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V.1 #4 Spelling and Writing - Beyond Commas: Revising with Less Skilled Writers

In a previous column I discussed the rationale for revising and some of the typical behaviors of skilled writers as they revise. In this column, I will discuss how less skilled writers approach revising.

Revision is an intricate part of the writing process that requires a writer to essentially re-look, re-evaluate, and clarify their thoughts with the aim of crafting improvements in their ideas, words, sentences, paragraphs, and/or overall text. Interestingly, there are quite noticeable differences in the revision process between skilled and less skilled writers. In general, whereas the skilled writers in your classroom may explore various revisions in their ideas, words, sentences, paragraphs, and/or overall text organization to clarify or improve their writing, your less skilled writers may display completely opposite behaviors: three of the most important differences you might encounter in your classroom are summarized below.

Three Important Differences

First, although generally skilled writers may typically spend considerably more time revising their work than drafting it, your less skilled writers likely spend very little time revising and may want to turn in a first draft to you as a finished piece. This may happen because less skilled writers often see no reason for making changes, either because they assume that their writing is clear to the reader or because they write in a way that sounds good to them only, without considering what others might think of their writing.

Second, less skilled writers usually attempt very few revisions. This may in fact happen because the small amount of time they dedicate to revising does not allow them adequate opportunity to make changes. Or this may happen because they can’t determine what parts of their writing they need to change even if they dedicate adequate time (Fitzgerald, 1987). In other words, they might simply lack the ability to find errors, or “dissonance” in their writings, therefore additional time may not help. Such an inability might be an outcome of their over focus on themselves when writing rather than their readers, or their belief that their draft is just fine without any changes.

Finally, the revisions of less skilled revisers are generally ineffective. Here are two potential reasons:

  • Less skilled revisers may not understand what the process of revising is about. For example, if a writer views revising as little more than editing, he might only focus on surface features such as spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. Other less skilled writers may completely understand the “higher” purpose of revising (i.e. message refinement), yet be reluctant to invest the effort required to make their meaning clearer. Characteristically, such writers may avoid tampering with their “basic sentence plans” (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1986). Sadly, these surface level revisions often fail to improve their work (Scardamalia, & Bereiter, 1986). This type of revising behavior has been called a “least effort strategy”, meaning change first what is easiest to change (Hunt, 1983). And, as many teachers can attest, likely the first choice will be word and phrase substitutions, followed by slight elaboration and deletions. Not surprisingly, the most effortful choice, restructuring of language to fit what an audience needs to know, will likely be the last choice, or a choice not explored.

  • Less skilled revisers may not have the competence to correct the problems (Graham, Harris, Macarthur, & Schwartz, 1991). Consequently, even if they detect a part of text that needed revision and want to invest the effort, they may not have the necessary skills. Such an outcome may result from not having sufficient effective strategies in place or using ineffective revising strategies.

Revising Can Be Taught

Likely, as you were reading this column you were nodding your head and thinking, “I have a student just like that!” Well, if you are faced with a student in your class who displays any of these difficulties with revising, there is good news. Most of us are not born revisers! Revising skills can be improved through instruction. Therefore, in my next column I will review several research-based methods that may help your less skilled revisers move beyond commas and into the land of more effective revisions.


Fitzgerald, J. (1987). Research on revision in writing. Review of Educational Research, 57(4), 481-506.

Graham, S., Harris, K. R., MacArthur, C., & Schwartz, S. (1991). Writing and writing instruction with students with learning disabilities: A review of a program of research. Learning Disability Quarterly, 14, 89–114.

Hunt, K. W. (1983). Sentence Combining and the Teaching of Writing. In M. Martlew (Ed.), The psychology of written language: Developmental and educational perspectives. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

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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