It's one of the nasty realities of school life: every major writing assignment must have at least two drafts. Although the last thing your child wants to do after writing an essay is go over it again, revision is an essential part of writing--and many kids today just don't know how to do it. To “revise” means to “see again.” So, if your child skims her rough draft for errors while watching TV, she isn’t revising much. In fact, her essay may not change at all.

“Students often submit the same thing for their final and rough drafts, with very little change between the two,” says Molly Orner, a teacher at Gateway High School in San Francisco. “They tend to focus on changes in spelling and grammar, or simply add content without reworking pre-existing content.”
Revising involves more than performing a “spell check,” making sure commas and apostrophes are intact, and picking fancier adjectives. “Revising is an opportunity to reconsider our topic and our purpose for writing,” says Richard Nordquist, the author of Passages: A Writer’s Guide, which trains students in prewriting, drafting, and proofreading. When looking over an early draft, a writer must scrap well written but unnecessary pages, jumble the structure as if they’re tossing paragraphs into a washing machine, or completely change their thesis.
These aren’t easy tasks, but a disciplined writer throws her ego out the window, and is aware that writing can always be made better. “I suspect that students undervalue the revision process because they don’t understand that writing is a craft. Like a piece of art, it needs to be constantly refined,” says Orner.
But no clear line exists between writing and revising. “There’s no such thing as a perfect first draft,” says Nikki Grimes, a poet and children’s author in Corona, California. In fact, many writers claim there’s never a perfect draft. If your child is developing the first version of an essay, however, its structure probably won’t change once its written. What’s interesting, too, is many students understand what must be done to improve their work, but coming face-to-face with their rough draft, splattered with red marks, feels like restarting at zero.
“Parents can sit down with their child, read the work aloud, and ask questions about anything that’s unclear,” says Orner. “If a student can hear they’re not effectively communicating to their reader, they may be more likely to change their writing.”
Be aware of these common practices during the revision process:
  • Keeping ideas that “sound good”: More isn’t necessarily better, especially if “more” is off-topic. Your child is thrilled when she cranks out content, which may hinder her from recognizing sentences or entire paragraphs that don’t support her thesis. Ask her: “Is this sentence really necessary? Does it help prove your point?”
  • Fearing the loss of the original draft: Your child may hesitate to experiment with or delete large chunks of writing because he feels he won’t be able to revert to his original work. If he handwrites, he can photocopy his first draft before proceeding with changes. If he types, he should store the rough draft as an untouched file during the revision stage – this way, he’ll have a master copy, so he can test the waters of prose with confidence.
  • Assuming the reader is versed in the topic: Whether your child’s essay is about global warming or Surrealist art, she should presume that her reader knows nothing of her subject. Each and every idea must be clear. “Students struggle to identify what holes still exist for the reader,” says Orner. “They leave out details and adequate explanations of their ideas, assuming their reader knows what they mean.” Ask your child: “Did you know this piece of information before you started working on this assignment?” If she didn’t, she may have to elaborate on it.
  • Failing to envision their audience: Writing can be muddled if your child doesn’t picture his reader. If he’s writing about the best parks or restaurants in his neighborhood, he should envision the type of person interested in his topic. “One question I’m exploring is whether the intended audience and purpose can have a beneficial effect on their motivation,” says Orner. “If they think someone other than their teacher is reading the piece – especially if it’s going to be publicly showcasedthey may be encouraged to put greater effort into their work.”
  • Starting the revision process too soon: Your child should wait a few days before revising a draft. Distance will make her less protective of her writing. Also suggest swapping papers with a classmate for editing. After, she’ll have a fresher set of eyes and peer comments as she starts her revision. “Students have difficulty identifying errors in their own writing, even when they are able to spot problems in the writing of others,” says Orner.

After your child has a chance to take a step back from her work, she has the necessary perspective to get down and dirty with the draft in hand. But, where to begin? A thorough revision involves three major stages. 

The first is reworking content or ideas. This involves adding and deleting passages and confirming that ideas make sense:

  • Is my main idea or thesis in my introduction?
  • What’s the purpose of each paragraph? Does each paragraph relate to my thesis?
  • Which ideas are weak? Which paragraphs need more research or specific details to bolster my discussion?
  • Do my ideas connect? Do I explain why I move from idea A to idea B? Does my writing “flow” when I read it aloud?
  • Do I repeat the same ideas over and over?

The second stage is reworking the structure or organization of an essay; a bold and daunting process, where the magic of the craft truly happens. Unfortunately, the task is rarely attempted. Here are tips to encourage your child:

  • Mark up the draft, using arrows to move ideas and asterisks to add new thoughts
  • Assign a color to each main idea or thesis point and “color code” information with the appropriate shade, using a highlighter or underlining each detail with a crayon. If the essay looks like a rainbow of scattered colors, try grouping the ideas together
  • Print out a copy, use scissors to cut the essay into sections – sentences, paragraphs, or parts of paragraphs – and re-arrange ideas on the floor
  • Re-assemble the thesis points in different ways: chronologically, least important to most important, or in an order that flows better when read aloud

Editing conventions or mechanics by checking spelling, grammar, punctuation, and language comes last. Editing, which is different from revising, is a waste of time if done prematurely. Here’s a checklist of final steps:

  • Do my title and introduction entice others to read more?
  • Are there topic and concluding sentences in each paragraph?
  • Do I have a conclusion?
  • Is my verb tense consistent?
  • Do I use an active voice? Active: Monsters under my bed scare me. Passive: I was scared by monsters under my bed.
  • Do my sentences have end punctuation?
  • Are proper names and first words of sentences capitalized?
  • Do I notice any run-on sentences or fragments?
  • Did I check spelling with my own eyes in addition to using “spell check”?
  • Do I begin many sentences with “this,” “that,” or “the”?
  • Can I shed adjectives and adverbs for a stronger noun?
  • Has someone else proofread my paper?
  • Did I read it aloud one last time?

The revision process is truly an art. Even E.B. White, author of The Elements of Style, once said, “The best writing is rewriting.” So, uncap that red pen, turn off the TV, and encourage your child to join the ranks of professional writers everywhere.