Remember Magic School Bus and Ms. Frizzle’s motto? “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!” This is the way I like to teach writing.
“Mess is best” has always been my motto in my classes during the process of writing — my students know they can begin any piece of writing in the middle, the end, or at the beginning. They know that I want them to show their work, just as they do in math. They know that means that if the ideas they have jumping out of their brain and landing on the page first, should actually make up the third body paragraph, they can number it or label it or draw an arrow on their paper. In other words, when my students are writing, from pre-writing through editing, their papers are a mess! For some, this is very hard to get used to. They find it difficult to believe that I don’t want them to write a new draft with every revision and editing session. They find it difficult to believe that I want their unpolished, messy pages to discuss with them as they make decisions about the piece. They laugh when I tell them that I don’t need papers suitable for framing because I don’t have room on my wall. Because “most students are proficient at the brainstorming and freewriting stages…but most students don’t have strategies beyond correcting surface errors and adding more,” I am simply encouraging revision and editing of any piece my students write by eliminating the tediousness of rewriting until they want to do so or until they are ready to publish the piece (Benjamin, 2000, p. 181).
I remember when I was in school and the teacher said we had to turn in a rough draft with our final copy of a paper; typically, I wrote only one actual paper, copied it over, and made some cross-outs on the copy and turned it in as the rough draft (okay, so I wasn’t the best student in school, but probably like many). It seemed to me, when I first introduced my mess-is-best system that my students would be more willing to make substantial revisions in meaning and content and organization, if they did not have to rewrite the paper to do so. That turned out to be a correct hypothesis. Without the burden of having to physically rewrite, I can encourage students to revise by giving them “a revising goal that directs their attention to more substantive concerns,” a specific revising goal to add three sentences of dialogue, for example (Graham & Harris, 1996, p. 350). In addition, when students do physically rewrite the paper, they do so more willingly because they are eager to see what “real paper” looks like after revising. For those papers that are composed on computers, students insert their revisions via the comment insertions, so that the “before” and “after” are obvious and seen simultaneously.
Benjamin, A. (2000). English teacher’s guide to performance tasks & rubrics: Middle school. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.
Graham, S., & Harris, K. (1996). Self-regulation and strategy instruction for students who find writing and learning challenging. In C. Michael Levy, Sarah Ransdell (eds). The Science of Writing: Theories, Methods, Individual Differences, and Applications. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.