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Independent Revision Through Collaboration

Posted by on March 22, 2011

I’m sure many of you have wondered why English teachers always place students into groups to revise papers. Is it just time filler? Are English teachers lazy, avoiding reading student drafts?

The answer lies in the power of collaborative learning, “based on the idea that learning is a naturally social act in which participants talk among themselves” (Gerlach 8). As an instructor, I can tell you all of the expectations I have for an assignment, providing rubrics and even student samples. But when you actively participate in the revision of your peers’ work, you see what is working and not working in a very real way…and you more easily translate this discovery to your own writing.

Teachers may be “experts” in composition, but studies demonstrate that when these experts relinquish authority to student writers, it allows the writers to develop standards of evaluation primarily through their interaction and responses, rather than having said standards imposed by the teacher. Through discussion and example, student writers “learn the way of the experts” (Macrorie 27). Teachers assist in this process by offering advice and opinions on what they deem to be good and bad writing by both student and professional writers.

Diminished authority of the teacher also increases the students’ responsibility for their writing, a key factor in creating independent learners. Rather than answering a pre-fabricated questionnaire, student writers instead take ownership of their revision and ask questions relevant to their specific composition and learning style. Over time, writers will develop the ability to “step outside” of their writing, recognizing error patterns in their own compositions that they previous diagnosed in those of their peers. This leads to stronger and more effective independent revision.

Here’s an example of how this works:

When I graduated from film school, I found myself lost as to what my next move might be. I had completed a full draft of several scripts, but had never really learned the arduous process of revision that is necessary for professional-quality writing. I also wasn’t sure how my writing compared to what was circulating the industry. I decided to take an internship as a reader at Ensemble Entertainment, a literary management agency.

Over the next four months I read about six scripts a week and wrote coverage, essentially synopsis and brief analysis of the story. In this way, I read a hundred scripts from both represented and prospective writers. Most were total crap.

But I learned something from this pile of crap: my own writing was similar in its crappiness. I started to recognize the mistakes in character, pacing, plot, and dialogue, translating it from the scripts I read to the script I was writing. And more importantly, I recognized what worked in the few “diamonds in the rough” that I encountered.

It was a major breakthrough for me as a writer. After reading and commenting on so many scripts, my sense of story become almost second nature, and my writing become exponentially better.

I burned out quickly on the coverage, but as soon as I left the internship I started writing a new script. In a year I had placed in the top 100 of the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting, the top screenwriting competition put on by the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences. And a year later I won the Fellowship and gained representation.

I know that this would not have been possible without reading and commenting on the one hundred scripts during my internship, and it has solidified my belief in the power of collaborative peer revision at all levels of writing.

Gerlach, J.M. “Is this collaboration?” Collaborative Learning: Underlying Processes and Effective Techniques, New Directions for Teaching and Learning (No. 59). Eds. Kris Bosworth and Sharon J. Hamilton. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994.

Macrorie, K. Uptaught. New York: Hayden Book Co, 1970.

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