Rhetoric and Composition/Teacher's Handbook/Teaching Writing as a Process

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Teaching Writing as a Process

Though some composition theorists are now challenging and complicating the idea of writing, most accept that diverse writing instruction involves going beyond simple matters of correctness. By viewing writing as a process, not just as a product, the critical thinking behind all genres of writing is validated on an equal level. The best composition instruction thereby offers students guidance and experience during the various stages of the writing process.

Composition instruction focused entirely on the "product," that is, the final draft submitted by the student, is more and more often being seen as ineffective. Working with students from idea generation through revisions can highlight the value of each step in the process and help students gain more control over their writing. It could also encourage a wider range of approaches to a particular assignment and allow the instructor to intervene early if a student struggles.

Teaching Revision

Giving students examples of how many ways they can revise their papers can encourage them to engage with the process in more depth. It showcases that revision is not error correction, and it can help students to see that significant changes can, at times, be easier and more productive than trying to salvage problematic work. The following are some examples of different types of changes students might make:

Delete words, sentences, or even whole paragraphs

  • Original: The man who was sitting in the seat in front of me was so tall that I couldn’t see the screen.
  • Deletion: The man who was sitting in the seat in front of me was so tall that I couldn’t see the screen.
  • Revised: The man in the seat in front of me was so tall that I couldn’t see the screen.

Add words, sentences, and paragraphs

  • Original: I was enjoying the holiday.
  • Revised: I was enjoying the holiday, lying on the grass with sun warming my back while I listened to music.

Rearrange words, sentences, and paragraphs

  • Original: I enjoy watching double feature horror movies on Halloween evening.
  • Revised: On Halloween evening, I enjoy watching double feature horror movies.

Substitute words, sentences, or paragraphs

  • Original: Aunt Ellen is a doctor.
  • Revised: Aunt Ellen is an orthopedic surgeon.

Revision vs. Editing

Explain the difference between revising and editing to your students. Editing refers to the mechanics of the writing, such as grammar, punctuation and spelling. Revision involves looking at the content of the essay, including tone, audience, and evidence. Both are important steps in the writing process, but revision involves more critical thinking and can take substantially longer.


Give students a checklist to use when revising their papers. It may help to steer them away from editing and emphasize more thoughtful and substantial changes that could improve their papers. A checklist might include questions like the following:

Does my writing have a clear focus?

Do I need to add more details to help my audience understand my points?

Is my writing organized in a way that makes sense?

Are there unnecessary parts I should leave out?

Is my writing style appropriate for my purpose and audience?

Have I chosen the most specific words possible?

Do my sentences vary in length and pattern?

Peer Review

Peer review can be a stressful and unproductive activity if it is not set up and managed carefully. Many students lack confidence in their own writing ability and feel unqualified to criticize other students' work. This can lead to vague comments and unhelpfully positive feedback, which can lead to addition frustration for students who get little substantial feedback about their work.

Modeling peer review strategies for students can head off some of these issues. At times, students come into peer review sessions with little idea of what they should be doing, so showing examples of helpful feedback can establish a strong baseline for the activity. It can also be useful to emphasize that students can offer positive comments in addition to criticism. This can help them to find more to say about a draft.

Peer review can be done in many ways. For example, some instructors have students read drafts aloud in groups, and others have students trade papers and complete the peer reviews between classes. Some instructors assign specific questions for the peer reviews, and others require a certain number of comments per page. Mixing peer review strategies over the course of a semester can draw attention to role of feedback in the writing process and encourage students to find a method that works well for their needs.

Whatever approach is used, it's essential to establish clear expectations for students, especially if they're being assessed on the quality of their peer review feedback. How many comments should they make, at a minimum, over the course of the paper? What does a substantial comment look like? Giving students answers to questions like these can mitigate some of the stress and confusion that peer reviews can trigger in students who are unfamiliar with them or who are concerned about their ability to help others with their writing.

Here are a set of example questions that emphasize the writer's relationship with the audience and the audience's needs. Using peer reviews to tackle specific elements of a draft like this can also help students to see the shape and value of the writing process. This approach can emphasize the amount of work that can be done via peer reviews and emphasize the value of revisions.

Remember your audience

1. How much does the audience already know about this topic?

2. What can I tell them that they do not know?

3. Will my topic interest some audience members more than others?

4. How can I make my topic more interesting to all?

5. If I take a stand on an issue, will my audience agree with me?

6. If not, what interests or needs do they have through which I might change their minds?

7. Do they generally agree with my main points?

8. What are the interests and goals of most of my audience? Provide clear expectations

Rubric Types

Once you have set clear expectations for your students, it is important to provide them with some guidance about your assessment criteria. Rubrics are one possible option for making assessment standards clear for students, which can help them to evaluate the quality of their work.

Some instructors use very detailed rubrics, which can be comforting for students because expectations are very clear. Other instructors provide less detailed rubrics, which can, in theory, promote more creative approaches to an assignment. Here is one example of a very generic rubric that tells students what elements should be in the conclusion and introduction; other rubrics allow for a wider variety of organizational choices.

  • Thesis statement is specific and clear _____/5
  • Main points in introduction are appropriate and clear _____/5
  • Body provides further proof of thesis _____/10
  • Sources are used to prove thesis _____/5
  • Mechanics do not detract from quality of essay _____/10
  • Conclusion restates thesis and reviews main points _____/5