Recipe: “Write a second draft”

I like this idea of creating “recipe cards” for things that students are asked to do regularly, but may have only done once or twice before.  So I’m creating a library of them on my blog, both for my use and the use of others.  Maybe this will be a helpful feature, maybe not.  Let me know if you find any of them useful; and feel free to modify them.

This week’s recipe came up a lot this week in my tutoring sessions both formal and informal.  Writing a second draft of something is incredibly hard for many kids — it’s not a normal part of the writing process they see adults do, since most of us have learned to write ‘well enough’ to get by on one go-round.

  1. Skim your paper and choose a style for each paragraph: narrative, descriptive, expository or persuasive. A narrative paragraph is usually about time.  A descriptive paragraph is usually about space or color.  An expository paragraph is a “how to” manual, and a persuasive paragraph is “I’m right and this is why.”  If the subject were Stonehenge, a narrative paragraph would talk about the order of construction over a thousand years.  A descriptive paragraph would walk the reader around the site to look at the stones.  An expository paragraph would explain how to build your own Stonehenge.  A persuasive paragraph would lay out the evidence for your theory of why it was built.
  2. Rewrite each paragraph so that it matches the overall plan for your chosen style. If it’s about narrative, add more dates and time words; get specific.  If it’s descriptive, add colors, distances, and visual details.  If it’s expository, write in more steps.  If it’s persuasive, use words like “because” and add in your evidence, or words like “although” and play down your rival’s evidence with evidence of your own.
  3. Rewrite the first sentence of each paragraph to match and unite the new material you just added. This is called the topic sentence.  It should be a quick summary of the paragraph’s subject.  Make the main subject of this sentence the main subject of the paragraph.  If your paragraph is about the cotton gin, then the sentence should start “The cotton gin…”
  4. Connect each paragraph to the one just before it and the one just after it. If the paragraph is about transportation, and there’s a paragraph about railroads just after it, make sure you mention railroads pushing out canals in the paragraph.  If the paragraph before the one about transportation is about immigrants, mention that immigrant labor built the transportation system.
  5. Search your document for “that”, “I”, “you”, “which” and “and”. Rewrite the sentences with those words in them so those words are unnecessary and can be left out.
  6. Look for passive voice sentences, and change them to active voice. The passive voice has a construction like “interchangable parts were invented by Eli Whitney”.  It’s awkward and wordy.  Make it “Eli Whitney invented interchangable parts.”  You save two words.
  7. Find out how many words are in your paper, and cut 10% of the words out.
  8. Rewrite the thesis statement to match the whole paper. A thesis statement should summarize the whole paper in one sentence.  It will be the hardest sentence of the whole paper to write, and you may not be able to write it until the very end.
  9. Repeat whichever steps of steps 1-8 are necessary. Sometimes one of the steps above will change so many other things that you will need to do further revisions, and do one or more of the steps in the recipe over.  That’s OK; let it happen.

What would you put in a recipe for “write a second draft”?

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  1. Wow Andrew – It’s hard to know what to think of that recipe for writing. I’m almost afraid to respond since I did not put in hours of preparation and write multiple rough drafts before submitting these comments. Furthermore, it has been so many years since I have had to do formal writing with the goal of pleasing a teacher, that I don’t think I remember all of what was required of me at the time. Writing in that context is very, very different from formal writing for work or other reasons.
    Yes the recipe is helpful. It is also very intimidating. (I was even afraid to link my blog to this response lest it come under the critical eye of real writers.) I guess I’ve forgotten how much is involved.
    In thinking about those instructions, I would have to say that if I were your student you would get a wonderfully written, stamp-of-approval paper out of me. However, it would completely lack heart. Those instructions would enable me to follow the letter of the law, but they would completely and utterly squash my creativity. I would enjoy the “A” at the end, because as a student many years ago that’s what I lived for. I would enjoy the end result of an impressive GPA, but I would not enjoy writing the paper. Perhaps it’s just my age, or my current mood in life, or my viewpoint of many years removed from having to write graded papers, but if I were your student, this entry would strike either severe terror or severe boredom into me – perhaps both if such a thing is possible.

    • Dear Carolyn,

      I don’t follow this recipe myself any more. It is, as you say, too restrictive and killjoy-esque.

      But kids do need some kind of a recipe for revision. This is similar to the one my first professional editor suggested, and it is also based on Stephen King’s writing advice in On Writing.

      So I should ask myself — why don’t I follow the recipe any more? Because I absorbed the second draft steps and incorporated them into my first-draft writing process as best I could.

      I hope this incorporation process is what we want to have happen — and when I find a better recipe for teaching that, I’ll use that one instead.

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