Making Sense of the Revising Process

A Systematic Writing Approach to Revising, Editing, Proofreading

if you have upper-intermediate to advanced English language learners, you probably teach some form of writing.  I would suspect also that you teach the revising process.  Or do you?

Whenever I ask my upper-level ESL students to define the revising process, they look at me as if I was the stranger in a strange land.  And just like Robert Heinlein’s main character from his science fiction novel with that name,  I can read students’ minds.  I know they are thinking that the revising process is all about proofreading:  correcting grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes.

That is not surprising because some of their previous teachers may have taught them that or they may have learned that from a textbook. For example, one established textbook begins explaining the revising process by talking about proofreading (Dasgupta 297). Another textbook first defines the revising process as “improving vocabulary, idiomatic usage and style…” (Scull  356).

It is no wonder that students don’t know where or when to begin revising their own writing. According to Hayward, students may be too busy to revise or not have enough time (221).  They may also think that it’s possible to revise as they are writing. Hayward also points out that students just don’t like making the effort,  which I agree with.

If you know anything about the revising process, you know that it is both linguistically and cognitively challenging,  even for native speakers of English.  That is why I have developed a systematic approach to teaching the revising process using the following three steps: revise, edit, and proofread. I use this approach in my own teaching as well as in my professional development teaching writing course (Bonkowski) — a 3-credit grad course.

I’ll give you a brief overview of each of the three steps. I will also share with you examples from one student’s work which she wrote on her class English blog. But first a quick at the way the process is organized

The writing process begins with students writing a 400-word literary analysis of a film  –  based on a novel – they have studied and discussed with other students.  Students write their essay on the Moodle platform at the college where I teach. Students give me a print copy of their essay on which I write comments regarding content, organization, style, vocabulary, and grammar.  Having my feedback on their essay, students follow the procedure below for revising their essay on their English class blog (a great tool for organizing student writing and homework).

Revising process

I ask students to use a different colour – or underlining – for each of the three steps: revising, editing, and proofreading.


Step 1: Revising

Learners need to look at the whole document first to see if it it makes sense, given their thesis statement expressed in the introduction. Students then look at the paragraph level
to see if the paragraphs make sense, with topic sentences linking to the thesis. They also work with transitional sequencing expressions that tie paragraphs together.

Learners need to be aware that a good essay is unified in all aspects: it should have paragraph unity, development, and coherence. 

In the example below, the student has reworked her thesis statement.


Step 2: Editing

In the next step, learners work on improving their vocabulary and word choice as well their sentence variety. I give learners practice using different kinds of sentence openings.

For English language learners, choosing the right words and using a variety of sentences to make their writing interesting is a difficult challenge. They have to continually work at developing these skills.

Here is an example of the student reworking her sentence structure, showing the changes with the colour blue.

Here is a tool I give students for editing their work. You can find the complete checklist in my teacher training writing course (Bonkowski).

10-Point Writer’s Checklist for Editing

1. Do I use simple sentences? Yes No
2. Do I use compound or complex sentences? Yes No
3. Do I use some compound sentences that begin with a dependent clause? Yes No
4. Do I have any problem “sentences:” fragments, run-ons (missing punctuation)? Yes No

Step 3: Proofreading

As I mentioned earlier, students are most familiar with this revising step: correcting mechanical errors, such as grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.

They need to know the rules and be able to apply them in correcting their language mistakes. This is a vast topic with tons of websites and books devoted to it, so we can only skim the surface. For English language learners, it is not always easy to check for mechanical errors.

I recommend that learners use a spelling and grammar checker, such as the Virtual Writing Tutor (VWT). In my professional development training course (Bonkowski) there is an interview with Nick Walker creator of the VWT. He explains how this tool can be a great asset for both teacher and learner, if used consistently.

Here is a student example of proofreading using again a different colour.

If you want more examples of students’ work, please contact me.

If you have interesting ideas on the revising process, please share them with our teacher community.

Works Cited

Bonkowski, Frank. “Teaching Writing to Intermediate and Advanced Learners.” English Learner Portal, 1 Jan. 2017,

Dasgupta, Geri, and Jennifer J. Mei. “Reading Your Own Writing.” Refining, Reading, Writing: Essay Strategies for Canadian Students, Nelson Thomson, 2008, p. 297–302.

Hayward, Sally. Writing for the Academic Disciplines: Rhetoric, Reader, and Handbook. Oxford University Press, 2015.

Scull, S. Critical Reading and Writing for Advanced ESL Students. World Publishing Corp Prentice-Hall, 1987 p.356-357.

A special thanks to Sophie L for her excellent work.



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