Tuesday, March 3, 2009

How to Revise (NOT JUST EDIT!) Your Writing and Get Better Results

Every section of UW20 requires students to substantively revise between 25 and 30 pages of writing each semester. We place so much emphasis on revision because of our own experiences with using writing to begin to grasp dimly perceived ideas and to wrestle them into shape. Revision, the process of assessing, developing, and exploring ideas produced in generative drafts, is a crucial step in producing pieces of writing worth reading.

In this article First-Year Writing Professors Christy Zink, Rachel Riedner, Philip Troutman, and Phyllis Ryder teach you what you need to know to revise (NOT JUST EDIT!) like a pro!

1. It’s crucial to make a mental adjustment and see revision as a normal part of the writing process of even the best writers. Prof. Zink tells her students to “let go of the deeply held notion that if you were a better, smarter, more adept, savvier, more intellectual writer you wouldn't have to revise so much. Just Let. It. Go. The most brilliant writers in the world are the ones who don't doubt for a moment that any piece worth anything is going to take rewriting. In fact, the better, smarter, more adept, savvier, more intellectual a writer you are, the more likely you are to build in time both for drafting and the craft of revision.”

2. You need to make a distinction between editing and revision. Both Prof. Riedner and Prof. Troutman draw from the work of Joseph Harris (Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts) to making clear the difference between editing and revision.

According to Prof. Riedner, “When you edit, you work at the surface level of a paper. You fix errors, tinker with sentences, and fine tune a document. Editingcan improve the design and ‘flow’ of a document. Revision, on the other hand, revisits writing in order to rethink its aims, how it works with material it interprets, how it develops ideas, etc.... Revision“rethink[s] the ideas and examples that drive your thinking in an essay.”

Prof. Troutman points out that “In revising, you are changing your mind, shifting your claim, anticipating new counter-claims, bringing in new evidence, re-ordering your major points; you are engaging your text, perhaps even struggling with it, wrestling it into a new shape. In editing, you are fixing your text, both in terms of correcting errors (syntax, citation format, etc.) and in terms of giving it final form (font choice, wordsmithing for style, etc.); you are now treating it like an object, a beautiful thing you can now show.

3. You need a functioning process for making revision systematic. This will probably vary according to your needs, but here are some suggestions. All of our experts suggest starting by analyzing your draft.

Prof. Zink advises beginning revision by “Figuring out where you are most stuck. Once you've identified this idea, section, passage, or even sentence, find someone who will listen to you--peer from the class, roommate, paramour, random-person-muttering-to-self-in-local-park, or professor--sit that person down in front of you, and talk about what the trouble is. Let that partner know all he or she has to do is listen. Explain what's not working and why you're confused and why all of this is giving you a terrific headache. Let the person nod obligingly as you stammer through your confusion. Chances are, in just a few minutes of talking about the issue out loud, you'll come to some degree of clarity and even a solution.”

Prof. Ryder offers a three-step process: A. “Go through your draft and ‘chunk’ it--identify the main sections of the paper. Look at each big chunk and treat it like a mini-essay: Does it have a cohesive purpose? Will readers know what it's doing in the essay? How might you clarify the purpose and argument as you move into that section?

After analyzing your chunks (sounds gross I know!), B. “Go through the draft and write answers to the following questions in the margins for each paragraph: What is my main point? What is the purpose of this paragraph (is it making an argument, providing an illustration for something already said, introducing a new section of the paper, describing my method?).

C. Then look at the overall structure. Are things in the right order? Could sections be combined? Is there a logical progression? Finally, be critical about "flow." Anything can flow into anything else, but that doesn't mean it should. Can you describe the logic of why each part goes where it goes?

Like Prof. Zink, Prof. Troutman urges you to get someone to help you analyze your draft, but has your interlocutor play a more active role. “Peer responses are key, since you can't always see what other readers will. But you must train your readers; otherwise they will probably focus only on grammar and spelling, and that's editing, not revision.” Ask your peer to read the draft with any of the following purposes—borrowed from Peter Elbow’s & Pat Belanoff’s Sharing & Responding—in mind (only one at time, though). After they've read your draft, ask them to:

A. Write a descriptive outline of the paper, two sentences for each paragraph in the paper: One sentence summarizing precisely what the paragraph says. One sentence describing what the paragraph does and why--what its role is at that moment in the paper (e.g., establishing other scholarly views, laying out the paper's agenda, presenting evidence, discussing a counter-claim, connecting two major sub-claims, speculating about possible implications of the claim, etc.). This lets you find out how your reader perceives not only all the things you are saying, but also why you are saying those things in the order you do. Does your reader see alternate ways to organize it? Do you, based on how he or she outlined it?

B. Restate your central claim, but only in the form of questions: E.g., Okay, so are you trying to argue that ... ? or is it more about the question of ... ? This gives you the chance to reflect on your claims--and the question of whether your reader saw them as you intended--rather than simply to defend them. Your peer might even see a more interesting claim you could be making.

C. Believe everything about the draft: its central claim, its evidence, its use of scholars' work, its organization, its style, its word choices, its title, etc. Respond with ideas to further what is already going on with these things.

D. Doubt everything about the draft: its central claim, its evidence, its use of scholars' work, its organization, its style, its word choices, its title, etc. Respond with ideas for addressing the objections that arise out of this doubt.

Change your mindset about revision and try out some of these techniques. You’re writing will be richer, smarter, more disciplined, and more interesting. You’ll have learned more and so will have your readers!

Let us know what you think!


  1. Eric Drown said...
    These are great suggestions.

    I would add that in order for real revision to be successful, writers have to be so confident that they can generate so many ideas worth writing about that they're willing to throw away ones that aren't good enough, relevant enough, or productive enough.

    Likewise, good writers have to be so attuned to meeting their readers' needs that they're willing to jettison words, paragraphs, pages, and structures when they don't work for readers.

    Revision isn't tinkering; it's often wholesale rewriting, rethinking, recomposing. Holding onto words, ideas, or structures just because they're already on the page is the surest way to sabotage your best efforts at revision.

    Hope this helps!

  2. Thanks so much for all these wonderful suggestions! I'm holding group conferences with my students this week, and I sent out this post after we met to inform them of additional revision strategies. In our conferences, we've been talking a lot about never underestimating the power of a good topic sentence. And, we've been using those topic sentences to write up after-the-fact outlines of one another's papers. That's really been helping my students see where their order works and doesn't. Having students expand upon that activity with the ones listed above is really going to help them write some fabulous papers. Thanks everyone!

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