Strategies for revising student writing can vary depending on the kind of writing students engage in. There is a particular style of writing that is especially beneficial for students, and coaxing them to get into the mindset of using reader-based prose is one that requires a number of different tactics from their teachers.
During our training for the Writing Fellows Program, I summarized an article by Linda S. Flowers, a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, titled “Revising Writer-Based Prose,” as well as posed a few questions to other Fellows in the program. Responses come from Fellows Samantha Schmidt and Lynn Dill. This article is part of the research and summary posts; similar posts are located under the tag of the same name.
Linda Flower’s discussion of revising writer-based prose begins with making a distinction between reader-based prose and writer-based prose; writing with an audience in mind and writing when the audience is oneself. Writer-based revision appears to be the building block or introductory method to learning how to write and then properly revise reader-based prose.
Writer-based prose has, according to Flower, two features: egocentric focus (centered on the writer) and structure, usually narrative; we are naturally inclined to write this way. She states that it is normal for first drafts to be more writer-based; therefore it makes more sense to teach first how to properly revise the sort of writing that comes naturally to many people. Flower calls for teaching students revision for readers as something that should be undertaken separately and with more gravitas, so students can make the transition easier and with less apprehension.
Flower breaks the teaching of reader-based prose down into the discussion of the two thinking processes or skills needed in reader-based revising, and then gives strategies on how to teach this.
Taking the reader into account: Writers must strive to represent the audience in their own minds with accuracy and detail, because “writers only solve the problem they represent to themselves” (65). Flower states that students can better consider the needs of the audience if instructors took the time to flesh out that audience for them and help the students consider specific audiences and potential feedback from those audiences. Flower wants to toss out vague writing prompts and replace them with “real rhetorical situations” (65).
Another key point made is when Flower discusses the writing experiment with the bus system letter. As she wonders why writers who understood the prompt still did not address the reader’s concern, she states that those writers behaved like students “attuned to repeating whatever had been given them and, as a result, were…heavily dependent on the standard description” (66). This reader-based prose is unfamiliar to them, and trying to go beyond the writer-based prose they are most familiar with can create a “cognitive overload” – this term struck me as important because it is a logical explanation for why some students have a difficult time thinking critically about writing for a reader, because they are so overloaded by the different set of skills it requires to deviate from writer-based prose and into a more involved reader-based prose revision. Helping students break this down and view the reader as a “special task” or “independent process” will, Flower claims, ease the transition.
Creating an Issue-Centered Structure of Ideas: Transforming the narrative structure of writer-based prose into issue-centered organization with a hierarchical structure (isolating key points and main ideas). Flower reiterates why using an initial writer-based prose is advantageous here, so the writer may articulate him or herself with clear, issue-centered organization.
Teaching Revision Strategies
Strategy 1: Giving assignments that specify a real-world purpose with a realistic audience, so students have a better standard to judge their writing performance against. Key quote: “Make your writing useful to your reader” (68).
Strategy 2: Setting up a mutual goal which the reader and the write share, taking specifying the audience to another level by having the writer integrate the readers’ needs into the process of composing, tying this in to providing the controlling idea to help with the hierarchal structure Flower discusses earlier. She gives an exercise example of this, and then displays criteria writers can use to evaluate the mutual goal. Key quote: “People understand and retain information best when they fix it into a framework they already know” (70).
Strategy 3: Ask students to imagine how the reader would respond to what they are writing. This allows students to view their work from the outside and see it from the readers’ perspective, helping with the revision process to make the piece reader-based prose.
One additional observation Flower makes is utilizing skills learned in other courses to aid in this process, such as her suggestion to incorporate the sense of audience a student learns in a speech class.
“…it is important to let students know that even experienced writers go through multiple drafts, not simply correcting errors, but reorganizing ideas and sharpening their focus” (Flower 67).
“For the basic writer, the process of developing information may be a formidable task of itself, so that separating that task from the process of shaping information for the reader can be a helpful and sometimes necessary simplification. Taken together, the skills of conceptualizing a reader and his needs, establishing a mutual goal, and simulating reader reactions suggests that writing for readers is a complex, high-level skill, but one that teachers can break down into manageable, teachable parts that students can tackle successfully” (Flower 73).
- Is viewing the revision for readers as a “special task” potentially problematic (as if it is optional)? What are the benefits of approaching revision this way?
Samantha Schmidt: Yes, I definitely could see how the “special task” approach could be problematic. If the writer does not write with the reader in mind from the start, then she may create a draft that is completely incomprehensible to an outside reader. This could potentially result in three courses of action on the writer’s part. She could: 1.) Attempt to revise, which could be very frustrating when in her head, the essay already makes perfect sense. 2.) Hand in the paper as is, and receive negative feedback. 3.) Scrap the paper altogether and rewrite it with the reader in mind in the first place. However, it would seem that in this scenario, the process of revision, though frustrating, is worthwhile. In order to initially get the writer’s thoughts flowing, having a writer-based first draft seems like a good idea. This makes it necessary for the writer to go back and treat the reader as a “special task,” and hopefully the first draft won’t be too hard to edit, because it will be full of the spontaneous wisdom that often only writer-based prose can deliver.
Lynn Dill: I felt like Flower had a lot of really good ideas and that it was important to consider readers, but I didn’t necessarily agree with her suggestion of first writing a writer-based piece and then following with a revision based on the reader. I feel like her suggestion is one of many tools we can use when helping students.
Although there are some ideas that will help all writers (ex. learning to write a strong focus statement, etc.), every student is different and I think that it’s important for us to recognize that the writing process is different for everybody. As an example, I never write a paper unless I have a very strong focus statement and have spent some time really thinking about it. A lot of my planning/outlining is done in my head – while driving to school or sitting alone quietly and thinking about the essay. Once I begin to write, I’ve already done most of the pre-writing in my head. I’ve thought about the reader from the very beginning. However, my process isn’t the same as everyone else.
Some people prefer to begin writing everything that comes into their head and then sit down to sort through their ideas and arrange them into a coherent piece of writing, keeping some of the information, tossing out other ideas and arranging the order of the writing. My point is that not everyone has the same process.
I understand Flower’s comments about less experienced writers having a harder time using a reader based approach versus a writer based approach. However, wouldn’t it be better to talk about the reader/audience from the beginning and then continue with this line of thinking with the revision?
Also, I loved Flower’s ideas about using real-life writing assignments. I feel like these types of assignments are so much more meaningful.
- Flower touches on the difficulty some students have in deviating from the standard descriptions of their assignments – thinking outside the box and constructing reader-based pieces. What about our educational system and the current approach to teaching writing skills makes this a challenge for students?
Samantha Schmidt: Our educational system too often values rote learning and memorization over teaching students to think. We are all familiar with the tests that render it necessary to “cram” some information, and then spit it back just well enough to receive a high grade. By the time the semester ends, students often forget what they have learned, because they have learned how to do the bare minimum amount of work to memorize seemingly useless and disjointed facts. The education system too often compartmentalizes writing to COM-101 and other core English classes, and students often never learn to write technically. When suddenly a student is asked to think outside the box, or to think of their reader, it often translates to: “Wait, so what exactly do I need to do to pass this?” The education system needs to make sure to make learning less of a chore, and more of an enjoyable pursuit with clear applications in the real world.
- When should this transition be implemented? Should moving from writer-based prose to reader-based prose be solely taught at the college level, or introduced earlier?
Samantha Schmidt: The transition to reader-based prose needs to happen early on, in high school and even grammar school, but it needs to be constantly refreshed and continued at the college level. It is important to reinforce the idea that writing serves a purpose in order to retain students’ interest and engagement in class.
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Assignment #1 Writing for an Audience – Linda Flower Linda Flower explains that many writers sometimes have problems trying to get their audience understand their opinions. Her goal is to instruct the readers the most effective ways to draw in a specific audience. She believes that in order to be a good writer you must close the gap between you and the reader. To close this gap, the writer must consider the knowledge and their audience and show them what they need to know from reading what they wrote. Readers and writers have different attitudes about a subject and the writer must persuade the reader and how they will emotionally react to it. Plus not only just what the audience needs to know but also to consider the needs they have while reading. Here Ms. Flower uses rhetorical techniques to keep her audience drawn into her essay and to get her point through. The main one she uses here is anecdotes, using writing assignment examples to relate to the information she is explaining. This is effective because the audiences can see and/or relate themselves to those situations and hence embrace to what is she is explaining. Her tone is informative because she is making sure she can get through people the simplest way possible in order to make them understand better in how they doing in their writing. The style she used is formal because she knew exactly the type of audience she was trying to reach to. She was reaching to students to teach them how to connect with the audience they will be reading their work, which was also her purpose to begin with. While reading this essay, I was often reminded on how I had trouble of trying to get my point through to my audience and how to explain it to them. But now I am going to look at whom my specific audience is and how am I going to persuade them. I agree how Ms. Flower said that it is important to keep the audience on the same page and understand the point. For my