Monday, July 9, 2012

Revision Techniques

"I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter."
- James Michener

As a writing center tutor, I’m often asked about revision techniques. I published a similar write-up on my university writing center’s tumblr page,, but figured it might be helpful if I share these tips on here as well. Although this blog post is geared toward high school and college papers, much of this advice also applies to those of you writing academic articles or fiction.

At some point, we have all stared at the blank hue of our Word documents for several hours, then typed for a few more hours until 1000 words finally materialized on our screens. After the first draft is complete, it’s time to start the revision process. As many of my professors have told me and various academic scholars remind us, revision is not editing. While editing is dissecting a piece of writing line by line to look for grammatical errors, revision is looking at the work as a whole and deleting, shifting, or adding entire paragraphs or sentences. Revision creates organization, which leads to a powerful argument. 

I am definitely guilty of looking at my paper, thinking “Hmm, maybe the word illustrates sounds better than the word shows,” or “I guess I should stop this paragraph here because I’ve already written seven sentences,” and considering this thought process revision. That was editing, not revision. With the help of my professors and through working at the writing center, I have discovered three revision strategies that students (myself included) find helpful: reading a paper or piece of writing out loud, looking at each paragraph and summarizing the paragraph’s main idea in one sentence, and finally, asking the so what? question.

Reading your writing out loud may seem embarrassing (most people don’t want to be that person who looks like she’s talking to herself), but it is the most useful revision technique I have come across through my work at the center. While this process usually helps with catching minor errors, it also reminds us of our argument/thesis, which often becomes a blur after staring at our writing for several days. Many students who are initially reluctant to read their papers out loud wind up saying, “Oops, I didn’t realize I left a word out” or “Wow, that sentence is way too long.” They also notice larger issues and will add, “Oh, I think I repeated myself in this sentence,” or “That sentence doesn’t really make sense so maybe I should rephrase it.” By the time they get through their papers, their essays are significantly better.
Another revision technique that I love (especially if your topic sentences need work) is breaking down each paragraph and summarizing it in one sentence. A lot of times students’ topic sentences don’t relate to what they discuss in particular paragraphs. After writing this one sentence summary ask yourself if a). It relates to your thesis and b). It looks like the topic sentence you have already written. If not, you need a new topic sentence!  For example, a student’s topic sentence may read, “Chaucer writes about a diverse group of people,” but the student’s one sentence summary may focus on how all of these characters have different goals during the pilgrimage how these goals affect the stories they tell. Thus, the introduction sentence should read something like, “The characters in the Canterbury Tales have distinct goals that affect the tales they share and thus, the reader’s interpretation of each character.” This introduction sentence is a lot more direct than the original and because of this, readers will know where the essay is heading.

My final favorite revision technique involves asking the so what? question. I first learned about this question from my freshman English professor and there is also an excellent write up about it on the page run by the Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, Basically, after each sentence a writer puts down he or she should ask, “How does this sentence support my overall argument?” and “Why does this sentence matter in this specific paragraph?”  For example, a student’s thesis may read, “Hamlet’s anger toward his mother, not Claudius, is what ultimately leads to his negative attitude toward adults.” Yet a sentence in the student’s paper may read, “Hamlet was also cruel to Ophelia.” The student should ask herself, so what? Does Hamlet’s cruel treatment of Ophelia relate to a thesis about Hamlet’s treatment of adults? No!

The so what? question also applies to quotes. Students often throw in quotes because they add length to their papers or sound good. But remember to ask, so what? and think, does this quote support my argument and how can I expand upon it to support my thesis?  As the UNC-Chapel Hill website suggests, the so what? question is especially important for conclusions, where the reader wants to know why he or she spent time reading an entire paper or piece of writing and how it relates to more worldly concerns.

Well, so what? Hopefully this post was helpful if you're stuck on the revision process and don't know how to go about it. Revision is an ongoing process; I cringe to use this phrase because it is a cliché, but it’s true. Every time I undertake a new paper or short story, I remind myself of these revision techniques. Changing the word important to significant might not make a difference, but there are other things we can do that will.

Let me know if you have any other revision suggestions, whether it is for revising student papers, journal articles, short stories, poetry, etc. I am always looking for new ideas to pass on at the writing center and to use when revising my work.

In my next post I'll discuss one of my favorite websites that is awesome if you're looking to improve your vocabulary and to change the world at the same time. If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe to my blog; I'd love to talk to some of my readers :]. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your comment! I love hearing from my readers :]