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Reflective Writing and the Revision Process: What Were You Thinking?

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    Sandra L. Giles

    “Reflection” and “reflective writing” are umbrella terms that refer to any activity that asks you to think about your own thinking.* As composition scholars Kathleen Blake Yancey and Jane Bowman Smith explain, reflection records a “student’s process of thinking about what she or he is doing while in the process of that doing” (170). In a writing class, you may be asked to think about your writing processes in general or in relation to a particular essay, to think about your intentions regarding rhetorical elements such as audience and purpose, or to think about your choices regarding development strategies such as comparison-contrast, exemplification, or definition. You may be asked to describe your decisions regarding language features such as word choice, sentence rhythm, and so on. You may be asked to evaluate or assess your piece of writing or your development as a writer in general. Your instructor may also ask you to perform these kinds of activities at various points in your process of working on a project, or at the end of the semester.

    A Writer’s Experience

    The first time I had to perform reflective writing myself was in the summer of 2002. And it did feel like a performance, at first. I was a doctoral student in Wendy Bishop’s Life Writing class at Florida State University, and it was the first class I had ever taken where we English majors actually practiced what we preached; which is to say, we actually put ourselves through the various elements of process writing. Bishop led us through invention exercises, revision exercises, language activities, and yes, reflective writings. For each essay, we had to write what she called a “process note” in which we explained our processes of working on the essay, as well as our thought processes in developing the ideas. We also discussed what we might want to do with (or to) the essay in the future, beyond the class. At the end of the semester, we composed a self-evaluative cover letter for our portfolio in which we discussed each of our essays from the semester and recorded our learning and insights about writing and about the genre of nonfiction.

    My first process note for the class was a misguided attempt at goodstudent-gives-the-teacher-what-she-wants. Our assignment had been to attend an event in town and write about it. I had seen an email announcement about a medium visiting from England who would perform a “reading” at the Unity Church in town. So I went and took notes. And wrote two consecutive drafts. After peer workshop, a third. And then I had to write the process note, the likes of which I had never done before. It felt awkward, senseless. Worse than writing a scholarship application or some other mundane writing task. Like a waste of time, and like it wasn’t real writing at all. But it was required.

    So, hoop-jumper that I was, I wrote the following: “This will eventually be part of a longer piece that will explore the Foundation for Spiritual Knowledge in Tallahassee, Florida, which is a group of local people in training to be mediums and spirituals healers. These two goals are intertwined.” Yeah, right. Nice and fancy. Did I really intend to write a book-length study on those folks? I thought my professor would like the idea, though, so I put it in my note. Plus, my peer reviewers had asked for a longer, deeper piece. That statement would show I was being responsive to their feedback, even though I didn’t agree with it. The peer reviewers had also wanted me to put myself into the essay more, to do more with first-person point of view rather than just writing a reporter-style observation piece. I still disagree with them, but what I should have done in the original process note was go into why: my own search for spirituality and belief could not be handled in a brief essay. I wanted the piece to be about the medium herself, and mediumship in general, and the public’s reaction, and why a group of snarky teenagers thought they could be disruptive the whole time and come off as superior. I did a better job later—more honest and thoughtful and revealing about my intentions for the piece—in the self-evaluation for the portfolio. That’s because, as the semester progressed and I continued to have to write those darned process notes, I dropped the attitude. In a conference about my writing, Bishop responded to my note by asking questions focused entirely on helping me refine my intentions for the piece, and I realized my task wasn’t to please or try to dazzle her. I stopped worrying about how awkward the reflection was, stopped worrying about how to please the teacher, and started actually reflecting and thinking. New habits and ways of thinking formed. And unexpectedly, all the hard decisions about revising for the next draft began to come more easily.

    And something else clicked, too. Two and a half years previously, I had been teaching composition at a small two-year college. Composition scholar Peggy O’Neill taught a workshop for us English teachers on an assignment she called the “Letter to the Reader.” That was my introduction to reflective writing as a teacher, though I hadn’t done any of it myself at that point. I thought, “Okay, the composition scholars say we should get our students to do this.” So I did, but it did not work very well with my students at the time. Here’s why: I didn’t come to understand what it could do for a writer, or how it would do it, until I had been through it myself.

    After Bishop’s class, I became a convert. I began studying reflection, officially called metacognition, and began developing ways of using it in writing classes of all kinds, from composition to creative nonfiction to fiction writing. It works. Reflection helps you to develop your intentions (purpose), figure out your relation to your audience, uncover possible problems with your individual writing processes, set goals for revision, make decisions about language and style, and the list goes on. In a nutshell, it helps you develop more insight into and control over composing and revising processes. And according to scholars such as Chris M. Anson, developing this control is a feature that distinguishes stronger from weaker writers and active from passive learners (69–73).

    My Letter to the Reader Assignment

    Over recent years, I’ve developed my own version of the Letter to the Reader, based on O’Neill’s workshop and Bishop’s class assignments. For each essay, during a revising workshop, my students first draft their letters to the reader and then later, polish them to be turned in with the final draft. Letters are composed based on the following instructions:

    This will be a sort of cover letter for your essay. It should be on a separate sheet of paper, typed, stapled to the top of the final draft. Date the letter and address it to “Dear Reader.” Then do the following in nicely developed, fat paragraphs:

    1. Tell the reader what you intend for the essay to do for its readers. Describe its purpose(s) and the effect(s) you want it to have on the readers. Say who you think the readers are.

    • Describe your process of working on the essay. How did you narrow the assigned topic? What kind of planning did you do? What steps did you go through, what changes did you make along the way, what decisions did you face, and how did you make the decisions?
    • How did comments from your peers, in peer workshop, help you? How did any class activities on style, editing, etc., help you?

    2. Remember to sign the letter. After you’ve drafted it, think about whether your letter and essay match up. Does the essay really do what your letter promises? If not, then use the draft of your letter as a revising tool to make a few more adjustments to your essay. Then, when the essay is polished and ready to hand in, polish the letter as well and hand them in together.

    Following is a sample letter that shows how the act of answering these prompts can help you uncover issues in your essays that need to be addressed in further revision. This letter is a mock-up based on problems I’ve seen over the years. We discuss it thoroughly in my writing classes:

    Dear Reader,

    This essay is about how I feel about the changes in the financial aid rules. I talk about how they say you’re not eligible even if your parents aren’t supporting you anymore. I also talk a little bit about the HOPE scholarship. But my real purpose is to show how the high cost of books makes it impossible to afford college if you can’t get on financial aid. My readers will be all college students. As a result, it should make students want to make a change. My main strategy in this essay is to describe how the rules have affected me personally.

    I chose this topic because this whole situation has really bugged me. I did freewriting to get my feelings out on paper, but I don’t think that was effective because it seemed jumbled and didn’t flow. So I started over with an outline and went on from there. I’m still not sure how to start the introduction off because I want to hook the reader’s interest but I don’t know how to do that. I try to include many different arguments to appeal to different types of students to make the whole argument seem worthwhile on many levels.

    I did not include comments from students because I want everyone to think for themselves and form their own opinion. That’s my main strategy. I don’t want the paper to be too long and bore the reader. I was told in peer workshop to include information from other students at other colleges with these same financial aid problems. But I didn’t do that because I don’t know anybody at another school. I didn’t want to include any false information.



    Notice how the letter shows us, as readers of the letter, some problems in the essay without actually having to read the essay. From this (imaginary) student’s point of view, the act of drafting this letter should show her the problems, too. In her first sentence, she announces her overall topic. Next she identifies a particular problem: the way “they” define whether an applicant is dependent on or independent of parents. So far, pretty good, except her use of the vague pronoun “they” makes me hope she hasn’t been that vague in the essay itself. Part of taking on a topic is learning enough about it to be specific. Specific is effective; vague is not. Her next comment about the HOPE scholarship makes me wonder if she’s narrowed her topic enough. When she said “financial aid,” I assumed federal, but HOPE is particular to the state of Georgia and has its own set of very particular rules, set by its own committee in Atlanta. Can she effectively cover both federal financial aid, such as the Pell Grant for example, as well as HOPE, in the same essay, when the rules governing them are different? Maybe. We’ll see. I wish the letter would address more specifically how she sorts that out in the essay. Then she says that her “real purpose” is to talk about the cost of books. Is that really her main purpose? Either she doesn’t have a good handle on what she wants her essay to do or she’s just throwing language around to sound good in the letter. Not good, either way.

    When she says she wants the readers to be all college students, she has identified her target audience, which is good. Then this: “As a result, it should make students want to make a change.” Now, doesn’t that sound more in line with a statement of purpose? Here the writer makes clear, for the first time, that she wants to write a persuasive piece on the topic. But then she says that her “main strategy” is to discuss only her own personal experience. That’s not a strong enough strategy, by itself, to be persuasive.

    In the second section, where she discusses process, she seems to have gotten discouraged when she thought that freewriting hadn’t worked because it resulted in something “jumbled.” But she missed the point that freewriting works to generate ideas, which often won’t come out nicely organized. It’s completely fine, and normal, to use freewriting to generate ideas and then organize them with perhaps an outline as a second step. As a teacher, when I read comments like this in a letter, I write a note to the student explaining that “jumbled” is normal, perfectly fine, and nothing to worry about. I’m glad when I read that sort of comment so I can reassure the student. If not for the letter, I probably wouldn’t have known of her unfounded concern. It creates a teaching moment.

    Our imaginary student then says, “I’m still not sure how to start the introduction off because I want to hook the reader’s interest but don’t know how to do that.” This statement shows that she’s thinking along the right lines—of capturing the reader’s interest. But she hasn’t quite figured out how to do that in this essay, probably because she doesn’t have a clear handle on her purpose. I’d advise her to address that problem and to better develop her overall strategy, and then she would be in a better position to make a plan for the introduction. Again, a teaching moment. When she concludes the second paragraph of the letter saying that she wants to include “many different arguments” for “different types of students,” it seems even more evident that she’s not clear on purpose or strategy; therefore, she’s just written a vague sentence she probably thought sounded good for the letter.

    She begins her third paragraph with further proof of the problems. If her piece is to be persuasive, then she should not want readers to “think for themselves and form their own opinion.” She most certainly should have included comments from other students, as her peer responders advised. It wouldn’t be difficult to interview some fellow students at her own school. And as for finding out what students at other schools think about the issue, a quick search on the Internet would turn up newspaper or newsletter articles, as well as blogs and other relevant sources. Just because the official assignment may not have been to write a “research” paper doesn’t mean you can’t research. Some of your best material will come that way. And in this particular type of paper, your personal experience by itself, without support, will not likely persuade the reader. Now, I do appreciate when she says she doesn’t want to include any “false information.” A lot of students come to college with the idea that in English class, if you don’t know any information to use, then you can just make it up so it sounds good. But that’s not ethical, and it’s not persuasive, and just a few minutes on the Internet will solve the problem.

    This student, having drafted the above letter, should go back and analyze. Do the essay and letter match up? Does the essay do what the letter promises? And here, does the letter uncover lack of clear thinking about purpose and strategy? Yes, it does, so she should now go back and address these issues in her essay. Without having done this type of reflective exercise, she likely would have thought her essay was just fine, and she would have been unpleasantly surprised to get the grade back with my (the teacher’s) extensive commentary and critique. She never would have predicted what I would say because she wouldn’t have had a process for thinking through these issues—and might not have known how to begin thinking this way. Drafting the letter should help her develop more insight into and control over the revising process so she can make more effective decisions as she revises.

    How it Works

    Intentions—a sense of audience and purpose and of what the writer wants the essay to do—are essential to a good piece of communicative writing. Anson makes the point that when an instructor asks a student to verbalize his or her intentions, it is much more likely that the student will have intentions (qtd. in Yancey and Smith 174). We saw this process in mid-struggle with our imaginary student’s work (above), and we’ll see it handled more effectively in real student examples (below). As many composition scholars explain, reflective and self-assessing activities help writers set goals for their writing. For instance, Rebecca Moore Howard states that “writers who can assess their own prose can successfully revise that prose” (36). This position is further illustrated by Xiaoguang Cheng and Margaret S. Steffenson, who conducted and then reported a study clearly demonstrating a direct positive effect of reflection on student revising processes in “Metadiscourse: A Technique for Improving Student Writing.” Yancey and Smith argue that self-assessment and reflection are essential to the learning process because they are a “method for assigning both responsibility and authority to a learner” (170). Students then become independent learners who can take what they learn about writing into the future beyond a particular class rather than remaining dependent on teachers or peer evaluators (171). Anson echoes this idea, saying that reflection helps a writer grow beyond simply succeeding in a particular writing project: “Once they begin thinking about writing productively, they stand a much better chance of developing expertise and working more successfully in future writing situations” (73).

    Examples from Real Students

    Let’s see some examples from actual students now, although for the sake of space we’ll look at excerpts. The first few illustrate how reflective writing helps you develop your intentions. For an assignment to write a profile essay, Joshua Dawson described his purpose and audience: “This essay is about my grandmother and how she overcame the hardships of life. [. . .] The purpose of this essay is to show how a woman can be tough and can take anything life throws at her. I hope the essay reaches students who have a single parent and those who don’t know what a single parent goes through.” Joshua showed a clear idea of what he wanted his essay to do. For a cultural differences paper, Haley Moore wrote about her mission trip to Peru: “I tried to show how, in America, we have everything from clean water to freedom of religion and other parts of the world do not. Also, I would like for my essay to inspire people to give donations or help in any way they can for the countries that live in poverty.” Haley’s final draft actually did not address the issue of donations and focused instead on the importance of mission work, a good revision decision that kept the essay more focused.

    In a Composition II class, Chelsie Mathis wrote an argumentative essay on a set of controversial photos published in newspapers in the 1970s which showed a woman falling to her death during a fire escape collapse. Chelsie said,

    The main purpose of this essay is to argue whether the [newspaper] editors used correct judgment when deciding to publish such photos. The effect that I want my paper to have on the readers is to really make people think about others’ feelings and to make people realize that poor judgment can have a big effect. [ . . . ] I intend for my readers to possibly be high school students going into the field of journalism or photojournalism.

    Chelsie demonstrated clear thinking about purpose and about who she wanted her essay to influence. Another Comp II student, Daniel White, wrote, “This essay is a cognitive approach of how I feel YouTube is helping our society achieve its dreams and desires of becoming stars.” I had no idea what he meant by “cognitive approach,” but I knew he was taking a psychology class at the same time. I appreciated that he was trying to integrate his learning from that class into ours, trying to learn to use that vocabulary. I was sure that with more practice, he would get the hang of it. I didn’t know whether he was getting much writing practice at all in psychology, so I was happy to let him practice it in my class. His reflection showed learning in process.

    My students often resist writing about their composing processes, but it’s good for them to see and analyze how they did what they did, and it also helps me know what they were thinking when they made composing decisions. Josh Autry, in regards to his essay on scuba diving in the Florida Keys at the wreck of the Spiegel Grove, said, “Mapping was my preferred method of outlining. It helped me organize my thoughts, go into detail, and pick the topics that I thought would be the most interesting to the readers.” He also noted, “I choose [sic] to write a paragraph about everything that can happen to a diver that is not prepared but after reviewing it I was afraid that it would scare an interested diver away. I chose to take that paragraph out and put a few warnings in the conclusion so the aspiring diver would not be clueless.” This was a good decision that did improve the final draft. His earlier draft had gotten derailed by a long discussion of the dangers of scuba diving in general. But he came to this realization and decided to correct it without my help—except that I had led the class through reflective revising activities. D’Amber Walker wrote, “At first my organization was off because I didn’t know if I should start off with a personal experience which included telling a story or start with a statistic.” Apparently, a former teacher had told her not to include personal experiences in her essays. I reminded her that in our workshop on introductions, we had discussed how a personal story can be a very effective hook to grab the reader’s attention. So once again, a teaching moment. When Jonathan Kelly said, “I probably could have given more depth to this paper by interviewing a peer or something but I really felt unsure of how to go about doing so,” I was able to scold him gently. If he really didn’t know how to ask fellow students their opinions, all he had to do was ask me. But his statement shows an accurate assessment of how the paper could have been better. When Nigel Ellington titled his essay “If Everything Was Easy, Nothing Would Be Worth Anything,” he explained, “I like this [title] because it’s catchy and doesn’t give too much away and it hooks you.” He integrated what he learned in a workshop on titles. Doing this one little bit of reflective thinking cemented that learning and gave him a chance to use it in his actual paper.

    How It Helps Me (the Instructor) Help You

    Writing teachers often play two roles in relation to their students. I am my students’ instructor, but I am also a fellow writer. As a writer, I have learned that revision can be overwhelming. It’s tempting just to fiddle with words and commas if I don’t know what else to do. Reflection is a mechanism, a set of procedures, to help me step back from a draft to gain enough distance to ask myself, “Is this really what I want the essay (or story or poem or article) to do? Is this really what I want it to say? Is this the best way to get it to say that?” To revise is to re-vision or re-see, to re-think these issues, but you have to create a critical distance to be able to imagine your piece done another way. Reflection helps you create that distance. It also helps your instructor better guide your work and respond to it.

    The semester after my experience in Bishop’s Life Writing Class, I took a Fiction Writing Workshop taught by Mark Winegardner, author of The Godfather Returns and The Godfather’s Revenge, as well as numerous other novels and short stories. Winegardner had us create what he called the “process memo.” As he indicated in an interview, he uses the memo mainly as a tool to help the workshop instructor know how to respond to the writer’s story. If a writer indicates in the memo that he knows something is still a problem with the story, then the instructor can curtail lengthy discussion of that issue’s existence during the workshop and instead prompt peers to provide suggestions. The instructor can give some pointed advice, or possibly reassurance, based on the writer’s concerns that, without being psychic, the instructor would not otherwise have known about. Composition scholar Jeffrey Sommers notes that reflective pieces show teachers what your intentions for your writing actually are, which lets us respond to your writing accurately, rather than responding to what we think your intentions might be (“Enlisting” 101–2). He also points out that we can know how to reduce your anxiety about your writing appropriately (“Behind” 77). Thus, without a reflective memo, your teacher might pass right over the very issue you have been worried about.

    The Habit of Self-Reflective Writing

    One of the most important functions of reflective writing in the long run is to establish in you, the writer, a habit of self-reflective thinking. The first few reflective pieces you write may feel awkward and silly and possibly painful. You might play the teacher-pleasing game. But that’s really not what we want (see Smith 129). Teachers don’t want you to say certain things, we want you to think in certain ways. Once you get the hang of it and start to see the benefits in your writing, you’ll notice that you’ve formed a habit of thinking reflectively almost invisibly. And not only will it help you in writing classes, but in any future writing projects for biology class, say, or even further in the future, in writing that you may do on the job, such as incident reports or annual reports for a business. You’ll become a better writer. You’ll become a better thinker. You’ll become a better learner. And learning is what you’ll be doing for the rest of your life. I recently painted my kitchen. It was a painful experience. I had a four-day weekend and thought I could clean, prep, and paint the kitchen, breakfast nook, and hallway to the garage in just four days, not to mention painting the trim and doors white. I pushed myself to the limit of endurance. And when I finished the wall color (not even touching the trim), I didn’t like it. The experience was devastating. A very similar thing had happened three years before when I painted my home office a color I now call “baby poop.” My home office is still “baby poop” because I got so frustrated I just gave up. Now, the kitchen was even worse. It was such a light green it looked like liver failure and didn’t go with the tile on the floor. Plus, it showed brush marks and other flaws. What the heck?

    But unlike three years ago, when I had given up, I decided to apply reflective practices to the situation. I decided to see it as time for revision-type thinking. Why had I wanted green to begin with? (Because I didn’t want blue in a kitchen. I’ve really been craving that hot dark lime color that’s popular now. So yes, I still want it to be green.) Why hadn’t I chosen a darker green? (Because I have the darker, hotter color into the room with accessories. The lighter green has a more neutral effect that I shouldn’t get sick of after six months. Perhaps I’ll get used to it, especially when I get around to painting the trim white.) What caused the brush strokes? (I asked an expert. Two factors: using satin finish rather than eggshell, and using a cheap paintbrush for cut-in-areas.) How can they be fixed? (Most of the brush strokes are just in the cut-in areas and so they can be redone quickly with a better quality brush. That is, if I decide to keep this light green color.) Is the fact that the trim is still cream-colored rather than white part of the problem? (Oh, yes. Fix that first and the other problems might diminish.) What can I learn about timing for my next paint project? (That the cleaning and prep work take much longer than you think, and that you will need two coats, plus drying time. And so what if you didn’t finish it in four days? Relax! Allow more time next time.) Am I really worried about what my mother will say? (No, because I’m the one who has to look at it every day.) So the solution? Step one is to paint the trim first and then re-evaluate. Using a method of reflection to think back over my “draft” gives me a method for proceeding with “revision.” At the risk of sounding like a pop song, when you stop to think it through, you’ll know what to do.

    Revision isn’t just in writing. These methods can be applied any time you are working on a project—of any kind—or have to make decisions about something. Establishing the habit of reflective thinking will have far-reaching benefits in your education, your career, and your life. It’s an essential key to success for the life-long learner.


    1. Define what metacognitive or reflective writing is. What are some of the prompts or “topics” for reflective writing?
    2. Have you ever been asked to do this type of writing? If so, briefly discuss your experience.
    3. Why does reflective writing help a student learn and develop as a better writer? How does it work?
    4. Draft a Letter to the Reader for an essay you are working on right now. Analyze the letter to see what strengths or problems it uncovers regarding your essay

    Works Cited

    Anson, Chris M. “Talking About Writing: A Classroom-Based Study of Students’ Reflections on Their Drafts.” Smith and Yancey 59–74.

    Bishop, Wendy. “Life Writing.” English Department. Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL. Summer 2002. Lecture.

    Cheng, Xiaoguang, and Margaret S. Steffenson. “Metadiscourse: A Technique for Improving Student Writing.” Research in the Teaching of English 30.2 (1996): 149–81. Print.

    Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Applications and Assumptions of Student SelfAssessment.” Smith and Yancey 35–58.

    O’Neill, Peggy. “Reflection and Portfolio Workshop.” Humanities Division. Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, Tifton, GA. 25 January 2000. Lecture, workshop.

    Smith, Jane Bowman. “‘Know Your Knowledge’: Journals and Self-Assessment.” Smith and Yancey 125–38.

    Smith, Jane Bowman, and Kathleen Blake Yancey, eds. Self-Assessment and Development in Writing: A Collaborative Inquiry. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2000. Print.

    Sommers, Jeffrey. “Behind the Paper: Using the Student-Teacher Memo.” College Composition and Communication 39.1 (1988): 77–80. Print.

    —. “Enlisting the Writer’s Participation in The Evaluation Process.” Journal of Teaching Writing 4.1 (1985): 95–103. Print.

    Winegardner, Mark. Personal interview. 3 February 2003.

    Yancey, Kathleen Blake, and Jane Bowman Smith. “Reflections on Self-Assessment.” Smith and Yancey 169–76.

    This page titled Reflective Writing and the Revision Process: What Were You Thinking? is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Charles Lowe & Pavel Zemliansky Eds. (WAC Clearinghouse) .

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