Struggling writers feel a sense of accomplishment and pride after completing an essay. The effort exerted to create the original draft often depletes their capacity to focus on and engage with the revision process. They believe the hard work is behind them; therefore, convincing them to revise their essay with fidelity is a challenge.
Before teaching explicit revision strategies, my students frequently submitted a second draft that simply corrected the issues I noted in the feedback of the first. Revisions were teacher-driven and showed little sign of reflection and contemplation. Had it not been for my comments on the previous draft, I doubted the students would be capable of revision at all.
Explicit Revision–Exposing the secrets to better writing
Most students, especially those struggling with academic writing, believe writing is a talent they just don’t have. This defeating attitude keeps them stuck, unable to see that writing is a skill that can be learned just as much as cooking, dancing or basketball. The simple revelation that they can learn to write well is often the first step to successful writing.
Unfortunately, emerging writers struggle to identify the individual components of the essay, so they are unable to engage with meaningful revision autonomously. The Breakdown Outline enables students to see the individual functions of each sentence in the essay. As a result, they more easily identify areas of strength and weakness.
The process of creating the Breakdown Outline takes some time to set up, but it adapts for any revision process you may use in class, often yielding more meaningful results. To start, after students receive their first graded draft, present them with a template that lists each of the key elements of the essay along the left-hand margin (see templates provided). For example, the Introduction section of the outline might list MI (Main Idea Statement), GS (General Statement), Bridge, T (Thesis). The start of each paragraph is clearly marked and the required elements for each paragraph are listed along the left-hand margin. It is helpful to use an electronic working document as opposed to a hard copy so students can add MDs (Major Details) and MiDs (Minor Details) to each body paragraph. Students then copy and paste the corresponding sentences into the template.
When finished, all sentences will be placed into the template in list form next to the correct indicator. At this point, students clearly see visual patterns in their sentence structure, elaboration of paragraphs (or lack thereof) and preferred word choice. The outline visually shows the individual sentences not only functioning as separate elements but also working as part of a whole.
One of the benefits of this strategy is that it is a first step that can be used to enhance any revision method your students need, whether it be revising at the sentence-level, editing for grammar and mechanics, or developing deeper analysis through critical reflection.
In addition, this method does not need to be applied to every essay. The process of the Breakdown Outline itself sheds light on what students previously thought was a mystery of writing—organization, sentence development, cohesiveness. After breaking down their own essay into its individual components, essay writing shifts from an abstract process to a clear and attainable one.
One ESL student who struggled with developing essays was amazed when she first saw her own essay in a straightforward outline, each sentence standing alone yet representing her complex and, at times, disorganized thoughts. “Oh, wow. Now I get it,” she said. “I see now how it’s all working together. I didn’t get that before.” She went on to revise her essay independently, first focusing on the sentence-level errors, then developing more complex sentence structures. Finally, she added in reflection and details to elaborate on her topic sentences which she could now see were poorly supported in her first draft.
Struggling students respond well to explicit activities that demystify writing and make an abstract process more concrete. As familiarity with the process grows, they apply a deeper understanding of the elements of good writing into essays naturally and fluidly, empowering them to improve their writing in all areas of their education.