in class changes I wouldn’t have ever thought to do stuff like that.” And, perhaps more importantly, he acknowledged that “the revisions changed my paper, and it is hard to make a lot of revisions without having to change the whole paper.” Henry is learning firsthand what it feels like to do global revision.

Lisa’s paper also became much more specific as a result of the revisions she did in class. Her paper changed much more drastically than Henry’s from the first to the final draft, as she recognized in a freewriting response: “The changes I made changed most of my paper except for a couple of sentences.” She also said that “The new beginning paragraphs we worked on in class helped. They got me thinking about things I may have left out.”

Lisa’s first draft on a writing assignment asking students to tell the story about a physical or emotional scar was general, confusing, and wandering. It began: “Experiences, may they be good or bad, mold who we are as individuals. Many times even incidents which happen to those close around us shape how we see things as we look on to what is occurring to them.” It’s easy to see how Lisa is foundering here. Her essay then continues as she writes about herself growing up and the various experiences—cheer-leading, tennis, leadership, her father’s death, and going to college—that shaped her. She ends her essay with a poem that meant a lot to her.

In a conference, Lisa and I tried to pick apart the various threads in her very complex paper to discover a focus for her revision. Then, as part of a class activity, Lisa wrote a new beginning intended to “drop the reader into the scene.” This inadvertently helped her focus her paper and led her to try some new writing techniques. First, she began with the poem, letting it set the mood for her essay. The poem ends, “And you learn/And you learn/With every goodbye/You learn . . .” Her revision then begins, “I sit and read this poem in my bedroom. I read it over and over again for I hold it in deep respect. I lie in my room as I begin to daze [sic] off. Before I do I say to myself, ‘we really do learn from good-byes.’

Lisa then dozes off to remember one painful goodbye: the death of her father. Using a different font to show that she is in a dreamlike state, she writes powerfully: “I put my dad’s old flannel jacket over me as I cried myself to sleep. My heart hurt too much to stay awake . . . I held his cold hand within both of mine as I clasped it like a shell . . . I felt my father’s life into death swirl through my body.” She then discusses two other goodbyes, using short paragraphs of commentary in between her dreamlike remembering to show how “each little thing we experience helps add to the pages in our book of life which we store in the center of our heart.” She writes about a break-up with a boyfriend, and then about growing distant from what was once a close friend. She ends her essay simply, changing the words of the poem in the beginning slightly: “and we grow, and we grow, and we grow. With every goodbye we grow. . . .”

Lisa is still not convinced that her draft is perfect—she wants to work on it more— but she does acknowledge that she is “happy though because it is something [she’s] been wanting to write for a long time.” Beginning with the “drop the reader into the scene” technique allowed her to see new possibilities and directions for her writing on her own. And, she has taken a closer look at these experiences that she’s gone through, trying to analyze and understand them. Revision in her case led not only to re-seeing but to deeper seeing.

Diane’s paper on her struggles with getting her Chinese parents to understand why she wanted an American boyfriend went through as radical a revision process as Lisa’s. Her first draft, too, was general, and her in-class revisions show her still struggling for focus and direction. She had copied the definition of “experience” from the dictionary and tried to write another beginning from that: “A big contribution in deciphering one individual from another are the experiences we encounter throughout our existence . . . The reactions that we endure throughout these experiences shape who we are.” Then, Diane had tried some dialogue, trying to show her boyfriend’s unease when he was at her house. During a conference we talked about her frustration with this paper “not getting anywhere,” and I suggested that she try writing from her mom and dad’s point of view. Diane was unsure that this would help her but agreed to try.

Before we began our revision time the next day in class, someone asked if it was okay to write an essay like a letter (as Wen-dell Berry had done in an essay we’d just finished reading), and I had added that technique to our list of possibilities for revision. So, Diane—still as tentative as most first-year students seem to be—asked me if this was really okay. She wanted to write a letter to her mom and dad, and I suggested that she try writing a letter from her parents back to her. “Oh!” she said, “I can do that?” And I reassured her that she could “do” nearly anything she wanted to do in writing.

Diane’s final draft opens with a short exchange between her and her boyfriend, and then sets the scene of them trying to watch a movie while her mother roams busily in the kitchen, “keeping her eagle-like gaze fixed on” them. Her boyfriend’s and mother’s discomfort is clear. Then, Diane’s draft continues with a series of letters: from her to her parents, from her parents to her, and from her boyfriend to her, explaining why he feels uncomfortable around her when she starts to “go off” in Cantonese to her mother. Diane ends her essay back in the living room scene that opened her essay, while her boyfriend’s “eyes continued shifting from the TV to the ceiling and back to the TV” and her mother “continued banging pots and pans, turning the kitchen sink on and off, and frantically opening and closing the pantry door.” The essay has no tidy ending; Diane writes, “I shook my head in disgust at her disapproval, and carried on with what I was trying to say.”

Because of the time in class we devoted to revision, and because we concentrated this time on new writing instead of on fixing what already existed on the page, Diane was able to work through her frustrations with this essay and finally get to a place where she was satisfied with it. Doing these in-class re-visions helped her, she said, because she was “able to put into words what [she] couldn’t before.” “I do like the changes I’ve made,” she said, “because it adds more meaning to the paper. It makes the paper more visual and puts you in the scene of the situation.” Her assessment of her work on this paper is perceptive, and although she doesn’t articulate it in this way, Diane’s revising work produced greater insight and led her to look more critically at her situation. In her final draft she has begun to analyze her situation with much more clarity than in her earlier draft.


For a physical or emotional scar assignment, Michelle wrote about the pain she felt growing up as one of eight children. “I have been asked the same question by many people, ‘How do you ever survive?’ I was never sure what people meant until I was older. Looking back, I had a memorable childhood, one which was full of laughter, tears, scrapes, bruises, and mostly learning experiences. I think the most valuable lessons I ever learned were from my family. They were probably the most painful ones too.”

In her paper Michelle tells stories of being left behind at various functions throughout her life, starting at age one, but does not say how she felt about this. In a conference we discussed questions I wrote on her original draft. I asked how she felt about being the one in the family always forgotten. Did it affect her now in terms of her place in the family? Were these incidents of being left behind more painful when they occurred or when looking back on them? After our talk, Michelle still seemed unclear about how she felt about the situation and what she wanted to say. She attempted to deal with some of these ideas and initially made some minor changes throughout the paper.

A couple of days later in class we discussed various types of introductions we had seen reading professional and other students’ essays. I had students write two new introductions different from their original. Many struggled with this activity, but Michelle got closer to what she wanted to say in her introduction. Her new version went this way:

Growing up in a family of eight will probably be one [of] the toughest thing I have ever done, in my entire life. Some may disagree, but you will never know unless you lived through it. People tell me all the time that having children, raising them, fighting cancer and other traumas are harder. All I have to say to that is “Bring it on.” Looking back I am surprised I ever made it. In all my 20 years of life, I have had many trial and tribulations. Having children and fighting diseases would be easier to deal with, then growing up in a large family.

I believe Michelle’s new introduction is an improvement. She did not revise just to revise but tried to figure out precisely what she wanted to say, something she had been having trouble doing previously with only my questions. When asked about the usefulness of this introduction revision, she said it “made me think a lot about what I was trying to say.” From this new introduction large parts of her paper changed. Although the changes made the paper confusing in new ways, Michelle’s attempt to grapple with her focus is an important struggle. Like Lisa, she moved beyond merely re-seeing her paper to seeing her topic more deeply. She was learning by the end of the semester that big struggles which force writers to rearrange, change, and add to writing may be difficult but can sometimes allow a writer to find a better sense of direction. Michelle’s major revisions in further papers may have grown out of the insights she came to through this early struggle.

Andrea’s paper as a whole changed less drastically than Michelle’s. For another in-class revision session I had my students move their conclusions to the introduction and write a new conclusion. I explained to them that sometimes we do not know what we are trying to say until we say it, that our intentions come out clearly in the end. Andrea took my suggestion and found it successful. Her original introduction was, “According to the Webster’s 21st Century dictionary, an expert is a person with specialized knowledge or skill. An expert in my opinion is someone who is extremely talented at doing something, no matter what that talent may be.” And her original conclusion was, “It’s very important to speak a different language. My experiences living in different countries and picking up different languages will help me with my career moves later in life. A lot more jobs are requiring a second language.”

During class Andrea realized that my suggestion to move her conclusion would work better as an introduction for this paper. Using the conclusion as an introduction allowed Andrea to leap directly into her topic. Her new introduction is more precise than her original with its overused Webster’s definition lead-in:

If there is one area that I consider myself an expert in, I would have to say that I have a good ear for foreign languages. Learning to speak and learn a different language is not only important to me, but fun and exciting. Nowadays speaking a foreign language is a definite necessity in our society. Being bilingual or even trilingual is beneficial since positions are becoming more demanding and those applicants with an ability to speak different languages have more opportunities for securing the job of their choice.

Andrea had not done much revision in her first three papers; she had not used the questions I had asked in the margins or other in-class “unsettling the drafts” ideas I suggested. She said in an in-class response to revision, “I never really changed anything about my papers, because to be totally honest, I was scared to. Finally the last essay, the expert paper, I took my final paragraph of the paper, and put it in place for my first paragraph, the introduction paragraph. To my astonishment the ending paragraph actually sounded better at the beginning. I was amazed.” Although she doesn’t state it, it is possible that Andrea is one of the students who fear that revision—adding, deleting, and moving things around—would mess up her writing. Although I explained repeatedly throughout the semester that revising might allow them to see something new in their writing, my statements did not have much impact on Andrea. But this experience demonstrated for her that changes would not ruin a paper, but would sometimes allow her to express her point more directly.

Stacy was struggling to find a direction with the gender issues assignment and had only two paragraphs for her first draft. The first paragraph asked general questions and made general statements about gender issues. In her second paragraph, which began to narrow things down to her family, generations, and her culture, Stacy writes:

In my family, many of these “gender qualities” shine through. My grandparents’ generation could be thought of as “old-fashioned,” my parents’s generation could be thought of as “semi-old-fashioned,” and my generation . . . well NOT OLD-FASHIONED AT ALL! The differences between these generations is an important topic to explore. Being that my grandparents and parents are immigrants to the United States, I often see major differences between these two generations. My grandparents, first of all came here when they were both thirty-five, and my mother—seventeen and my father—twenty-five followed.

She showed me these two paragraphs and was concerned with how little she had. I told her we would be doing some revision activities in class that might help. I had the students write a dialogue with an imagined friend, explaining the topic of their paper and why they felt it was important. I explained that in writing this they might discover something in the dialogue they hadn’t said in the paper that would be useful and important. During this activity Stacy found a direction and was able to write a more developed essay. Her new paper started this way:

“Mom! Can I grow up to be a doctor?” I remember asking my mother this same exact question when I was about eight years old. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she heard me say this. It was as if she was so happy but yet somewhat so unsure. My mother said, “You can be anything you want to be baby.” As she said this, I saw tears rundown her face, and I clearly saw that she was trying really hard to hide her feelings. Because I was so young, I never knew what it was she was crying about. Since that day, I never really even questioned her about what happened. In fact, I never really did figure out why she felt the way she did. It never dawned on me until the day we received this assignment. My mother grew up during a time when my grandmother had her own beliefs within her culture.

Stacy explains in the rest of the paper that her mother had wanted to become a doctor and had given up her dream because of her own mother’s belief about what her role should be as a wife and mother. Stacy then focused on how lucky she is that she can be whatever she wants with her mother’s support. She was more involved with the topic of the revision—she had something to analyze.

In order to write the dialogue Stacy was forced to reexamine her original paragraphs. She was able to move closer to the real issues she wanted to analyze through writing activities which focused the topic more precisely.


Of course, not all of these writing suggestions changed all papers for all students. But students liked having some alternative ways of thinking. About writing two introductions, Michelle stated that “It helps to take your paper in a different angle and then compare the two you wrote.” Ken stated that he “never actually used any of the writing in my paper but the writing could usually send me on my way with a new idea.” Doug said about the dialogue, “This tactic really helped me with developing more detailed ideas about my paper.” Doug felt that he “became more descriptive. I began to show my stories instead of telling them.” Another student said that “I learned to find more ideas about how to approach my papers.”

Students also gained a more positive view of revision. Mark said that he felt “now that revisions are a necessity in a good paper. Before I would just want to do one draft and not really work on it repeatedly.” Adam observed that the “revision techniques that we used in class truly helped me. If we had not gone over the different ways of revising in class, I probably would not have changed or had any ideas to change my paper.” Natalie noted that “The changes I made definitely changed my paper, but I kind of liked them which is weird because I usually hate revising papers.” Amanda felt, “I don’t think I would have made these changes on my own. I always thought using dialogue and relating it to my topic would be too complex. I gained a new way to use variation throughout my essay.”

We like this approach because it gives students the opportunity to create and then evaluate various possibilities of their own, rather than relying on the teacher to provide direction. We want students to take ownership of their texts and agree with Cynthia Onore that:

As long as judgments of what may be “better” or “worse” . . . remain the province of teachers alone, then the writer cannot fully and authentically engage in choice making and problem solving. And without the authority to make choices, the writer can never understand how central are the consequences of any meaning-making activity in writing. (“The Student, the Teacher, and the Text: Negotiating

Meanings through Response and Revision,” 1989, Writing and Response: Theory, Practice, and Research, Chris Anson, ed. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 231–232)

This activity gives students strategies and opportunities for generating new material and allows them to make the choice about how this material can work for them.

More importantly, we have found that these “unsettling” activities allow students to see and experience new alternatives for their papers. Sometimes the new alternatives lead to stronger, more interesting, more engaging writing. Sometimes they don’t. But almost every time these alternatives allow students to see their writing and their experience in new ways.

We believe that the insights that students come to, the ways they view what they think and what they know are significant to their development as writers even when re-visions don’t always create vast improvements (though we have seen those too). Onore emphasizes that current research “suggests that growth in writing can be more internal, less ‘visible’ [than our expectations that practicing leads to better and better writing]. The difficulty then becomes recognizing the signs of growth we can rely on. It may even be necessary to recognize that writing ability is not developing even when the text becomes more effective” (234). What we need to become sensitive to as teachers, then, is not only the changes in students’ writing that might occur between drafts but changes in students’ attitudes, processes, and thinking as they struggle to become more confident knowers.

Susan Tchudi, former associate editor of English Journal, is a director of the Core Writing Program at the University of Nevada, Reno. Heidi Enstrem is a doctoral student and teaching assistant in the English Department, University of Nevada. Patti-Anne Hanlon is also a doctoral student there and is an instructor in the Core Writing Program.

DMU Timestamp: April 30, 2019 18:47

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