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Helping Writers Develop Their Own Ideas: Revising the Content of Writing


Peggy McGuire photo

Peggy McGuire
EFF Writing Content Expert

As mentioned in a previous post,  I presented ‘Writing the Book’ on Writing for Postsecondary Transition at COABE in April this past year. One thing that stood out for me was a lively conversation by the participants around the ‘revision’ component of the Convery Ideas in Writing  process.*

When you think of “revising” a draft piece of writing, what activity comes to mind?

When you ask students to “revise” their first draft of a written text, what are you actually asking them to do?

For many of us, revision of writing immediately brings to mind the act of “correcting” – correcting mistakes in spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc. – that might also be called proofreading. There is no doubt that it is important to learn how to correct mistakes like these in writings. Otherwise, errors could get in the way of a reader’s ability to understand what we are trying to say in our writing. Further, if our students can fix mistakes of these kinds, they are providing evidence that they know about, and can correctly use, common writing conventions.

There is, however, another meaning for revision. This meaning, while sometimes overlooked, is important for our students to be aware of and understand: revision of the actual content of their writing. If our goal is to Convey Ideas in Writing, then content revision is the strategy for making sure that we are conveying our intended ideas to our targeted audience via our written text. And of course, content revision is a process that we can teach our students to employ for all types of writing tasks at ANY functional level (not just for those transitioning into postsecondary settings).

Do you currently ask your students to engage in content revision of their writing drafts? If so, what activities or strategies do you use to support them in the content revision process?

Here are a couple of ideas for helping your students learn how to revise the content of their writing:

Idea #1: Compare Your Draft to Planned Ideas

So much of successful, effective writing comes back to what we do (or don’t do!) during the planning stages – affecting all other components of the writing process, even content revision.  Once your students have produced a first draft, encourage them to compare it to the information and ideas they generated during their planning, and then to decide if they have said everything that they planned to say about the topic. To come up with ideas for ‘what to write about,’ did the student:

  • Brainstorm a list of terms/key points on the topic?
  • Make a mind map?
  • Freewrite on the topic?
  • Develop an outline?
  • Keep a writing journal?
  • Highlight important information in a text they were reading?

Whatever kind of planning was done to generate and organize ideas to use in writing, at the content revision stage, encourage your students to:

  1. Look at the results of their planning,
  2. Reread their drafts,
  3. Reflect, and decide:
    • Did I incorporate all the ideas I wanted to into my draft?
    • Did I miss anything important?
    • Did I include anything that doesn’t really seem to belong there now?
    • Did I come up with new ideas that I hadn’t thought about when I was planning?
    • And in the end, is my point clear and am I saying what I want to say about my topic?

 Idea #2: Seek Feedback on Your Writing

Revising writing content becomes much easier when a writer can get direct and constructive feedback from an external audience. This can give writers an immediate sense of whether or not they are in fact conveying the ideas they want to convey. So – encourage your students to find an audience!

Your student-authors can ask someone they trust to read what they have written (or listen to them read it aloud – remember, the focus is on content, not writing mechanics at this point). Authors can then prompt the readers/listeners to:

  • Tell the authors what they ‘heard’ in the piece of writing – basically “reflecting the piece back” to the writers.
  • Ask questions and/or clear up any confusion about specific points, asking the authors what they meant to convey.
  • Describe to the author specifically what they liked about the piece. This gives authors information about what’s working well in their writing.
  • Describe the words or images that stood out for them as they read/listened to the piece of writing.
  • (If needed) Ask the authors, “What’s hard/easy about writing this piece?” This gives the writers a chance to talk about what’s blocking them, and to find their own ways ‘through’ the block.

As you may have noticed, this idea can also assist students to be effective peer reviewers/editors as well!

The above activites are designed to provide feedback focused on helping writers develop their own ideas. Note, however, that your student-authors may need a bit of practice before they feel comfortable performing these tasks. It may be a good idea to model these strategies with your students, and provide supported practice opportunities before asking them to use them on their own. They will find, however, that the payoff can be considerable. Such strategies for content revision empower students to really think about the substance of their writing and to revise their drafts (as needed) to meet their own communication goals.

What is your experience with teaching content revision to adult literacy (or ESL) learners? Please post a comment to share your ideas, thoughts, and insights. Here are a couple of questions to get you started:

  • Have you ever taught your students strategies like these? How did it go?
  • Have you used other effective strategies for helping your students revise the content of their writing? If so, please share!

We look forward to hearing from you!

*Note that effective revision of writing is also a  Writing Anchor Standard of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and as such appears at every grade level of these Standards.


For more ideas, take a look at how these two writing lesson examples from the EFF Teaching Learning Toolkit  address content revision:
Heritage Books: Family Literacy    Preparing for Release: Corrections


Post Contributor:

Peggy McGuire, EFF Trainer & Content Expert, Center for Literacy Studies

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