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V.1 #3 Spelling and Writing - The Revising Process

In a previous column I discussed how teachers can support students during the prewriting stage of the writing process. I wrote that prewriting is often termed the “getting-ready-to-write” stage involving planning, collecting, and organizing information while considering topic, audience needs, and personal reasons for writing. Now I will discuss the next stage of the writing process, revising. Because of its importance, I will devote several columns to revising.

In this column I will discuss the rationale for revising and the key behaviors that good writers engage in during revising. In my next columns, I will discuss how less skilled writers approach revising, and finally, how teachers can intervene during the revision process.

After text has been created during the prewriting stage, writers will usually begin the process of making the initial text better through revision. Few writers can craft an appropriate message without revising their text, in fact this stage of the writing process is so important that to some, writing is revising (cf. Murray, 1978).

Revision is the process of re-looking at our thoughts and re-evaluating and clarifying them with the aim of crafting improvements in our ideas, our words, our sentences, our paragraphs, and/or our overall text. These improvements require a physical and a mental process of adding, deleting, substituting, or rearranging material and could take place (a) in the text’s surface form (i.e. changing the arrangement of words in a sentence, sentences within a paragraph, or paragraphs within a global text), or (b) in it’s deeper meaning (i.e. changing the overarching goal or ideation). This process typically involves three stages for a writer: problem detection, problem definition, and problem correction through revision strategies.

During problem detection a writer may notice an area of their text that can be improved. For example, while reading their text, a skilled writer might encounter some type of “dissonance”, or in other words a “sour note” area of the text, that the intended audience may not understand or that is somehow not quite what was originally intended. To effectively detect such problems, this skilled writer must think critically about what they have written.

Then, once detected, the problem must be defined. Having a good idea of the problem will assist its correction. For example, a writer who states “this idea doesn't logically fit with the first one,” has diagnosed a well-defined problem that can be tackled via a specific revision strategy. Easy detection and clear definition of errors in a text are characteristics of skilled writers.

Once defined, the problem must be corrected. To do this the writer must have the skill to create revisions that actually make the message better in some way. Deciding how best to correct a sour note can be a slow and effortful process for even very skilled writers. Revision corrections could involve many different strategies such as using a thesaurus for a more descriptive word, restructuring sentences to emphasize certain parts, and/or rearranging sentences or paragraphs for a more logical flow. At times, the problem may require more extensive rewriting or replacing if the text is too awkward.

Of course a skilled writer might make a revision even if a problem does not exist in a text at all. At times such a writer may improve their message even if it supports their early intent just because they thought of a better way to state an idea.

Whether a revision occurs because of problem detection or the simple epiphany of a better idea, this process takes time. Perhaps not surprisingly, skilled writers may spend considerably more time rewriting their work than drafting it. In fact, the more skilled the writer, the greater proportion of time they will spend in revision (Hayes & Flowers, 1986).

An even more interesting characteristic of skilled writers is that revision is not a separate element for them—something that is attempted after planning and completing a first draft. Instead, while composing, they may work through cycles where text is produced, reflected upon, amended as needed, then used as input for the next cycle of text generation. Scardamalia and Berieter (1986) refer to this cycle not as a process of revision, but rather reprocessing, where a writer not only adds to what has been produced, but may also edit and reformulate their original goals.

While this important process is challenging for all writers, it can be even more difficult for less skilled writers. In my next column I will discuss the particular difficulties revising presents to less skilled writers.


Hayes, J. R., & Flower, L. S. (1986) Writing research and the writer. American Psychologist, 41, 106-113.

Murray, D. M. (1978). Internal revision: A process of discovery. In C. R. Cooper & L. Odell (Eds.), Research on composing: Points of departure. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1986). Research on written composition. In M. C. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (3rd ed., pp. 778-803). New York: Macmillan.

Bruce Saddler, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology Department, Division of Special Education at the University at Albany, State University of New York. His current research interests include writing disabilities, self-regulation, and inclusion.

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