by Jennifer McBryan
With the semester now halfway over, many first-year students will be taking the opportunity to revise a paper or two for their Freshman Experience courses (CAL 103 and CAL 105). I thought I’d take a moment today to talk a bit about what this process really entails.
Professors frequently express frustration when they offer students the opportunity to revise a paper, only to find that their students are simply resubmitting the same old paper with nothing but a few cosmetic changes in place. Fixing the grammar, changing up the wording in a few places, or reversing claims that your professor may have questioned doesn’t really constitute a revision. As professor Billy Middleton likes to remind his students, “Revision is really a re-visioning of the assignment.” It’s about taking a step back, evaluating your whole approach and figuring out how to become a better writer.
Fixing the Grammar / Changing the Wording
Grammar is important. Not only does using correct grammar convey authority and smarts, but it also shows the relations between concepts in your paper. That’s because grammar is not just a set of rules – it is a system that is designed to reveal the relationships between things. When your paper is full of poor grammar, you communicate more than just a lack of interest in polishing: you communicate that you do not have a strong grasp of the concepts you are trying to explore.
The same goes for changing up the wording. If a professor suggests new and better words to use, that’s great! But often when we use the wrong words, it’s not because we don’t know what the words mean. Often, it’s because we don’t really, deeply understand what we’re talking about, or what we want to say.
So before you go changing your grammar and your wording, study the paper, the texts, the concepts, and your own argument very carefully. What were the holes in your logic or understanding that might have led to these inconsistencies in the first place? What is it, exactly, that you are trying to say, and how can you say it correctly in your own words? The danger of simply making the cosmetic changes that your professor has suggested lies in the fact that your professor might also not understand what you are trying to say. If you simply incorporate his or her advice, you might be saying something quite different from what you intended.
In some ways, this tendency in student writing is the most potentially disturbing: If your professor questions one of your claims, simply reversing it reveals that you didn’t care about it or believe in it in the first place! A better approach is to consider the claim carefully yourself, think deeply about why your professor didn’t agree with you (note that he or she may not actually disagree with you, but may be prompting you to express yourself more clearly), and then decide whether you want to stick to your guns or change your position.
If you want to stick to your guns, take the time to strengthen your argumentation so that the justification for and relevance of your claim become more clear. Maybe you need better textual evidence to support your point, or maybe you need to follow it up with a more rigorous interpretation. We always like to see students taking some interpretive risks in their work, but we’re more likely to get on board if you can show us that you have really thought it through.
On the other hand, sometimes your professor is right, and your position simply doesn’t make sense. In that case, you will want to change your position, but if so, then you will need to think carefully about how your new idea is going to impact the main argument of your paper. You may need to change your thesis as well, in order to accommodate this newfound complication. Exploring the impact of your new idea in greater depth will allow your professor to see that you have really done the work of revising rather than just fixing it up.
Of course, the staff in the Writing and Communications Center are experts at helping students gain the confidence to revise their own work, so you can always stop by and see us as well.