For any piece of writing, especially something substantial such as a report, a paper or a thesis chapter, there is going to be more than one draft. This means there will be feedback from others, reflection on your own about what works in the writing and what needs further work, and time spent reworking, revising, rewriting, editing and proofreading. Corrections and revisions. For more experienced writers, I think the difference between these two acts in writing are perhaps clearer than for less experienced writers, such as postgraduate students. Two separate conversations with two of my own students recently pointed me to this: both spoke of getting to the corrections and sending me fresh drafts, when I had not offered very much at all by way of corrections and was mostly looking for more significant revisions. I wondered, then, how academia in general uses these words: Are corrections seen to be the same thing as revisions? What do supervisors mean by these two words and why (and how) do we need to speak about this openly with our students?
Let’s start, perhaps, with the basic meanings of these terms and what they imply as work for writers. Revisions (see this very useful post by Pat Thomson on this) can imply minor to significant amounts of work for writers. Regardless of the amount of work, the point of revision is to re-think, re-read – perhaps read more than you already have – re-write and even re-organise your writing. It involves active engagement with your ideas, with feedback from critical friends/supervisors/reviewers; it involves both mental and emotional labour because it can be hard work to hear that your ideas or argument do not work, that your evidence and explanations are not persuasive enough, that your thinking is not as clear to your reader as it seemed to you. You need to motivate and cajole yourself into going back to a piece of writing you want to move on from to do this ‘more’ work that is asked of you. So revisions are hard, and many times, revisions suck.
Corrections, by contrast, imply less of this active thinking and engaged work. To correct something is to fix it, and usually in writing feedback this implies a global find and replace exercise to make, for example, your referencing format or use of quotation marks or spellings consistent and uniform across your text; it can imply correcting the usage of a technical term, editing your writing to correct typos and grammatical mistakes. Corrections can be done without much emotional investment or brain power, although seeing stupid mistakes you have made can be frustrating! Corrections, if I am doing my job well as a supervisor and critical friend, are not what I direct writers to first, unless it really is the only or main thing they need to focus on to improve their text. Corrections should not be focused on in feedback at the expense of guidance, questions and suggestions about the ideas, the structure, the argument, the theory or research methodology, the findings and assumptions, and so on. In writing development practice, revisions are called ‘higher order’ or primary concerns; corrections are usually ‘lower order’ or secondary and come after the more substantial revisions have been made, usually over a few drafts.
When I tell my students that I am sending them feedback, unless we are pretty close to the final draft I assume they understand that what I am asking them to engage in is a process of revisions. But I have come to realise recently that some of my students, particularly those new to postgraduate study and these long and involved writing and research processes, are not always clear on this. Often, when they say ‘I’ll do the corrections’, they do literally mean that they will try their best to ‘fix’ their writing and will look for the errors and fixes and do these first, with less time spent thinking about the deeper, and more necessary, revisions. If I get a draft back within a week on which my feedback focused on the need for new reading, thinking through the links between different concepts or ideas, adding significant explanations, elaborations or new reading/references, I am always worried that the text has been approached in correction mode, rather than revision mode. It’s not always the case: sometime a student or writer has time and can spend a few days solidly working on and thinking about the revisions. But usually, the text comes back with many of the original concerns still relevant; with the revisions still need to be properly thought about and effected.
This misunderstanding stems, in my experience, from a few concerns, two of which can be openly addressed in supervision, at the outset and on an ongoing basis as needed. The first is the transition from writing as an undergrad to writing as a postgrad. Writing as an undergrad seldom involves drafting. Typically, an assignment is written once, assessed, and you move on to the next one. At senior levels or in specific literacy development courses, you may write one draft, receive formative feedback and then write another ‘final’ draft, but multiple drafts of one piece of writing-thinking is not a typical feature of undergraduate study. Moving from seeing your writing as assignments-for-marks to developmental pieces of thinking is a huge shift, then. If you have be trained to get your writing ‘right’ in one or two goes, the idea of having to take more then two goes can seem really odd and unsettling: why can’t I just write it and have it be right? Why do I have to keep answering questions, reading, thinking, rewriting – what’s wrong with me? We need to talk to postgraduate students differently about writing, as fellow writers. Show them a folder for a paper you have written, or your own MA or PhD folder for chapters. Talk them through your own writing-feedback-redrafting-finalising process for papers or chapter you have written and are writing. Don’t assume they know what revisions are and what to do to move constructively from one draft to the next.
This links to a second concern that can and should be addressed in supervision: working with feedback is, in itself, a literacy practice that needs to be learned and can be taught. Do your students know what a question mark in the margin of their draft means when you put it there? Do they know what you are questioning, and why? Do they know what to do with questions you ask them in comment bubbles, or with a comment like: ‘This is unclear’, or ‘Irrelevant information’. Do they know what your feedback language means, how the words and phrases and form of feedback-giving you choose to use communicates your expectations of their writing, thinking and argumentation work? You can take a supervision session to actually open this out for discussion with students: This is how I give feedback, this is why I choose to give my feedback using this form or method, this is what I expect you to do with the revisions and redrafting. You can (and should) make it okay for students to ask questions, and especially at doctoral level, to disagree with you or speak back to the feedback, because they are expected to own their writing and the argument they are building. Making this a process of learning, a pedagogic or teaching moment (or series of moments as the case may be) enables you to have necessary conversations that can help your students get to know you as a supervisor and help them understand how to make the shift from their prior level of study to their new level. More than this, these conversations can enable your students to develop a meta-level understanding of the processes that go into building a sophisticated, layered argument that involves many steps, and often a mix of literature, theory, methodology, analysis and cohesive and coherent thinking and writing. For doctoral students who will go on to supervise and mentor other students in their career, this meta-learning is crucial.
Revisions and corrections, then, are not the same thing. Assuming your students know what each of these acts involves, what the difference is in terms of your meanings of each of these acts in your feedback, and how to respond in their ongoing reading, writing and thinking work can lead to confusion and frustration for both you and your students, and your students may struggle to make the progress everyone desires. Rather, make the time to open up a conversation about what writing a thesis is all about, and the thinking work that goes into it, and the time that thinking takes. Link this to drafting, and normalise the idea of writing and thinking as practices, not skills; they take work and time and effort, and need feedback and revisions to improve. Then talk about how and why you give feedback, and maybe use this an as opportunity to revisit the way you give feedback to your students – this is an area where I am always learning, and where small changes can make a big difference to how students feel about and approach their research. The point is to talk about it, invite students to ask questions and take ownership of their writing, make the work of writing and thinking more visible and shared. Writing is a social practice, not a solitary act of applying skills, and the more we show this to our students, the more able they are to embrace the process and the work that goes with it.