Once, I turned in an essay to a professor, and a week later it came back with notes, a recommendation and a not-so-gentle suggestion to make changes and submit it back to him.
Frankly, I was shocked.
Not that he told me to rewrite portions of the essay: those I knew were garbage. Everyone knows the way you write an essay is to bury your weakest point in the middle since no one reads it anyway, except college writing instructors apparently had nothing better to do but exactly that.
No, the shock came from him offering me a chance to revise the paper in the first place. Up until that point, I had considered writing largely static.
In this sense, let’s treat static as final, complete at some point. On exams and papers for English class up until this point, I had submitted writing, the instructor assigned it a grade and sent it back, and I threw it in the trash. Essays had an interesting way of disappearing into the annals of instructor’s grading books.
Never could I revise a paper. I needed to apply any instructor feedback on the piece to the next bit of writing, which makes a great deal of sense if you assume every piece of writing you put out is exactly the same content-wise. This way, the grammatical function-based feedback applied throughout all pieces of writing.
Math and science seemed to share more in common with writing than writing did with itself: it had formulaic answers and a set structure. A missing comma felt like forgetting to place a two in front of a factored “x.” Minus points, remember it next time.
Then this professor turned a paper back to me and said redo it. I checked in with the professor after class that day. There could be no way he wanted to read the essay twice through — it had to be bad enough the first time.
For the curious, the paper bored even me after I selected the topic. It focused on the possible presence of Israel Zangwill’s idealistic vision in “The Melting Pot” in modern-day society versus the troubling reality. Who wants to read about that?
He reassured me he would not only read it again, but that he would also take the refinement into consideration when giving me a grade. Dutifully, I revised the middle portion, tuned some other elements, and sent it back in. I had just been introduced to the concept of revision, which I promptly forgot about for nearly a year afterward.
Few professors I encountered emulated this practice, but then I began taking more classes with essays as requirements, and I found it to be common fare. When I began working at the university’s Writing Center, I found this concept to be one of the fundamental ideas in writing tutoring.
So, the concept is that you never finish a piece of writing. T.E. Lawrence (somewhat notoriously) finished his thesis “Crusader’s Castles,” then continuously returned to Oxford’s library to revise it. His reasoning was that he was never done.
We aren’t either. Just because we turn in a piece of writing for a grade doesn’t mean we have to stop thinking about it.
Only those of the same academic sensibility as Lawrence would have the drive to pull a thesis out of the library and make changes to it, but the rest of us can benefit by returning to pieces of writing from weeks, months or years ago. We can see our thought process then and now, and even draw inspiration from past topics.
Writing is one of few undertakings in life we get to return to and alter, and we should certainly take advantage of it. Writing as a process means we can continuously return to, refine and revise pieces of writing.
I would strongly recommend to anyone to keep their pieces of writing, the bad and good. Look back at them. Have other people read them and tear them up. Revisit topics, or wonder why you ever wrote about one in the first place because you never finish writing, and that has value. That way, we aren’t ever done thinking about what we wrote about, and we can keep trying to make it better.
Afterward, we can start the whole process again.