Brainstorm, Revise, Rinse, Repeat

Literacy theorist Anne Berthoff wrote in her classic article “Recognition, Representation, and Revision” (1981) that instead of supporting a view of revision as a one-off fix for an essay’s problems, faculty “can learn to teach revision as itself a way of composing if we consider it analogous to acts of mind whereby we make sense of the world” (19). My version of this as an undergraduate, and still to this day as a doctoral candidate, is to either print out different drafts of the paper and mark them up in pen, or create different electronic files that reflect the different drafts I’ve already written. The changes become visualized and also evolve, with the potential of a new draft never removed from the possibility of looking back at previous one.

Berthoff expands on this, calling revision not a “definite phase, a penultimate stage, but […] a dimension of composing. Revision is, indeed, re-seeing and it goes on continually in the composing process” (20-21). Revision, then, is continuous and is more than fixing. I’d like to frame brainstorming the same way: rather than a quick activity in which we think of possible ideas and then move on to the actual writing, brainstorming happens throughout the process of writing an essay. It’s continuous and it, too, is a way of making sense of the world, in the frame of ideas.

The traditional way of offering brainstorming as a writing tool is to have students make a list at the very beginning of the writing process. Sometimes brainstorming involves drawing a picture. And sometimes involves sharing ideas with others: swapping ideas in order to help each other narrow down a potential topic for an essay. It doesn’t, however, stop there. Students repeat the same processes when they are choosing supporting points, when they are delving into their research to find evidence, and even when they are formulating their conclusion. By acknowledging this continuity, we can help students take some of the pressure off of the front end of idea-generation, and remind them that there are many chances throughout the process of writing an essay to shape and reshape their own ideas.

Revision, too, is often framed is more of a definitive step then the way I want to consider it or the way Berthoff wants to consider it. Instead, students revise over and over, even before the official revision process is a shared in, that is, between draft one and draft two, for example. The closer they get to the final form of their thesis and supporting paragraphs, the more they are revising. Some of it happens in their head and some of it happens on the page.

Brainstorming and revision are entwined creative processes that students repeat again and again in the course of writing an essay. They work together as students write, refine, expand, and support their original ideas, and they can help to reduce the very real anxiety many students feel around formal writing. Particularly for beginning writers, the idea of producing a final version of the paper for a professor, for a grade, can be very intimidating. Participating in the writing process is always to brainstorm and always to revise, in a very continuous manner, and in a way that’s pressure-relieving. And emphasizing the ongoing nature of brainstorming and revision helps to keep students invested in and excited by their ideas, and emphasizing ongoing revision helps empower students to make changes as they go rather than leaving it all to the end.

One of the tenets of writing that most of us who have been doing it for a while know from experience is that it’s never really finished, just as Berthoff intuits. As writing teachers, we tend to avoid talking too much about that aspect with students, so that they are encouraged to get to a (necessary!) stopping point, but it’s as true for them as it is for us. The continuity of brainstorming and revision, just like the reality of never-ending edits (or at least the never-ending desire to edit) is part of the ongoing process of refining ideas, pushing past feelings, critically reviewing messy paragraphs, letting other people help, and, finally, sending something in and moving on to the next project.

Works Cited

Berthoff, Ann E. “Recognition, Representation, and Revision.” Journal of Basic Writing 3, no. 3 (1981): 19-32.

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