You Can Teach Writing

Avoid document revision by

teaching paragraph writing.

Unless they use a strategic expository writing process, students' paragraph writing skills will almost certainly fall short of what's needed for adequate paragraph development. As a result, revision of those writers' texts will almost certainly be required.

Believe me, students won't enjoy revising even a short document.

What's worse, they will probably learn nothing from doing the revision.

Teens and adult students who resist strategic planning may learn to plan by being dragged through the revision process — but there's no guarantee they will. They are more likely to develop an aversion to writing, to English courses, and to their English instructor.

You can avoid the revision problem by teaching expository paragraph writing while you're teaching planning strategies in stage 1 of the expository writing process.

Missing evidence is a big problem.

If there's a serious problem with the paragraph writing in a thesis and support document, nine times out of 10 the problem will be lack of evidence for the topic sentences of the body paragraphs.

Without enough evidence to justify each topic sentence, the thesis statement collapses. ELA texts call such a lack of evidence in an expository document inadequate development, but it is really an inadequate foundation.

Until writers learn how to plan and organize their evidence before they compose, when they get to paragraph writing, they are likely to:

  • repeat a single idea in one or more body paragraphs
  • use generalizations instead of evidence to support a topic sentence
  • fail to identify the source of evidence
  • fail to present a source's credentials to give evidence on the writer's topic
  • fail to explain why a source's evidence is relevant  
  • fail to use linking devices that allow readers to follow their reasoning.

Those items together are paragraph development. If students ask you what to revise in their underdeveloped paragraphs, those six items are your generic answer.

Prevention is much easier than revision.

It's no exaggeration to say that the purpose of strategic planning of an expository document is to avoid doing revision.  The first five of those six expository paragraph writing problems listed above can be prevented by good planning.

Using ripple strategy to develop writing skeletons that become the basis of complete plans makes duplicating evidence in those plans almost impossible: There's no need for revision to remove what isn't there. 

If you teach students how to plan strategically, they shouldn't need a major revision to correct inadequately developed body paragraphs either. Their complete plans will hold all the information they need for paragraph development.

Teaching tip: Give not-yet-competent students writing prompts suited to the thesis and support format, which is the basic expository pattern. It's poor teaching strategy to teach one format but ask students to use another in test situations, which is what writing assignments really are.

Body content in the introduction is a different problem.

If students put the same ideas in their introductions that they put in their body paragraphs, the problem isn't bad planning, but failure to understand either essay structure or the thesis and support writing process. Although those are significant problems, teachers can usually deal with them by teaching paragraph writing.

Solving the problem of redundant information in body paragraphs is an entirely different matter. It depends to a large degree on students' cognitive development and very little on students' understanding of the writing process.

Cognitive development affects revision.

Teachers view repeated ideas as a lack of organization. They think all students need to do is rearrange the duplicated content.

Student writers, however, may be totally oblivious to the duplication even when it's pointed out to them. As simple as it appears to teachers, the concept of "same idea in different words" is highly abstract.

Students can understand the concept of "same person in different clothes" because that abstraction refers to a concrete situation students have experienced. But idea is an abstraction that refers to other abstractions. Abstract thinking requires advanced levels of cognition that typically don't begin to appear until adolescence.

You can avoid issues arising from students' cognitive immaturity by teaching paragraph writing in a way that makes it unlikely that students will put duplicated ideas in their complete plans.

Revise for substantial agreement.

There should be no question about what to revise if students have been taught expository paragraph writing as part of the expository planning process.

At the repair stage of the writing process all students will need to do is seek substantial agreement of their text drafts with their complete plansIf they find some essential information is missing from a paragraph all they have to do is insert it during revision.

Students need to see if their document includes the essential ideas of that full plan, namely:

  • the thesis statement
  • their topic sentences that support the thesis statement
  • 1-3 pieces of evidence for each topic sentence
  • the identification of the source of each piece of evidence
  • the credential(s) that make each source an expert on whatever the paragraph's topic sentence is about.

Have students make revision checklists.

I'm going to show you how students can make revision checklists  from the tools and strategies you teach them to use in the planning stage of the thesis and support writing process. (Those are found on the first four writing strategies pages.)

Physically creating revision checklists is appropriate for writing students who are

  • chronologically young, i.e., preteens, or   
  • inexperienced at thesis and support writing, or
  • not yet competent expository writers.

Teach where and how to check for a thesis statement.

The students know from the writing skeleton™ that the thesis statement is echoed in the topic sentence for each body paragraph, so they can make a revision checklist item that asks:

Did I echo the thesis statement in the topic sentence of my body paragraphs?

Teaching tip: Initially topic sentences in students' body paragraphs will sound as clumsy as they do in the writing skeleton™. Don't fret. As they become more adept at the writing process, they'll make those sentences sound better without any yelling or prompting from you.

Teach a quick way to check for evidence via sources.

In the standard thesis and support pattern, each topic sentence is supported by three pieces of evidence. Evidence is information that comes from named (i.e., identified) sources.

One way students can check for adequate evidence by going through each body paragraph's writing sentence by sentence. As they read each sentence, they should ask this question built from the evidence waltz strategy:

Did I identify a source in this sentence?

A name like Fred Snerd or On the Media or an identifier like the guide at the hawk rehabilitation center indicates a source. If the student is the source, the pronoun I  will probably be in the text. Other personal pronouns like he, she, and they probably refer to people and they probably are being used as sources in an expository text.

If the student did not identify a source in a particular sentence, the sentence may need revision to add a source name.

A sentence the student wrote to prepare the reader for evidence or to draw out the significance of evidence, will not name a source; such sentences are assumed to be the writer's own work.

If a student finds no sources in a body paragraph, the student is probably using generalizations instead of evidence.  In that case, student needs to do some research to find evidence from some specific source or accept a failing grade.

Do a quick check for adequate evidence.

If they don't find three sources in each body paragraph of their compositions, students should compare their body paragraphs against their comprehensive plans. They should ask:

Is all my evidence here?

If students overlooked something during speed drafting, they can add the omitted evidence where it belongs. If they didn't have adequate evidence in their plans, however, they either have to plug the hole or accept a low grade.

Check for poorly presented evidence.

Two other evidence errors students make when they begin using a expository writing process are either to:

  • fail to explain why their evidence is relevant, or
  • poorly explain the relevance of the evidence.

Explaining the relevance of evidence is a vital part of paragraph development. The explanations change a section of the complete plan into a paragraph. Writing that doesn't draw out how the evidence supports the topic sentence of its paragraph rarely proves convincing to readers.

Teaching tip: Noticing and and fixing poorly explained evidence in one's own writing can be difficult. You may want to give an 1-minute informal writing prompt every couple weeks asking students to write a new and improved explanation of the significance of evidence for a genuine text. Newspapers and newsletters are good places to find evidence whose significance is poorly presented.

Do a careful check for coherence problems.

Writing that passes all the other revision tests may fall down on coherence if it lacks linking devices. Linking devices enable readers to follow the writer's thought process with a minimum of guesswork.

Have students check to be sure they have linking devices every place they are needed. Again, they can make a revision checklist of yes/no questions from the characteristics of the four main types of linking devices.

Have students work one body paragraph at a time asking themselves questions to reveal the paragraph's coherence. Before they leave the paragraph, they should insert a linking device in any place that needs one.

The essays that undergo revision this way will sound rough. The awkwardness that offends your ear is the paragraph writing equivalent of a clarinet player's squeaks. 

Both clarinetist and writer improve with practice.

What to read next

We're nearly at the end of our exploration of the secret of teaching writing. The last writing strategy for producing a clean first draft is having students do single-error editing using their individual mastery plans as an editing checklist.

The writing strategies are best read in the order in which students use them: WS1, make a working thesis; WS2, make a writing skeleton™; WS3, ripple for sources; WS4, make a complete plan; WS5, speed draft the text; WS6, do the evidence waltz; WS7, revise to fit plan, WS8, do single-error editing.

Content on this page was published by Linda Aragoni at you-can-teach-writing.com as two pages, one published 2009-05-18 and updated 2012-03-31, the other published 2009-05-18 and updated 2012-11-19.  She published it here at yctwriting.com 2018-01-01.


Revision is done in stage 3. Avoiding it is done in stage 1.

Here's how to organize your teaching to avoid the need for you to teach revision and for students to do major revisions.

At the beginning of your writing course, teach the four planning strategies and paragraph writing, as explained on this page, as a unit with five components:

  1. working thesis statement
  2. writing skeleton™
  3. ripple strategy
  4. complete plan
  5. paragraph writing.

Those five fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Students catch on to the process very quickly, which frees up presentation time for use as writing practice time.