Why the Most Important Step in the Writing Process May Also Be the Most Overlooked

by | Feb 2, 2019

People, especially students, are consistently writing more today than ever before. However, this uptick in the practice of writing doesn’t automatically lead to an improvement in writing skills. In fact, there are many students who arrive at college or enter the workforce to find that they don’t really know how to structure their ideas or communicate their ideas as clearly as they’d like.

There are many complex reasons for this, but one that may be especially important for Hamilton families in the influence of AP classes. For motivated, bright students, AP classes can be tremendously helpful–but they may not teach you how to write. Even in writing-intensive classes, such as AP Language and Composition or APUSH, students spend much of their class time learning skills that will help them pass the AP exams at the end of the year, and that means training students primarily to write timed, on-demand essays in class. At Hamilton, nearly all of our students (who come from a range of high schools) report that they haven’t written an essay at home in years. Writing an on-demand essay is certainly a useful skill, one that will help students throughout their high school careers. The problem is that this style of writing is unlikely to make a real difference after graduation.

We lose the revision process almost entirely when we focus primarily on on-demand essays; we teach students only to create first drafts. When asked, many of our Hamilton students couldn’t articulate the difference between editing, revising, and proofreading. The result is a group of high-achieving students who are missing the key to improving writing: rewriting. Pieces of writing really only get better when authors step back, honestly evaluate their work, and embark on the often difficult task of changing it. That may look like adjusting your thesis, giving more argumentative space to an insight you uncovered while drafting, or admitting you’re contradicting yourself and wrestling through a complex issue until you find clarity.

This sort of work isn’t just helpful in essays; it’s the key to better thinking. At Hamilton, we are privileged to work with students who are eager to change the world. But first-draft ideas rarely make that sort of impact. To really be the sort of person who influences your field–whatever field that may be–you need to be well trained in the act of editing your own thoughts, taking them apart and putting them back together again in more effective ways.

What have your experiences with essay writing and revision been like? Let us know, so we can better help you out in our classes and in future posts.