When should we stop making students redraft work?

//When should we stop making students redraft work?

I managed to catch a bit of #Engchatuk today and was interested to see that the discussion was on how to get students to redraft their work. Redrafting is something I advocate when travelling round different schools and I’ve spent a fair bit of time training teachers in how to get students to proofread their work and subject it to critical scrutiny.

There were lots of useful ideas, some of which I recognised and other which I may well pinch, but I was particularly intrigued by this contribution:

It struck me that this was something I’d never been asked before. I really do think teaching students that work needs to be drafted and redrafted is crucial, but it does have to end somewhere. If we’re not working towards students being able to write independently in an exam then we’re failing them.

So when should drafting stop? When it’s ingrained. If students are in the habit of writing carelessly they need to get out of that habit. Practice does not, as my mother told me, make perfect; it makes permanent. What we repeatedly do we get good at. When the habit of drafting has been internalised and students have stopped being dependent on you checking their work, then you can stop pestering them to redraft. The point is for them to be able to do it without you.

But this is, of course, easier said than done. Students may have spent so many years practised not using capital letters, misspelling high-frequency words and festooning their writing with extraneous commas that these habits have become automated routines. While I can write my name in lower case it would be a distinct effort, but not for them; they don’t even have to think about it. The trick, in as much as there is any trickery involved, is create working conditions where the pressure on making mistakes is  great that it becomes easier to do the right thing. We need to make sure that what they’re practising is as close to perfect as possible.

To that end, my advice is to stop making students’ work for accuracy. It just doesn’t work. We spend all this time pointing errors they already know about and allow them to outsource their ability to think critically about their writing to us. I have almost never met a secondary age student that doesn’t conceptually understand how and why to use a capital letter, but you’d never know it from looking at their work. When we point out that there are some missing capitals they thank us, but then make exactly the same mistake next time! If we refuse to mark students work until they have proofread – and visibly annotated – their work; if we refuse to accept that the same errors are made over and over again and force students to rewrite shoddy work then most students quickly realise that it’s far easier to get it right first time. And from that point they start practising perfect.

Because of all the time I’ve spent over the past few years training teachers about the need to implicitly teach students how to write I’ve become much more aware of the metacognition of writing than I ever used to be. But I still almost never go through a formal drafting process when writing these blogs; my editing is internalised. I tend to write very quickly and while typos do slip through, I spot most errors as I go. I have a pretty good of idea of the things I’m likely to get wrong (e.g. I always misspell believe!) Then, I read over when I’m done and change phrasing, tweak sentence structure and massage grammar as the mood takes me.

If you’re keen to teach students how to draft and proofread, these posts might be useful:

2016-08-27T09:04:17+00:00September 14th, 2015|writing|


  1. suecowley September 15, 2015 at 9:11 am - Reply

    Hi David, A few thoughts. Firstly I think it’s important to separate out proof reading from editing, particularly when we talk to people about the writing process. I think even further it’s important to separate out a copy edit from a developmental edit, just as would happen when you write a book and it goes to a publisher. The proof read you recommend (which I’d agree is a good idea), is not actually editing, it is a separate entity. It is simply checking for mistakes, which is mainly a courtesy to your reader, so that he or she is not distracted from your writing by them.

    The other thing I would say is that I think it is a mistake to always make students redraft their work, because sometimes the best thing to do with something you have written is to chuck it away. When I mention this idea to teachers, they tend to go ‘ooh but evidence for Ofsted!’ which just goes to show what a parlous state we have got ourselves into concerning Ofsted. I don’t think we do children any favours by making them think that everything they write deserves editing and redrafting. A lot of times they would do better to put it in the bin.

    A final thought. As writers ourselves, we run the risk of imagining that the way we write is the way that we should teach our children to write, if you see what I mean. (I run this risk just as much as the next person, obviously.) While the process that you describe here, of the way you write your blog posts, is one way of writing, it is nothing like the way that I go about doing the same thing.

    I know what you mean when you say that if you feel your editing is internalised, I do that to a large extent. But even after I’ve done that original internalised edit, I will still then step back and come back in again with the scissors and the magnifying glass. And often what is left at the end is nothing like it was when I started. Either that, or I end up throwing it away as a hopeless case. What you describe in your final paragraph is a copy edit rather than a developmental one, and I think that we need to teach both of those skills to our children.

    • David Didau September 15, 2015 at 7:37 pm - Reply

      Wow – this suddenly becomes a whole heap more complex than I ever thought to make it. I’d nver even heard of copy editing until I published a book – as far as I’m concerned that’s someone else’s job. As such, is it really worth teaching?

      • suecowley September 16, 2015 at 9:45 am - Reply

        I’m not clear whether you think editing is just proof reading then? If you do I’d have to disagree. I would say that students need to think about both copy edit (correcting grammatical/factual errors) and developmental edit (improving the sound, flow and structure of the writing). Otherwise all they’re doing is proof reading, i.e. making sure the punctuation and spelling is correct and there are no typos.

        I think it’s important to tease out the nuances here because I think a lot of the time we are just literally teaching them to proof read and not to redraft.

        • David Didau November 23, 2015 at 9:14 pm - Reply

          Yeah, fair enough. I find it helpful to just call all of this proofreading and not over complicate things.

  2. Leah K Stewart September 16, 2015 at 9:32 am - Reply

    So, why do we write at all? To inform, to question, to express… to connect with others? With who?… That’s up to the writer. Until a student has any idea of who they are writing for all writing/editing/redrafting is and will remain a half-hearted exercise. At school I learnt to write what the teachers wanted which was the same as what the syllabus wanted; got wonderful grades, but it felt empty. At university I learnt how to write what my lecturers wanted, which was the academic style. Got 1st’s and the dissertation prize, but it felt empty. My work was only read my the people marking it and I had no interest taking it to anyone else because the people I care about and wanted to share my thoughts with don’t read academic papers.

    Solution? Tell student to write for who they want to write for. A small minority will actually want to write for academics but, if they choose this, they’ll make that writing brilliant and be up for doing more editing that any teacher can ask for based on feedback from academics who’ll willingly give feedback to a young person genuine in their pursuit. Some may write for teachers; I do this now in part on my blog. I want teachers to hear what it’s like to be a student. Many will write for themselves – please don’t ask to see this work, it’s important we’ve space to write for ourselves and, as Sue says, to chuck things as we see fit. In essence we write about a field we care about for people we care about. Schools will never see the energy students can put into editing and redrafting until they’ve space to write what matters to them, to who matters to them. This gives students reason to go to the teacher and say ‘please help me because I need to say this well’.

  3. […] When should we stop making students redraft work? 14th September – Redrafting’s all very well, but when should it stop? […]

  4. […] knowing when to stop is crucial to helping students learn to get things write independently. See this post for more […]

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