Tag Archives: get used to messy first drafts

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.

A revised first draft showing cross outs, arrows, circles and erasures means the student has truly improved the essay

Every professional writer knows that the real work of writing happens during revision. But this is an idea that students—and parents—need to learn. If a student says she has finished revising and her copy seems little altered, then she has probably not done a good job at revision.

On the other hand, if a student looks at her copy, noticing cross outs, arrows to side margins or to the back of the paper, words squeezed in, circles to identify verbs and first words of sentences and perhaps even sections cut apart and taped together in a different order, the student has truly revised.

Below is an example of the first page of a fourth grader’s messy but revised essay.

draft showing revisions 001

Revising is not editing. Revising means making substantial changes in the writing in order to improve it. Editing means looking for finer details such as correct spelling, apostrophes in the right spaces, and hyphens used appropriately. Unfortunately, in many school classrooms, students don’t learn to revise; they learn to edit.

Parents can be dismayed if they see the writing of my students while revising is in progress. Parents expect me to make the student edit too early on in the writing process. “Shouldn’t he change the spelling now?” a parent might ask, looking over his child’s shoulder.

When I work with children of parents like this, I show them examples of other students’ work, including the final draft. I let them see that the tiny errors will be corrected eventually. Usually this suffices until they see their own child’s finished work. Then they are sold on this writing process.

Perfectionist students might never reach the stage of good revising unless they learn to tolerate a degree of mess. I worked with one student who needed to start over so many times that she never completed a single essay. I have worked with other perfectionists who learned that the mess increases their chances of a higher grade, and so they set their sights on the perfect grade and begrudgingly accepted the interim mess.

Next we will talk about flow and how to make it happen.

Write the first draft skipping lines or double spacing.

Since most of the improvement in writing comes in revising, it is important for students to leave room in their first drafts for revising. For that reason, I recommend that:With a first draft, leave spaces between lines and keep a one inch margin all around.

  • Students should write on every other line of notebook paper if writing by hand, or they should double space if composing on the computer. That additional space between lines allows room to insert changes and still be able to read the text. For students who are not used to skipping lines, I print tiny X’s in the left margin of every other line to remind the students to skip lines. Most students are not used to writing this way, and they forget. If so, let them finish the line they are on and then skip the next line. Once they have revised, they will understand the need for all this white space.
  • Students should write on one side of the paper only. This way, as they start a new page, they can look back at the last few sentences they have written without flipping the paper back and forth. Rereading as they write is important for continuity. It also allows room on the back of the paper for major revisions later on, including adding whole paragraphs. Another plus is that by placing the words just written above and almost touching an empty page of notebook paper, the student does not perceive an empty page, and he finds it easier to pick up the thread.
  • Students should leave one inch margins on each side of notebook paper and on the computer. The margins allow for more revision space and for other kinds of analyzing, which I will explain in a later blog.
  • Students should write darkly so that the writing can be easily read. If they use pen, they should use dark blue or black ink for easy reading and because colored pencils or inks will be used in the revising process.
  • Students should use clear handwriting. If I cannot read a student’s handwriting, I stop the student immediately and ask him to fix the poor handwriting until it is legible. Poor handwriting is usually nothing more than a lazy habit. Insist on good handwriting if the student wants your help. If the student is using a computer, insist on a simple, easy-to-read typeface.
  • What about perfectionists? Some students will not tolerate mistakes and will insist on starting over if they forget to skip a line or if an erasure leaves too dark a smudge. I encourage students to get used to messy first drafts because when we revise, the copy will become much more messy. I show new students copies of other students’ work to prove my point. But some students will come to a standstill unless they are allowed to start over. Sometimes I allow a student to cut off the imperfect part, paste the good part to a clean paper, and continue on. Other times, I allow one start-over and that is it. But for a few students, any limit on starting over can leave them in tears.  Perhaps a serious talk about perfectionism is in order, showing how perfectionism slows a student and ultimately leads to lower grades. In my experience, many perfectionists are gifted students for whom perfectionism becomes an obsession unless it is checked early.

Next we will talk about composing the first draft.