Revision: Writing Through Failure

This broken egg reminds us that failure is often necessary, even in writing. How can we teach students to embrace failure and revision when they've been taught that one draft is sufficient?

I recently wrote about the benefits of sound (provided by speech) over written texts. My classroom and editing experience has shown that when people give voice to their words, they convey more richness and detail than if their words exist only in print. This holds true in my experience with audiobooks and podcasts, as well. There’s simply more on offer with spoken words than there is with writing alone. Indeed, verbalizing text well is an uncommon skill. Just ask anyone who’s listened to academics read papers at conferences. Some of them are simply painful to endure because the reader doesn’t employ the advantages of the spoken word.

However, there is one major advantage writing has over speaking, and I completely neglected to mention it in my last post. Writing affords revision. Speech cannot. As Nancy Sommers observes, “revision in speech is an afterthought.” When we speak, we can think and plan ahead all we want, but in the moment, we say what is essentially stream-of-consciousness. What we think comes out of our mouths. But when we write, we can carefully consider every word. We can fret over something until it works exactly as we want before sending the words to someone else. Writing allows us to craft our messages more meticulously than speech ever can.

Revision as Speech’s Successor?

The model many people learned in grade school tells us that writing follows a basic four-step process: prewriting, writing, revising, and publishing. In essence, this process emphasizes that writing happens linearly. First we think, then we create, then we fix, and that’s it. As Sommers points out, this linear approach makes sense for delivering memorized speeches, as one the speech is given, it is finished. But with writing, the process needn’t be—indeed, shouldn’t be—linear. When we write, we can figure things out as we go. That process of discovery, then, can help us improve our writing as we create it. Earlier drafts help us unlock ideas that make later drafts better. As we write more, we think more, and that lets us write better. As Doug Downs puts it, “using language not only represents one’s existing ideas, it tends to generate additional language and ideas.” Paradoxically, writing makes writing better.

Thus, it makes sense to emphasize the benefits of revision with writing specifically because it’s an affordance unavailable to other ways of thinking. To borrow from Roland Barthes, “writing begins at the point where speech becomes impossible.” Our ability to write does precisely what speech alone cannot do. It gives us the ability to improve and iterate.

Failure in the Classroom

That iteration—one of the defining characteristics of writing—doesn’t align with the expectation for predictability and standardization upon which our current education system stands. When institutions expect us to teach writing classes in 15 weeks, how can we give students the opportunity to fail and revise in ways that don’t simply compound existing problems? If folks suggest, as some have at my school, that we should teach basic-composition courses in just six weeks, how can we show students how incubation and revision work? How can we teach the process of writing without allowing time for experimentation?

School semesters expect students to follow a linear trajectory through predetermined material. To an institution, course design should follow a one-way path, much like delivering a speech is a one-shot process. As Sommers says, “the process represented in the linear model is based on the irreversibility of speech.” The traditional model of the writing process suits the standardization expectation well. But if the standard writing process derives from speech, and writing does exactly what speech cannot, we have a problem.

Speaking Our Truths

Back in 2015, Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle created the Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies project. In that excellent, clearly authored book, Adler-Kassner and Wardle urge writing scholars to work harder to articulate and assert the discipline’s base knowledge, particularly among stakeholders who have the power to make decisions but who lack the knowledge of how our field works. In short, the editors call us to name what we know and teach it to others.

One of the things we know that we need to teach to others is that “failure can be an important part of writing development.” Collin Brooke and Allison Carr take up that claim, concluding that our classes need to insist upon revision and rewriting. Allowing for revision is insufficient because students can opt out and miss seeing the benefits. Re-writing processes are generally foreign to students, and we have an obligation to normalize them. We need to create classes in which failure is encouraged and valued. We need spaces where students know that we support, encourage, and learn from failures. In short, we need to talk about failure in ways that remove its current stigmas. Brooke and Carr take an approach that beautifully returns to the notion of speech as rich and informative while also supporting the value of writing as a process. They encourage teaching that “makes failure speakable and doable.” Let’s start talking.

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