Revision Decisions: A Chat with Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean (Win a copy!)

ETA 11/17/14:

Congratulations to Miss Maichael, the winner of a copy of Revision Decisions from Stenhouse Publishers!

Revision is always the most difficult step of the writing process for my high school students. They’ve had the writing process ingrained into their classes for so long that they can’t envision the process as anything but linear. Draft, write, revise, edit, hand in. When we talk about revision they tend to lump it together with editing and they are reluctant to do the meaty work of revision: adding and deleting ideas, trying new words and sentence structures, working within the text. revisionThat’s why I am so excited about Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean’s newest book, Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond. The book provides teachers with lesson plans and ideas for helping students through the process of revision in fun and interesting ways.  I was so excited to get the chance to speak to Jeff and Deborah about the book and I had a few questions for them.  Hopefully, their answers inspire you to go out and purchase a copy of Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond.  Stenhouse has also generously offered to run a giveaway for one copy of the book.  To enter, leave a comment on this post! Q: Thank you so much for stopping by the blog today! I think that revision is the hardest step of the writing process for teachers to focus on in school and as a high school teacher I know it’s the step that my students writers most often skip. However, right at the beginning of the book you and Deborah Dean state, “True writers revise”. In a school system where standardized tests only value quick, rough drafts, how do teachers help students value revision? Jeff: Great question. A few things come to mind. This same conundrum faces middle and elementary teachers as well as your high school students. First, when we revise often, our first drafts get better each time, right out of the chute. So, the playing with sentences we call for in Revision Decisions lessons, prime our writers best craft to the surface. In exploration and discovery of how sentences can be put together, young writers minds are opened to possibility. These possibilities eventually get applied (sometimes with our nudges). As the Writing Next report (2007) concludes sentence combining is a proven pedagogy for improving student writing in grades 4-12. So there’s that. But also most standardized writing test have a test on revision, editing, and grammar. To pick the best sentences, students need practice at this kind of evaluating, and this is just the kind of practice they’ll get in Revision Decision lessons. Deborah: We’ve had quite a few teachers ask this question; there is so much concern about testing! But we both believe (and our work with student writers seems to show) that this kind of playing with sentences improves even students’ one-shot writing, which is often all they have time for on tests. After this kind of playing around with sentences and paragraphs, they have more ways of using language effectively stored in their heads, so they can use it spontaneously as well as in situations where they have time to revise and craft more carefully. Q: I promise this will be the only other question about standardized testing! Whether it’s the upcoming PARCC/Smarter Balance tests or the SAT/ACT, standardized tests force students to rush through writing an essay in 25-45 minutes. Is it possible for students to do any type of revising in these situations? Should we encourage students to revise in these situations?t Jeff and Deborah: If they have a moment to revise, great. If they don’t, then that’s not what’s being tested. I think the evaluative talk that Revision Decisions is built upon will, as I stated earlier, make them better drafters. Drafters who know more options and who are used to making sense and crafting for understanding and clarity should do well. But back to the actual revision–if time. I always say a reread is great idea. After that, I encourage students to look at the lead and conclusion. This is where you set the first and last impression before the paper is scored. I know the first read is really editing, but if they tinker with the intro and conclusion, that’s revision;-) Q: What is your revision process like? Jeff: Oh, man. That’s such a good question. I am a spewer. I plan less than most and find my shape, structure, and sometimes my message by drafting and freewriting little snippets until I find my access point. That said, I end up with a lot of writing that needs to be revised. First I revise for big things. This usually involves reading it aloud to a not-so-critical friend. I can find a lot of bumps in simply reading it aloud, but the questions the reader asks help too. Then I go and try this a few more times, all the while, tightening sentences structures, varying or tidying. I also have enjoyed the ability to cut and paste a sentence or passage that isn’t working in a new document and then mess with it there. If I do it right in my file, sometimes I mess it up. This copy and pasting in a new “play” doc allows me to take greater risks and not fear “messing it up.” Deborah: This is a really interesting question to pose to two writers who have just collaborated and, in the process, entwined their writing processes. I probably plan a little more than Jeff, but I still tend to be a writer who writes my way into what I have to say. In that way, Jeff and I were somewhat alike. We wrote a lot at first! We would, literally, talk about the general idea of a section and then pass the laptop between us to compose alternate paragraphs at times. Jeff mentions talking—and I think that was the biggest thing. We talked a lot! On the phone and in person. Early in the process, we had worked out a broad framework and had written more than half the book when we had some extended time to talk. All of a sudden, Jeff said, “I think we need to approach this differently.” I remember thinking, “NO! We’ve got so much done!” We talked. At first, I resisted his revision suggestion—not because of the idea of it but because of the work of it. I think students are often in that space, too. By talking it out, I could see the ways Jeff’s new framework would improve the overall book. So, then we went back and rewrote, moved parts around, and drafted new parts. We did a LOT of reading aloud during revision, too. And the talk at that point, too, benefitted us. Not just in hearing the words aloud but also in deciding if they really said what we wanted them to say. Jeff is very playful with language; I am more straightforward. We had to hear our words to make sure they say what we wanted them to and in the way we wanted them. Q: I love that the lessons in the book bring grammar lessons into the revision process. It’s a natural fit but not one I have seen presented very often. Instead, grammar seems to fall under “editing” in the writing process in the eyes of many teachers and students. Do you see editing and revising as separate steps or is more of a “you can’t have one without the other” situation? Jeff: My friend Kelly Gallagher and I have chomped on this a bit in conversation. I do see grammar as part of revision. Almost all grammatical structures embed detail in a economic, sometimes musical way. So separate. Sure. But not really. Just as when I revise, I draft again often. My go to phrase is from Donald Graves: “The enemy is orthodoxy.” That is the only enemy of writing process. Those who try to over pigeon hole or programatize it into expensive kits. Process is messy and goes in and out. To me, it all mixes in eventually. Am I sounding like a hippie? Deborah: Jeff is a little bit hippie! J But he is definitely right. We can make generalizations about separating editing and revising, but in reality they often blend into each other. If we try too hard to make the distinction, separating the two processes too distinctly, some writers feel shut down. In the book’s lessons, concepts of punctuation are entwined with the language concepts because punctuation often affects meaning. It’s not only about correctness. So if meaning is revision and punctuation is editing, how can we do this kind of thinking unless we’re willing to muddy the boundaries a bit? Q:  And last but not least, something a little fun. What are you reading right now? Jeff: I’m working like crazy on my middle grade book, so on a my way to a retreat with Linda Urban, I am reading A Crooked Kind of Perfect. Deborah: My grandfather grew up in the early 1900s and didn’t get past the 8th grade in school, but he was one of the most active readers I have ever known. He always had more than one book going at once, and I’m afraid I take after him. Right now, some of the books I am actively in the middle of are these: This House of Sky by Ivan Doig, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (finally getting to this after it’s been in my to-read stack for a year), and The Encyclopedia of Me by Karen Rivers. I just finished two picture books I am still thinking about how to use as mentor texts: Whimsey’s Heavy Things and An Armadillo in Paris, both by Julie Kraulis. Thanks so much for stopping by, Jeff and Deborah!  I’m looking forward to using your strategies with my high schoolers! GIVEAWAY INFORMATION:

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond, courtesy of Stenhouse Publishers.
  • For a chance to win this copy of Revision Decisions, please leave a comment on this post by Monday, November 17th at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winner, who will be contacted via email.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you if you win.  Stenhouse will be shipping the book to you, so I will share your mailing address with them.