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The Practice of Revision through Shitty First Drafts and Verbal Vomit

First, let me say hello to you all, and I’ve missed you.  I am one of the main posters for this week, and I am also presenting tomorrow, and I apologize for being so late with my submission.  The past week has left me in bed and very ill.  What started as a little strep throat quickly escalated to a bronchial infection that transformed into walking pneumonia.  I have been playing catch up for the past few days, trying to get back on track with both my job, and this class.  So, while I have been unable to provide my thoughts to you up until now,
I thank you for all the material you have provided for me to complete my presentation tomorrow.  So, here it goes…

 My focus this week is on two articles in particular:  Joseph Harris’ “Revision as Critical Practice” and Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts.”  While I like the points made by each author individually, I have some questions about how their practices fit together, which I will ask a little later in my response.

 Here is what I take from Harris:  The job of a teacher is not to try and guide a student’s thoughts or opinions, but to gear instruction towards helping students write at a level that effectively communicates their position.  If I am interpreting Harris correctly, then
his focus is all about helping students revise with a purpose.  This emphasis on purpose has come up in a number of readings this semester, with the main point being that good writing typically does not occur without understanding the purpose of an assignment.  For Harris, a writer’s purpose is found through the practice of multi-step revision.  The first revision asks students to look critically at other works, to situate themselves among arguments that have come before their own, and to ask questions of the work they are analyzing.  This is where Harris offers some examples:  Esther’s use of the “but” instead of “and” or Creg’s “aggressive, close reading” of a novel in comparison to its film portrayal.  Both students were highlighted as examples of writers that pushed passed mundane summary and formulaic grammar, and into the critical analysis of the shape and function of a work.  The second type of revision that
Harris supports is based on peer and teacher feedback, where writers must specifically address the portions of their writing that others have called into question.  This, again, asks students to be reflective, to understand their purpose, and ensure that their writing is
serving as a vehicle to convey such purpose.  Here is where I question Harris.  At one point in his article, Harris states that the revision process is more about the writer working towards improvements even if there are no solid conclusion that the writer comes to by the end of the piece.  But, can a writer say he/she has a purpose if there are no conclusive findings in his/her argument?  I’m not sure I have begun to fully think through an answer to this question, but I think it’s an intriguing one.  Harris leaves us with the reminder that we
don’t want to control student habits.  We don’t want to drill them with grammar, or stress them out with structure.  But, in shifting away from the forms of past instruction, are we just giving them something new to stress about disguised as revision, function, shape or purpose?  If I’m beginning to ramble, I apologize…

 …Or maybe I don’t.  Maybe this is just a shitty first draft, and according to Lamott, that’s ok.  Last semester, I took a methodology
course where we often engaged in conversation that resembled Lamott’s argument.  The majority of the grad students in this class were conscientious professionals that craved structure, guidelines, rules (yes, I am one of them).  This was an “important” course.  This was the course where you would start your wheels turning on your thesis paper.  THESIS PAPER in my world means structure, guidelines, and rules.  So, it was no wonder we all were looking to the professor for constant answers to questions like:  How long does this draft have to be?  How many sources should we have?  How are we supposed to start this thing?  One day in particular, a student spoke up about her experience with drafting and I kept hearing her words as I read Lamott’s article.  Lamott refers to her first drafts as moments where all the voices in your head get a chance to speak, and then you let them.  My classmate last semester referred to this process as the “verbal vomit” stage.  No paragraphs, no spell check, no pausing to re-read and revise each sentence after it’s been written.  This shitty first draft/verbal vomit is just getting ideas from brain to paper without any purpose or organization. And once again, I am conflicted.  Once again, I wonder if this shift away from formulaic outlines and drafts is not really a shift at all, but a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  If we want our students to draft, outline, revise and engage in the writing process, do we really need to dress up that process in a different
costume, or call it something else for it to be effective?  While I believe that both authors make some very valid points, I’m trying to place their articles within the context of other theories we have visited, and in doing so I am becoming a bit confused as to
what this new hybrid version of teaching writing is supposed to look like.

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5 Responses

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  1. Rachel Duso says

    Glad you’re feeling better. Something is going around my school and this week is my turn to be sick 🙁 You stated that Harris reminds teachers not to control students habits. Is that not what is done when we make notes on their papers. Even if were not marking the paper for grammatical errors I feel that we are just giving them opportunities for a better grade with comments because they change them and hand the paper back in for a better grade. They may not even look at the paper or the corrections made if they don’t have to hand it back in so it becomes a waste of our time and theirs because they’re not learning anything. I actually just emailed a paper to a professor last week asking for help but at the college level i read the comments and make the necessary changes for a better grade. This is just my opinion, maybe others have better experiences with this.

  2. Christopher Grimm says

    Rachel, I hope you feel better soon!  Megan, please take care of yourself!

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the revising process.  In community college, I learned in my composition classes about revising and the benefits of reappraisal of one’s work.  I admit to being at times gracious for this opportunity and, at other times, being one of those people about whom Professor Ferguson referred: those who just change a word here and there and run another “spell check” and “grammar check.”  I fear our students do this, too–especially those at the high school level and lower.

    Later, after I transferred to SUNY: Binghamton, I recall asking a professor of an upper division class, I’m unsure which, if he accepted paper revisions.  He exclaimed that he did not; in his experience most students do not use the opportunity wisely, merely prolonging the opportunity to hand the paper in.  They procrastinate and prolong the process.

    • Rachel Duso says

      I’ve had similar experiences with professors not accepting paper revisions because simply changing a few things will not get you a much better grade. I try my best to take advantage of professors who do allow rewrites but in my experiences they only allow it if you get the paper to them early and that can sometimes become a problem. I actually just received a paper back from a professor the other day that i handed in early so she could review it for me. She, of course, wrote comments on my paper that I will look over and fix to the best of my ability and add whatever information I am missing or take out what I don’t feel i need. I have noticed in my creative writing classes that the students do not revise to this extent. They make simple, almost unnoticeable changes, that are ultimately irrelevant to helping their grade.

  3. Victoria Fontana says

    Harris and Lamott both agree that initially shifting away from structure allows a writer to gear up for the final process. Drafting or practicing recursive writing impels cognitive processes and promotes reflection and purpose. Patricia Bizzell might count on the inner-directed theorists to support this approach. These theorists would argue that once students get in the mode of appropriate cognitive and analytical thinking processes, they will successfully tackle the form and structure later. When a student’s mental processes allow for ideas to flow, words will come out. Harris cites Keith Hjortshoj, who believes writing is a process that needs to be repeated, otherwise the process could be impeded. Therefore, Harris wants to focus on the unstable workings of writing and content, instead of form, so that educators can get a grip on a student’s unruly language.

  4. Victoria Fontana says

    Harris and Lamott would both agree this will allow for a student to clean up their content in a step-by-step process.