What We Talk About When We Talk About Revision

When my students ask me how they can improve their writing, my answer is almost always the same: revise. Young writers, inexperienced and impetuous, bristle at the thought of recasting what they have only just molded. What person devoid of masochistic tendencies wants to revisit and redo a completed writing assignment? But since part of my job as an educator is to deliver bad news, here it is: all the acceptable writing I have done has been on the second, third, or fourth take.

The good news is that effective revision practices are easy to develop and, in my experience, habit-forming. (I could spend the rest of the day rewriting this blog post and, like Hamlet in his nutshell, call myself a king of infinite space.) Yet I suspect that I have too often taken the meaning of revision for granted, even as I have over-explained more arcane terms like “iambic pentameter” and “chiasmus.” So I will begin by defining revision as a new draft of writing that treats the initial piece as its courageous guide. A productive revision is an opportunity for the writer to revisit her assignment with the experience of someone who has been there before. The writer should aim to produce a fresh piece of writing that retains her first draft’s virtues but avoids its missteps.

I should emphasize that what I mean by revision is not merely swapping one word for another, experimenting with word order, or replacing punctuation marks. That kind of textual tinkering can be a playful method for stepping into a revision — or a satisfying way to conclude one — but by itself is no substitute for a comprehensive rewrite.

Below is a list of revision exercises that I have picked up in my years as a student and a teacher. I hope that these tips will help my students transform their drafts — which are often more praise-worthy than they suspect —  into successful papers.

Revision: A User’s Guide

  1. Let your paper sit. The first step of rewriting is to separate yourself from your work. Ideally, you should allow yourself a day or two away before you reread your draft. If you are working on a deadline, you should still afford yourself a short break. Go for a walk, make a cup of coffee, or play with your cat. (If you don’t have cat, consider getting one. A feline is a writer’s best friend.) This time away gives you distance from your work’s errors and weaknesses, and combats your brain’s impulse to read what you meant to write, rather than what is actually on the page.
  2. Print a hard copy and read it aloud. Don’t be embarrassed! Reading your paper aloud forces you to review your work slowly and carefully and encourages you to engage with your prose style. As you read, ask yourself: where are my sentences awkward, unwieldy, or choppy? Use your ear as a tool. If a sentence sounds strange, you should probably rewrite it. Similarly, make note of the aspects of your paper that strike you as successful. You should try to capture the tone and style of these effective moments in your second draft.
  3. Write a one-sentence summary of each paragraph of your paper. This mini-exercise, which you can perform in the margins of your essay or on a separate sheet of paper, encourages you to take a bird’s-eye view of your argument’s structure. As you reread these summaries, look for sentences that stand out as repetitive, extraneous, or out-of-place. Similarly, ask yourself if there are any gaps in your paper. If your structure is strong, your one-sentence summaries should read as a coherent outline of your paper.
  4. Write a revision as a new word document. Using your old draft (which at this point should be covered with notes, corrections, and marginalia), begin your second draft on a blank document. This crucial part of the writing process ensures that your revision is a new occasion for writing and not a tweaked version of your first draft. As you write, consult your chain of one-sentence summaries and ask yourself whether they still reflect the paper you wish to write. If they do, consider incorporating these summaries as topic sentences (or elsewhere). If they don’t, then allow your new draft to break free of the old one. The beauty of a second (and third and fourth) draft is in the way it deviates from your initial efforts.
  5. Try to take pleasure in the process. Consider your revision as a chance to play with your ideas again and use them to build something new. Take comfort in the fact that writing, unlike many aspects of life, permits second chances.
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