Rewriting is a waste of time

For the last two months, I’ve been working fulltime on an update of a book I wrote several years ago.

More precisely, I’ve been working on an update of the first 20 pages of that book.

Yesterday I said to myself, "Self, what would you tell a student who had this problem?"

Self answered, "Don’t rewrite; revision."

writer at typewriter tossing pages into trash

Revising is a last-century technique.

As a teenager, I followed my English teacher’s dictum and revised my writing again and again and again until I had beaten it into a lifeless mass of words, with nothing to show for my effort but a wastepaper can full of crumpled paper.

Later, as a newspaper reporter, I discovered that once I had my lead paragraph the rest of the story would fall into place.

For years I eschewed rewriting.

If I started a piece that didn’t work, I looked for a different approach to the topic, a different perspective.

And I taught my writing students not to waste time rewriting, but to find a new vision.

But every so often I forget.

I revert to the behavior Mrs. Clark drilled into me.

I try to rewrite my way to clarity.

It never works.

More than sentences needed for a writing revolution

Title and subtitle from cover of The Writing Revolution

I nodded in agreement when I read a quote from Judith M. Hockman in an Q&A about the forthcoming book, The Writing Revolution,  which she co-authored with Natalie Wexler.

“We’re very good at assigning writing,” [Hockman] explains. “We’re not very good at teaching kids how to write.”

The Q&A author’s, Liana Loewus, goes on to ask Hockman about the problems with the way we teach writing.

Hockman’s short answer is that we don’t teach writing: We give self-centered writing assignments and teach grammar in isolation from writing.

All of that aligned with what I’ve observed and what researchers like Steve Graham have documented.

What struck me as odd about Loewus’s piece was that there was nothing about writing beyond the sentence level.

I did a 10-second search to learn more about  Hockman’s method. On the Hockman method website I read that her process uses:

  • Sentence strategies to build complexity and clarity
  • Outlines to develop well-structured summaries, paragraphs, expository and argumentative essays, and research papers
  • Revisions to enhance unity and coherence

I can’t help wondering why Loewus omitted anything about structuring and revising documents, unless the two questions about Hockman’s methods being criticized for stifling students’ curiosity and love of writing were meant to cover that area.

Maybe I’ve just been seeing too much about fake news, but the skewed perspective gave me pause.

I suspect I would disagree in some particulars with Hockman. ( I teach just one flexible outline for all types of nonfiction, and I teach students to avoid revisions for unity and coherence by careful planning.)

However, I am thoroughly in agreement with aspects of Hockman’s program that Loewus never mentioned:

  • teaching and using writing in all subjects, and
  • advancing thinking through writing.

The Writing Revolution is now on preorder at 1/3 off the list price. It will be available in early August. I’m putting it on my wish list for late summer reading in spite of — or perhaps because of — those elements overlooked in the EducationWeek blog post.