What We Talk About When We Talk About Revision

On Wednesday, July 26th, I organized an interactive workshop for my staff, what I affectionately call a tutor tune up. These tune ups address specific challenges I see in the center or issues the tutors report to me.

In this particular workshop, we set out to define and explain exactly what we mean when we ask students to revise. During our conversation, we discussed how revision meant reviewing the requirements of an assignment, checking for grammatical issues, proofreading, and the like. While these observations are certainly apt, I wanted the tutors to begin to consider the actions students take when they revise their work, what we are asking them to do when we say “revise.”

In Revision: History, Theory, and Practice, Cathleen Breidenbach discusses the importance of clearly defining revision: “Dividing revision into different types of revision (deep or global revision versus surface or final editing) and into different aspects and strategies seems the only way to see the process with clarity and communicate revising moves to those who would like to do it better” (199). Breidenbach, building on the work of Meredith Sue Willis and others, draws a distinction between addressing surface errors such as typos and mechanical issues and what she calls “deep revision.” I particularly appreciate the fact she breaks revision down into “moves.” While Breidenbach’s work offers an in-depth discussion of how writing instructors can break old habits, I want to focus on the ways in which I integrate “revising moves” in the center.

Writing center scholars have observed that, like Breidenbach, revision is a process that contains multiple parts. The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors distills the revision process into four distinct operations: addition, deletion, substitution, and reordering (88). These operations are useful because they give writers a foothold, a set of actions to complete. The four operations act at four different levels of writing: word, phrase, sentence, and theme/argument. Naturally, applying the operations successfully requires an understanding of what words mean, what constitutes a phrase and a sentence (clauses), and how to develop a successful argument or idea. Helping students utilize the operations requires a deft hand.

During the tutor tune-up, we focused on the different ways we can use reordering to help students. Even though Breidenbach’s concept of deep revision draws a clear distinction between revising mechanical errors and more global concerns such as structure, my staff and I discussed using reordering – one action – to address both mechanical errors and higher order concerns. Below is a distillation of our conversation.


The tutors rightly observed that the concept of reordering provides a graspable through line across a multitude of writing and revision challenges at both the local and global levels. We even talked about using the revision operations to explain fundamental parts of writing. Or, in other words, using a revision operation to explain one of the four different levels of writing.

I look forward to seeing how my amazing team mobilizes the revision operations in tutoring sessions this coming semester.

Works Cited:

Bredeinbach, Cathleen. “Practical Guidelines for Writer and Teachers.” Revision: History, Theory, and Practice, edited by Alice Horning and Anne Becker, Parlor Press, 2006, pp. 197-219.

Ianetta, Melissa, and Lauren Fitzgerald, editors. The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors: Practice and Resarch. Oxford UP, 2016.

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