Why I (Re)Write? #NationalDayofWriting

October 18, 2017 — Leave a comment

Here is a dramatic reenactment of writing in schools (with translations) taken from the esteemed writing teacher Donald M. Murray‘s 1982 essay The Maker’s Eye: Revising Your Own Manuscripts:

STUDENT: “It’s done!” (*phew*).”

TEACHER: “Did you revise?” (translation: “Did your ideas emerge and evolve? Did you clarify your meaning?”)

STUDENT: “I finished it!” (translation: “Just give me a grade! I’m done.”)

TEACHER: (*sigh*) “Hand it in…it’s due” (translation: “Need to move on.”)

In his essay, Murray explained, “When students complete a first draft, they consider the job of writing done – and their teachers too often agree.”

Murray contrasts these attitudes with the attitudes of professional writers who after completing a first draft, “usually feel that they are at the start of the writing process.” He quotes the writer Roald Dahl as saying:

“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.”

Murray’s point was that in the professional writer’s world, or the real world, writers have time… or they find time… in order to make time for revision.

That kind of dedicated time for revision that exists in the real world does not exist in schools. Classroom periods are organized most often in chunks of 42, 60, or 84 minutes. The result is that the authentic revision on a piece of writing will take more time than the scheduled school day offer (after all, “there is a curriculum to cover!”)

Complicating the need for dedicated time is the demand for student writing to grade in order to meet assessment schedules: progress reports, quarters, mid-terms, trimesters, etc. That need to grade everything a student writes-drafts, rewrites, final product- is the least authentic part of the writing process.

Just check with Mark Edmundson in his book Why Write?  In the 30 chapters Edmundson uses to answer his question Why Write? the one reason missing is To Get a Grade. In other words, the major reason that students write in school is the one reason missing from the long list of reasons a writer gives for writing.

Murray also noted that students see revision “as an indication that they have failed to do it right the first time,” and to be honest, many teachers have not worked to disavow their students of this belief.

So how to improve teacher and student attitudes towards revision? When to find the time?

Why not start on National Writing Day?

National Writing Day is based on George Orwell’s essay, “Why I Write” and is celebrated annually in October.  Orwell understood the difficulty in writing (“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle”) to edit out the “purple prose” or those “sentences without meaning.” Orwell saw revision as necessary for good writing.

So, on this National Writing Day, (10/20/17) you may decide that students do not need to start something new in response to the suggested “Why I Write.” But if they do, they could practice revising their reason(s) why they write.

Lesson Suggestions for National Writing Day

Teachers can take this opportunity to promote revision, and here are several suggestions for highlighting the importance of revision on National Writing Day:

Share famous author revisions to show how they revise. Some suggestions include:

  1. Use the audio and images” in “An Explanation of The Westing Game Manuscript Materials” that show the revisions made by YA author Ellen Raskin for The Westing Game.

     

  2. Share the well-circulated image of JKRowling’s revision process for Harry Potter’s Order of the Phoenix.
  3. Share Kate DiCamillo’s drafts of the first chapter of Because of Winn-Dixie that also has her entertaining comments on each of the five revisions.
  4. Share (with mature audiences only) the author John Green’s YouTube video explanation on “Why First Drafts Suck!” as he takes on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)
  5. Prepare for Halloween with the greatest horror story ever told by experiencing the chilling revisions on the draft of the opening lines of Chapter 7 of Frankenstein. There in Mary Shelley’s handwritten text  contains the spark of life for the Monster, “It breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”
  6. Extend an invitation to social studies teachers to share historical revisions such as FDR’s speech delivered on December 7, 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Notable is the revision of the phrase “A day that will live in world history” for the iconic “infamy.”
  7. Include science teachers and share drafts from the prolific science writer (astronomer, astrophysicist) Carl Sagan from the website of the Library of Congress Manuscript Divison. There are twenty full drafts of his works in the archive including 355 pages of the first draft of his novel Contact,  with revisions, in entirety.
  8. Contrast E.B.White’s opening line “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” in Chapter 1 of Charlotte’s Web with his draft #2…and see which students prefer.
  9. Model your own revisions in your writing!

Other suggestions include:

1.Use the entire class period to let students revise a piece they have already written…. (and no grading!)

2. Have students respond to quotes about revision made by authors:

  • James McBride (The Color of Water): “Writing is the act of failing at something all the time.”
  • Ernest Hemingway: “I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms 39 times before I was satisfied.”
  • Georgia Heard (poet): “Students need to be reminded that revision isn’t merely making a few cosmetic changes. Revision is seeing and then reseeing our words and practicing strategies that make a difference in our writing.”
  • Pearl S. BuckI(“The Big Wave”) “If you start to revise before you’ve reached the end, you’re likely to begin dawdling with the revisions and putting off the difficult task of writing.”

 3. Build a lesson on the synonyms for revision; have students discuss the differences in their meanings in order to answer the question, “Why I Revise”:

  • emendation
  • editing
  • updating
  • correction
  • change
  • review
  • amendment
  • modification
  • alteration

National Day of Writing: Friday, October 20th (#whyiwrite)

Whatever you choose to do with students, engaging them in the practice of revision IS engaging them in the practice of writing. Revision is the authentic writing that students need to do, so that they will, as Murray explained, grow to understand that “each word has the potential to ignite new meaning.”

For this 9th Annual National Writing Day, the question “Why I Write” could be answered with “in order to have something to revise,” as all writing is rewriting. This could give students and teachers just a little more time as Donald Murray had hoped, for revision, for “time for just another run at it, perhaps then…”

(This post? A total of 16  17  18 revisions over four days…”perhaps then” indeed!)

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