Category Archives: first drafts

Use colored pencils to help students revise drafts

Most of my elementary and middle grade students write first drafts in pencil.  A few type theirs into a computer.  But when we revise–hard copies or electronic ones–we use colored pencils.


This book summary was written and revised by a third grader.

I ask students to circle verbs and verbals with one bright color, such as red.  It’s easy to find verbs when they are encircled in a bright color.  We list them, use tally marks to identify which ones are overused, and then go back to the copy to replace overused verbs or weak verbs.

Next I ask students to choose a different bright color, one that is easily distinguishable from the first color, such a violet, green or blue.  Now the student encircles the first word of each sentence with that color.  Because the color prominently displays the first words, those words are easy to spot.  I ask students to read them aloud, listening for repetition.  When we find the same word used frequently, the student rewrites the sentence beginning to add variety.

For older students, we look at those same sentence opening words and identify their parts of speech to see if the student is overusing one part of speech, such as adverbs, and under-using another part of speech, such as prepositions.  If he is, he makes appropriate changes.

Some children overuse particular words, such as “so,” “just,” “then,” and “and.”  If I notice this, I ask the student to choose another color and to circle the overused word.  The abundance of color helps the student to recognize how frequently he has overused a word.

Revision might mean moving sentences or paragraphs around, or inserting new information missing from the first draft.  That too can be identified with arrows and stars in bright colors.

For poor spellers, I either encircle misspelled words in a particular color or highlight them with a marker.  From those words, I create a spelling study guide.  At the next lesson I quiz the student on the misspelled words.

When students see a first draft spotted with color, cross-outs, X’s, erasures, arrows and inserted words, they know they have revised.  So do parents without reading a word.

How long does it take to revise a first draft?

Revision time depends on many factors, including:

  • The length of the original piece of writing. The longer the first draft is, the more hours you should expect to spend revising.
  • boy on stool writingWhether you revise as you write or keep writing a draft until you reach the end and then revise. If you revise while you write, you might need less time later. But you may reach the end and decide big chunks of already revised material need to be tossed out, making early revisions a waste of time.
  • Whether you organize your work before you write your first sentence. In general, the more time you put into planning and detailing before you write, the less time you need to revise.
  • Your willingness to cut hundreds or thousands of words. Some writers can ruthlessly revise copy while others snip a little here and a little there, again and again. It’s painful to discard your writing, but the quicker you can throw out the bad or the not needed, the faster your revising is likely to go.
  • Your writing skill. The more skilled you are, the longer it might take you to revise since you know great writing is rewriting.
  • Your patience.
  • Your deadline. A deadline of tomorrow destroys distractions and helps you to focus.

Should students illustrate their writing with drawings (like in the Wimpy Kid)?

Many of my students do. And here’s why.

  • Illustrating encourages students to write. The drawings become the carrot that entices the students to write words.
  • Information gleaned from the drawings can later be added as details to the writing during revisions. Some students add few details in their writing but add rich details in their illustrations. A teacher can encourage the student to transfer some of the visual details into words.
  • The internet has changed the language we use to communicate to a much more visual and less textual language.  Students live more and more in a visually designed online world, using icons, videos, tables, photos and cartoons. Why not let their school work reflect their real world?
  • Drawings can be an icebreaker between a teacher and a poor student writer. “Wow, Adam, I love the way you drew the expression on that guy’s face. Your art is really well done! Now let’s see how we can get that feeling into words.”
  • When students read one another’s work, they love the illustrations. Students may be more willing to accept peer criticism of their writing if they receive peer praise for their drawings.

Below is a narrative with illustrations made by a fifth grader.  The illustrations were in his first draft on notebook paper, but we added them to his final draft.  Click on the graphic below to enlarge it.

Illustrated narrative by a 5th Grader.

How to edit an essay

Because my students’ first drafts are so messy, I sometimes ask them to rewrite them during the revising stage. Many students make clean drafts without my encouragement since they have no room left for changes or since they can hardly decipher their changes any more.

I have learned that when students try to edit using a sloppy, revised draft with cross-outs and insertions, they miss errors.  Even though they have skipped lines to leave room for changes, and have left margins so there is room for insertions, sometimes they need to write a clean draft or type and print  a clean draft for editing purposes.

student essay to be edited

This portion of a fifth grade student essay has been revised but is difficult to edit because of all the cross-outs, circles and insertions. A clean draft would help the student to edit well.

Once they have a clean almost-final draft, students edit. They read every word of their essays, looking for errors such as in spelling, capitalization, verb tenses, plurals, parallel structure, subject-verb agreement, pronoun antecedent agreement, possessive nouns, its and it’s; they’re, there, and their; to, two, and too; and punctuation. Students who overuse certain words (and, then, so, and just, for example) hunt for them and either eliminate them or replace them.

One trick I learned long ago when I was a copy editor is to read each sentence out of order, starting with the last sentence and ending with the first sentence. By listening to sentences out of order, mistakes are easier to hear. My students think this technique is silly until they try it, but then they realize its usefulness. Usually I wait until a student is in middle school to suggest this editing technique.

As students edit, I try to read along with them, to suggest grammar and usage problems they might not suspect. At this point I sometimes teach a grammar lesson on the particular problem the student has encountered, especially if this problem is recurring.

When the student finishes editing his final hand-written copy, the student or I type this draft on the computer, leaving any remaining errors as they are. At our next meeting, the student edits for a second time, usually finding a handful of errors he missed during the first edit. (It’s so much easier to find errors when the writing is printed rather than hand-written.) Sometimes the student will make significant changes at this point, but not usually. Since I am aware of what the errors are, I point out errors that the student has not found.

Next we’ll talk about the value of typing and printing a final version of a student’s essay.

Clueless student writers benefit from a fill-in-the-blanks book report form

Although a specific prewriting organizer for a book review (see last week’s blog) is sufficient help for some writers to get going, for other students, this is not enough. “Yeah, but how do I begin?” they ask after they have filled in the boxes of the organizer.

For them, I use a fill-in-the-blanks book review. It looks like this:
Form fill-in-the-blanks book report

Form fill-in-the-blanks book report
When students have filled in the blanks I ask the students to read the black typed parts and their own words aloud, listening for mistakes. Together we correct the mistakes.

Then I either accept the book review as is, or I ask the students to rewrite it on a different sheet of paper, using the black typed parts and their own words but leaving out the red directions. Rewriting the fill-in-the-blanks sheet strengthens the features of a book review in the students’ minds so I see this as a useful task. Plus it prepares the student for revising in the future.

A fill-in-the-blanks book review form is a crutch for primary school students and ESL students who don’t know what is expected in a book report. After students use it a few times and become comfortable with its features, I ask them to look at it while they write their reviews, but to write their reviews on a different sheet of paper. Eventually, as they become more confident writers, they no longer need it.

Ideal first draft writing conditions include periods of flow.

Good writers seek stretches of time when their minds can become caught up in the writing and when they are somewhat unaware of their surroundings; their minds are living in the writing.

Mark Twain used to go to a small gazebo in his sister-in-law’s field to write without interruption. Ernest Hemingway composed in a second story room in a building near his house in Key West, accessible by a rope bridge, so he could write uninterrupted. Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote in a trailer parked in her back yard for many years.

One student working while those nearby are talking

Some situations are more conducive to flow than are others. A quiet background helps. That could mean complete silence or the sounds of nature such as a recording of ocean waves or bird sounds. A writer needs to be able to hear the words in his mind, and sometimes he needs to hear the words aloud. Libraries can be good places to write first drafts; so can picnic tables in the back yard.

A noisy background can also be conducive to flow providing the noise continues at about the same degree of low noisiness. Many writers prefer to write in coffee shops or diners with the background chatter of customers and waiters. A vacuum cleaner or hair dryer on in another room—just left on, with no one using it—can help writers to focus.  So can classical music.

It’s the interruptions that make writing difficult and end flow.

For writing a first draft, flow can be important. For revising, flow can be important as well, but it is usually less important than it is for composing a first draft. For editing, flow is usually not important.