I write this column barely an hour before I am scheduled to meet with my African American studies preceptor about revising my midterm paper for a new grade. I wrote the paper amidst the chaos of midterms week, in between studying for two exams and drafting another paper. Even if I had had a reasonable amount of time to complete the assignment, the reality is, it would not reflect my best work. But in a typical Princeton course, it would be my final version of the essay.
That many of us usually hand in one, often hastily written paper as our final draft for our courses contradicts the purpose of academic writing in the first place, because it eliminates the most essential step: revision. Professors should provide more opportunities for students to rewrite written assignments, since it allows students to grow as critical thinkers and writers.
Typically when we receive an essay back, we look straight for the grade. If we are satisfied with it, we smile, pat ourselves on the back, and think job well done. If we are not, we can often find it too painful to even look at the comments, let alone digest them. Both of these reactions inhibit improvement as a writer, as you do not revisit your writing to see what you could have improved. Allowing students to revise their papers, however, eliminates both of these reactions.
First, providing the opportunity for revision forces students to actually read the comments our instructors made, which forces us to confront flaws in our writing. Second, we have to actually address these shortcomings as we write an edited version.
Despite some of its flaws, writing seminar actually provides a clear example of the merits of revision. We can complain as much as we want about the grueling process of transforming our drafts into polished revisions, but it’s undeniable that the long, deliberate structure of revision in the program allowed us to massively improve our drafts and think critically about how to improve our argument and writing styles. Additionally, writing seminar revisions showed us our strengths as writers, which can give us the confidence we may be lacking as we grapple with the rigors of academic writing.
As Princeton students, we like to think we can craft a perfectly structured, well-reasoned argument on the first try. The fact that in many cases we cannot rewrite our essays only reinforces this misconception. In reality, our arguments are never going to be perfect, even on the third revision, but allowing us to rewrite sets a standard that there is always room for improvement.
In addition to helping students as writers, such a policy can also motivate professors to engage more critically with their students’ works. A revision policy encourages professors to really focus on what needs improvement in a student’s argument and forces them to specify how such improvement can be made. In this way, students and professors can develop a more meaningful relationship. Indeed, in my experience, I have found that in classes in which I am allowed to rewrite assignments I form a closer relationship with my professor or preceptor, and I feel more engaged with the material.
In a lot of classes, it almost feels like we’re going through the motions: it’s midway through the semester, so a paper is due. Classes have ended, so a final assessment is needed. Such monotony can make writing feel like a boring, fruitless task, rather than an opportunity to showcase what we’ve learned from the material. By allowing us to rewrite papers, we re-engage with the material, break out of this stale structure, and find purpose in crafting our arguments.
Shannon Chaffers is a sophomore from Wellesley, Mass. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.