University Learning Center

Approaches to Revision

Why and How To Revise

Those of us who compose on a computer know that revision is an ongoing, constant process. Every time you hit the delete button, every time you cut and paste, every time you take out a comma or exchange one word for another, you're revising.

But thorough revision (which literally means "to see again") is more than making a few changes here and there. Thorough revision requires that you open yourself up to the possibility that parts of your paper -- even your entire paper -- might need to be re-imagined, and perhaps re-written.

Revising your paper can be difficult. First, you might be very attached to what you've written. You may be unwilling to change a word, let alone three or four paragraphs. Second, there is the matter of time: you sense that the paper needs major work, but it's due tomorrow, or you have an exam in physics, or you're coming down with a cold and know that you need to sleep. Third, you may have difficulty understanding what, exactly, is wrong with your paper. Finally, you might simply be sick and tired of your paper. How can you give it another go-through when exhaustion has you in its grip? Why should you be bothered with (or overwhelmed by) the process of revising?

Of course, we might convince you that revision is worth the extra effort simply by saying that revising a paper will help you to achieve a better grade. A reader can tell when a piece of writing has been thoroughly considered and re-considered. This "consideration" (and here we mean the word in both of its meanings) is not lost on your professor and will be rewarded.

But more important than grades is that revising your papers teaches you to be a better writer and communicator. Studies have shown again and again that the best way to learn to write is to rewrite. In the revision process, you improve your reading skills and your analytical skills. You learn to challenge your own ideas, deepening and strengthening your argument. You learn to find the weaknesses in your writing. You may even discover patterns of error or habits of organization that are undermining your papers. Though revising takes time and energy, it also helps you to become a more efficient writer.

Perhaps we've answered the question "Why should I revise?" The next question, of course, is "How?" There are many different kinds of revising:

Global Revision

This kind of revision involves looking at the entire paper for places where your thinking seems to go awry: development, organization, audience appropriateness, etc. You might need to refine your thesis, provide evidence, define terms, or add an entirely new step to your reasoning. You might even decide to restructure or rewrite your paper completely if you discover a new idea that intrigues you, or a structure that seems to be more effective than the one you've been using.

Local Revision

Local revision is the process of finding minor problems within a text -- problems that might easily be fixed by deleting a word or sentence, cutting and pasting a paragraph, and so on. When you do this kind of revision, you are considering your reader. You might be happy with how you've written your paper, but will your reader find your paper clear, readable, interesting? How can you rewrite the paper so that it is clearer, more concise, and, most importantly, a pleasure to read?

Proofreading or Editing

When you proofread you are looking for mistakes in your paper. Common mistakes caught in proofreading are punctuation errors, spelling errors, subject-verb agreement, its/it's confusion, their/there confusion, and so on. When you proofread, you need to slow down your reading, allowing your eye to focus on every word, every phrase of your paper. Reading aloud can help you slow down, pointing your attention to errors that have gone unseen. Also, use the spell-check and grammar-check on your word-processing program. Professors are less forgiving of spelling errors, typos and grammar errors than they were before the invention of these very helpful tools. But, don't rely on spell check and grammar check alone -- these tools often miss common mistakes that your teacher won't miss!

The very best writers will revise in all the ways listed here. To manage these various levels of revision, it's very important that you get an early start on your papers so that you have time to make any substantive, large-scale revisions that your paper might need. Good writers also understand that revision is an ongoing process, not necessarily something that you do only after your first draft is complete. You might find, for example, that you are stuck halfway through the first draft of your paper. You decide to take a look at what you have so far. As you read, you find that you've neglected to make a point that is essential to the success of your argument. You revise what you've written, making that point clear. In the end, you find that your block is gone. Why? Maybe it's gone because what was blocking you in the first place was a hole in your argument. Or maybe it's gone because you gave your brain a break. In any case, stopping to revise in the middle of the drafting process often proves wise.


Developing Objectivity

We've yet to address the matter of how a writer knows what she should revise. Developing a critical eye is perhaps the most difficult part of the revision process. But having a critical eye makes you a better writer, reader, and thinker. So it's worth considering carefully how you might learn to see your own work with the objectivity essential to successful self-criticism.

The first step in gaining objectivity is to get some distance from your work. If you've planned your writing process well, you'll have left yourself a day or two to take a break from your work. If you don't have this luxury, even an hour or two away from your draft might be enough to clear your head. Many writers find that their mind keeps working on their papers even while their attention is turned elsewhere. When they return to their work, they bring with them a fresh perspective. They also bring a more open, more detached mind.

When you return to your paper, the first thing that you'll want to do is to consider whether or not the paper as a whole meets your (and your professor's) expectations. Read the paper through without stopping (don't get hung up on details). Then ask yourself these questions:

  • Did I fulfill the assignment? If the professor gave you instructions for this assignment, reread them and then ask yourself whether or not you addressed all of the matters you were expected to address.
  • Does your paper stray from the assignment? If it does, have you worked to make your argument relevant, or are you coming out of left field?
  • If the professor hasn't given you explicit instructions for this paper, you'll still want to take a moment to consider what the professor expects. What are the main ideas of the course? What books has the professor asked you to read? What position do they take as regards your topic?
  • Has the professor emphasized a certain method of scholarship? Has she said anything to you about research methods in her discipline?
  • Does your paper seem to fit into the conversation that the professor has been carrying on in class?
  • Have you written something that other students would find relevant and interesting?

Did I say what I intended to say? This is perhaps the most difficult question you will ask yourself in the revision process. Many of us think that we have indeed said what we intended to say. When we read our papers, we are able to fill in any holes that might exist in our arguments with the information that we have in our minds. The problem is that our readers sometimes don't have this information in mind. They fall into the holes of our arguments, and they can't get out. It's very important, therefore, to think carefully about what you have said -- and to think just as carefully about what you haven't said. Ask yourself:

  • Was I clear?
  • Do I need to define my terms?
  • Has every stage of the argument been articulated clearly?
  • Have I made adequate transitions between my ideas?
  • Is my logic solid? Is it there, for all to see?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, you will want to revise your draft.

What are the strengths of my paper? In order to develop a critical eye, it's just as important to know when you've written well as it is to know when you've written poorly. It helps, therefore, to make a list of what you think you've done well in your draft. It's also helpful to pick out your favorite or strongest paragraph. When you've found a good paragraph, or sentence, or idea, think about why it's good. You'll not only be gaining an understanding of what it means to write well, you'll also be giving yourself a pat on the back -- something that's very important to do in the revision process.

What are the weaknesses of my paper? Looking for weaknesses isn't as fun as looking for strengths, but it's necessary to the revision process. Again, try to make a list of what you haven't done well in this paper. Your list should be as specific as you can make it. Instead of writing, "Problems with paragraphs," you might say "Problems with unity in my paragraphs," or even more specific, "Problems with the transitions between paragraphs 3 & 4 and 12 & 13." Also force yourself to determine which paragraph (or sentence) you like least in the paper. Figure out why you don't like it, and work to make it better. Then go back through your paper and look for others like it.


Tips for Revision

In addition to the advice given above, we'd like to offer the following tips for revising your paper.

We've said it before, but it's worth repeating: give yourself adequate time to revise. If you don't start your paper until the night before it's due, you won't be able to revise. If you have a short paper due on Friday, finish your first draft no later than Wednesday so that you have Thursday night to revise. If you are working on a long paper, of course you'll want to set aside more time for revising.

Read your paper out loud. Sometimes you can hear mistakes that you don't see. Reading aloud will signal to you when something doesn't make sense, when sentences go on for too long, when punctuation has gone awry, and so on.

Get a second reader. It's often difficult to figure out what's gone wrong in your own paper. This is why getting a second reader is the smartest thing you can do as a writer. A second reader can do a lot for you: she can tell you where she got bored, or confused, or offended, and she can give you advice for improving your work. Remember, though: when you ask someone to read your work, you should be prepared for any criticism they might make. Don't be defensive; instead, try to figure out why your reader feels as he does about your paper. Of course, you don't have to follow every suggestion that your reader makes, but you will certainly profit from his comments and questions, even if you do decide to ignore his advice in the end.

See a Writing Tutor at the University Learning Center. Technically, this falls in the category of "getting a second reader." But at the University Learning Center, you get a reader with a difference: that reader has been trained to diagnose and respond to the problems in your work. Our tutors not only help you to write a better paper, they also ask questions aimed at helping you to develop your own critical eye.


-- Revised by Will Wilkinson