The Brutal Work of Editing: The “Rough Drafts” of High School Students

The resistance to editing one’s work begins early and continues through high school and college. I vainly try to instill the desire and habit of editing into my students. I try to make it easier for them: I allocate class time for editing, peer review, reading essays aloud, and demanding multiple drafts.

The first draft, which they persist in calling a rough draft, I scan and seldom read completely. Often, I can’t get past the first paragraph without weeping, groaning, or laughing. I have tried to banish the use of the phrase “rough draft” because I believe it feeds a mindset that must be changed if a student is to become a good writer. By the time students reach me–and this is true of even many gifted and honors students–they have developed the habit of turning in “rough drafts” for grades. By this I mean, they simply write down the first thoughts that come to mind. There is no editing, no organization. The diction isoften that of a cave man. “Story good. Me likum story.” A teacher asks for a paragraph, and they often get one sentence, often illegible. If it is a homework writing assignment, I’ve often entered my room after the tardy bell from my post in the hall and notice that some are busily writing out their paragraph. Worse, after I’ve taken the one or two completed ones up, I’ve had a student bring me the assigned paragraph at the end of class, indicating that he or she was working on that during my instruction and had missed the whole class so they could complete his or her homework (which generally I want to be typed). It is sad that the student sincerely thinks I will and should accept such work. I won’t. What is even sadder, is that I know their previous teachers did accept it, and thus, their bad habits of writing have been reinforced instead of corrected.

This “rough draft” student writing is generally so superficial that it hasn’t even reached the “brainstorm” stage yet–it is more like a “light drizzle.” “Rough draft,” to a student’s mind, means they can turn in sloppy, mindless work and it be accepted. Mr. Webster, though he knows many words and even knows how to spell them correctly, is seldom consulted for editing help. The students wrongly assume they know how to spell–they do not.

I want to help my students turn their “rough drafts” into good first drafts.