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“Doneness” and Revision

Eli puts so much emphasis on feedback in order to drive revision because that’s where learning happens. Getting students to revise is hard work, even if they’ve gotten excellent comments from peers and the instructor’s debriefing.

In their article in the Fall 2016 Composition Studies, Rob McAlear and Mark Pedretti reported two of the 10 questions in their survey about student perceptions of “doneness” conducted in the 2nd or 3rd week of fall semester classes:

  • How do you know when a graded written assignment is done?
  • What criteria do you use to evaluate whether or not a written assignment is complete?

As their analysis unfolded, they sorted 59 responses by first-year and second-year writers into four general buckets:

  • Internal decisions were linked to personal, emotional, or aesthetic judgments, such as feeling satisfied with one’s work or that the paper “flowed,” “when I can’t stand to read it anymore,” “when I am proud,” “when I don’t feel like working on it anymore,” and “when I feel satisfied.”
  • Criteria decisions reflected the assignment prompt.
  • Process decisions mentioned any step of the writing process typically taught in FYcomp, from rhetorical situation to organization to evidence to peer feedback.
  • Surface decisions referred to proofreading and correction concerns.

These researchers ran into a couple of challenges in their analysis, and their results section details the various strategies they used to account for skew from other questions and the dominance of proofreading. At the broadest level, here’s what they found:

  • More FY than 2nd-Yr writers rely solely on internal decisions like “I have said all I have to say.”
  • More FY writers report making surface decisions.
  • Most 2nd-yr writers rely on criteria decisions.
  • Few 2nd-yr writers reported process decisions, even though they were enrolled in writing-intensive courses.

The authors observe that “[t]he shift in the data indicates that between the first and second years, doneness moved from an internal, affective judgment to an external, empirical judgment about meeting requirements, which was, for some students, combined with internal judgments about style and clarity” (86). As students move into a new academic discourse community, they realize that they can’t trust themselves any more to gauge “doneness,” so second year writers pay more attention to criteria. But for first years, it can be a rude awakening to find that the gauge of “doneness” that has served them well in the past no longer works.

McAlear and Pedretti conclude:

To the extent that revision is about seeing and attempting to solve writing problems, a lack of awareness about what constitutes a rhetorical problem may be at the root of the difficulty of revision. Asking students to revise when they do not know their endpoint is a bit like asking them to row to London without a map.

The metaphor of a rowing London without a map stuck out to me because I’m often lost as a traveler. I know that sinking feeling well. If quitting a trip were an option, I certainly would have quit many times. But, I had to keep going in order to arrive.

I tried to create that same sense of destination for my first-year writers last semester using the acronym the COST of revision:

  • Content–clarity of the main idea and quality of evidence
  • Organization–the cues readers need to follow ideas in the paper (headers, topic sentences, and transitions)
  • Style–tone, diction, sentence variety, voice
  • Technicalities–mechanics and citations

I explained to students that they needed to make four passes through their final drafts. On each pass, they should focus on only on one thing. Some students said it helped them understand revision in a new way.

For others, the COST of revision was simply too high. McAlear and Pedretti’s article helps me understand students’ decision not to revise might be rooted in their unwillingness to concede that their own felt sense of “doneness” is wrong. And, again, we’re right back to Dweck’s fixed versus growth mindset.


McAlear, Rob, and Mark Pedretti. 2016. “Writing Toward the End: Students’ Perceptions of Doneness in the Composition Classroom.” Composition Studies 44 (2): 72–93.

Cover photo credit: KatieThebeau

“Doneness” and Revision was published to the Eli Review Blog in the category Pedagogy.

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