This three-part series explores a wide range of digital tools and pedagogical strategies that support writing instruction. The first post offered an approach to writing – and to writing instruction – as a process; the second post examined the development and drafting stage of writing. This final installment explores specific digital tools suited to workshop, feedback, and revision processes.
Approaches to Workshop, Feedback, and Revision
Understanding the Reader’s Experience
Especially when emerging from a long process of research and development, it can be challenging for writers to see their work through the eyes of someone unfamiliar with the project. Developing a sense of that new reader’s experience is invaluable. At this stage, writers might ask questions like: How is it? Did you understand? What did you learn from it?
Producing a reverse outline is a powerful way to distill a piece of writing into crisp parts and takeaways. A reverse outline is a skeleton of notes that a reader constructs after engaging with a text. Reverse outlines can be immensely clarifying, providing a clear picture of what a reader experiences, which may or may not resemble what the writer originally set out to achieve. Try implementing this process in your classroom:
- Divide students into pairs and ask them to swap drafts.
- Have each student produce two reverse outlines: one for their own piece, and one for their colleague’s piece.
- By the end of a class session (or a designated out-of-class time frame), students will emerge with two distillations of what their writing is “about.”
It is helpful for students to be able to construct full-page outlines, so applications such as Word, Pages, or Google Docs are preferable to web-hosted threads on Canvas or Ed Discussion.
Approaching a Piece as a Structure
When working on a draft, writers tend to go into the weeds of their argument, evidence, and prose. When we ask students to think about a piece of writing as a structure, we challenge them to think about it at a macro scale: what’s happening argumentatively or conceptually in the piece; and to notice how the shape and structure aids or inhibits the trajectory of its argument.
When asking students to participate in a “structural peer review” of this sort, it is important to offer some concrete particulars with respect to purpose and scale. First, determine how much of a piece of writing you’d like students to share with one another. Would it be most effective for them to focus on a particular structure (e.g. introductions or conclusions) or a particular section (e.g. analysis)? Or would it be more effective for them to work with the entirety of the piece?
Second, prepare precise instructions for the kinds of feedback you’d like students to share with one another. It can be helpful to provide a sample that you create or adapt from a previous experience.
Finally, iron out the details of the feedback-sharing process: the digital tool you will use for the sharing of work and feedback, and when you will facilitate follow-up conversations after feedback is exchanged. This will provide students an opportunity to clarify questions and for the entire class to reflect on the impact of the feedback-sharing exercise.
We recommend two tools for this style of revision: Peer review, via Canvas Assignments, and workshop letters via Google Docs, email, or Word. With Canvas’ peer review functionality, you can manually match students to work together. With workshop letters (a method adapted from creative writing workshops), you ask students first to swap work via email or hard copy, and subsequently to prepare a written “letter” conveying their feedback.
Troubleshooting: Targeting a Specific Issue
Sometimes, writers emerge after producing an initial draft with a concrete problem or “itch” in mind – something they feel isn’t working or haven’t been able to figure out yet. Writers with more experience or those working toward long-term projects (such BA or graduate theses) are likely to seek out this kind of feedback from their colleagues and mentors. We refer to this revision strategy as “troubleshooting.”
Implementing this strategy is very similar to the practice of structural revision described above:
- Provide students with clear instructions about how to identify the revision criteria they’d like for their colleagues to consider.
- Ask them to draft a revision headnote: a short paragraph (or two) that explains the feedback they are seeking.
- Depending on their specific feedback priorities, students determine whether they will share the entirety of the draft (if, for instance, they are seeking feedback on style in general) or a specific portion of it.
Many digital tools support this revision activity, but we recommend tools that foster dialogism through threaded conversation or collective annotation. After all, the great potential of troubleshooting comes from gathering multiple perspectives in a timely way. We recommend Ed Discussion or Canvas Discussions for this revision activity. We also recommend considering Hypothes.is as a section-wide or small-group annotation tool for this style of revision.
From Draft to Reality
This post outlines two crucial transformations: the progression from a work in progress to a tangible draft that now exists in the world, and the shift from the writer’s relatively isolated state to engaging interactions with other readers during the revision process.
It’s important to note that the strategies described in this article are not mutually exclusive; instead, they synergize and enhance each other in various ways. While we have emphasized collaborative and dialogical endeavors, students can also independently practice these strategies to create effective work they are proud of.
Many thanks to Dr. Shirl Yang for her presentation on reverse-outline revision exercises.
Image by author.