Rhetoric and Composition/Revising
- 1 Overview of Revising
- 2 Differences Between Revising, Editing, and Proofreading
- 3 A Change for the Better
- 4 Analyze Each Part of Your Paper
- 5 Before and After Revision Examples
- 6 External Links
Overview of Revising
Successful writers understand that revising is an integral part of the writing process. It is so important that most authors spend the majority of their time revising their texts. That revising is a time-consuming and learned skill surprises many beginning writers because they often describe revision as changing particular words in a sentence or scanning a text for misspelled words or grammatical errors. Such changes correspond more appropriately to the term editing. To revise, however, is to significantly alter a piece of writing. While editing can be a part of this process, revising generally involves changes that concern bigger issues, such as content and organization. Alternately, while revising, a writer might notice that an idea needs to be developed more thoroughly, another omitted. Or, the writer might decide that rearranging paragraphs will provide clarity and support for his or her argument, strengthening the paper as a whole. Granted, writers will also change grammar and punctuation while revising, but if that is all they are doing then they are really just editing.
This chapter is meant to provide sound advice about the revising process.
Differences Between Revising, Editing, and Proofreading
It is important to note that revising, editing, and proofreading are very different processes. Despite the differences, however, they often overlap. They are being separated here for ease of explanation.
- Revising is done throughout the writing process, with special emphasis on the first few drafts.
- Focus = big issues
- Editing is done throughout the writing process, with special emphasis on the middle and final drafts.
- Focus = technical issues
- Word choice
- Proofreading is reserved for the final draft.
- Focus = mechanics and presentation
- Typographical errors
- Textual inconsistencies
A Change for the Better
Writing is an intellectually challenging, and draining, activity -- writing well, that is. Putting ideas on paper is a good start, but revising those ideas so that they are persuasive, cogent, and form a solid argument is the real work of writing. As you review what you have written, you will undoubtedly see holes in your logic, sentences that confuse rather than clarify, and sentences and paragraphs out of place. Below are some helpful hints to consider as you analyze and transform your paper.
- Take a break. Looking at your paper later will help you see it from the point of view of the audience. A good rule of thumb is to wait at least a day before revising. Often, writers look at their prose a day later and recognize significant flaws they would not have noticed had they written their paper in one night.
- Be your own critic. You are obviously your own best critic. When writing, most people do not (and should not) turn in their first drafts. So take advantage of your first, second, and third drafts to write your opinions in the margins. Highlight the things you really like, and circle the things you would like to change.
- Read and re-read your paper. In the first read-through consider the overall purpose of the paper and whether it is expressed clearly. In the second read-through analyze organization, logical development, and correctness. Often, reading your text aloud reveals awkward phrasing, missing information, weak points, and illogical reasoning.
- Put yourself in the shoes of your reader. Look at your work through their eyes. Keep in mind that, while you may know something about a topic and write about it with supported research, your audience may be new to the topic. Being specific in your writing helps clarify your message to audiences. Do not assume that your audience already knows what you know.
- Cut unnecessary words. Inexperienced writers should be able to cut 20 percent (or more) of their prose. Look hard at each word, each phrase, and each sentence. Does each and every one help you achieve your purpose? Does each sentence in a paragraph relate to the main idea? If you are like most people, you will find unnecessary repetition rampant in your writing. Pruning the verbiage will result in leaner, tighter, and more forceful writing. Remember E.B. White's mantra: "Omit needless words. Omit needless words. Omit needless words."
- Understand that revising your paper should not be the last thing you do -- revision should be ongoing throughout the creation of a document.
After doing all this by yourself, seek help from others. First, find an individual who knows about the assignment, your intended audience, and the purpose of the essay. Then, share it with someone who fits the description of the audience for whom the document is intended. Ask your readers if everything is clear and easily understood, if phrases are worded correctly, if the document is logically sound, etc. If you have other specific concerns -- Is the second example effective? Does my conclusion resolve the paper nicely? -- ask your readers to direct their attention to those issues.
After your have written your paper, return to the beginning to see how the end relates to the beginning. Have you maintained the same tone and main idea throughout? Does the ending reiterate your main idea without just summarizing what you've already said?
It is also oftentimes helpful to have someone read your paper aloud to you. This will force you to go over the material more slowly and allow you another chance to absorb the content of the paper. When you read your own paper aloud you are more apt to read the paper as you intended it to be read, as opposed to reading what is actually on the page.
After going through the steps above and making changes as necessary, you should feel your paper is nearly complete. The content should be in place, and your text should make your case clearly and forcefully. If you feel this is the case, you are ready to closely edit and proofread your text.
Analyze Each Part of Your Paper
When you look over the draft of your paper, the first thing you should focus on is your introduction. Whether it is one paragraph or an entire chapter, the purpose of the introduction is to grab your readers' attention and make them want to know more about your subject. Does it? Make sure you draw your readers in from the beginning and follow with relevant and interesting supportive information. If readers aren't intrigued from the very beginning of the piece, they will quickly become distracted or bored and avoid reading any further. Read your introduction to a friend and judge how compelling it is based on his or her reaction.
What is the difference between a good and a bad introduction? A bad introduction is misleading, rambling, incoherent, boring, or so hopelessly vague that you know less about the topic than you did before you read it. On the other hand, a good introduction gets to the point, gives the reader a reason to keep on reading, and sets the stage for a really exciting performance. An introduction is like a first impression; it is crucial to your image and, once presented, you never get a second opportunity. Your essay's introduction is your reader's first impression of your ability as a writer. Even if you are brilliant and have great ideas, a muddy or boring introduction will turn away many of your readers.
Make sure that you don't beat around the bush in your intro. If you have tedious openers such as "in today's society" or openers that merely relay what the assignment is, change it so that it instead states your argument up front and presents a clear thesis right away, then subtly describe your paper's overall structure. Try summarizing every paragraph into one sentence each, then put them all together to see if your introduction covers each point. Your introduction should state the issue at hand, establish your position regarding it, describe your paper's organization, and identify the scope of your coverage. Let's take each of these in turn.
Next, make sure you have a clear thesis. Simply put, a thesis is your main point, the line of argument that you are pursuing in your essay. It should answer two simple questions: What issue are you writing about, and what is your position on it? A thesis statement is a single sentence (or sometimes two, which are combined using a semicolon or comma and conjunction) that provides the answers to these questions clearly and concisely. Ask yourself, "What is my paper about, exactly?" to help you develop a precise and directed thesis, not only for your reader, but for you as well.
How can you be sure that your thesis is clear? Will your reader be able to identify it and see that the rest of your paper is supporting your argument? Most American readers expect to see the point of your argument (the thesis statement) within the first few paragraphs. This does not mean that you have to place it there every time. Some writers place it at the very end, slowly building up to it throughout their work, to explain a point after the fact. Others don't bother with one at all, but feel that their thesis is "implied" anyway.
Avoid the "implied thesis" unless you are certain of your audience. Almost every professor will expect to see a clearly discernible thesis sentence in the intro. Remember: The harder it is for you to write your thesis statement, the more likely it is that your entire essay is incoherent and unfocused. If you are having real problems crafting a good thesis statement, you may need to start over, narrow your topic, or dig even more deeply into what you are trying to say and write.
A good basic structure for a thesis statement is "they say, I say." What is the prevailing view, and how does your position differ from it?
Following are some typical thesis statements:
- Although many readers believe Romeo and Juliet to be a tale about the ill fate of two star-crossed lovers, it can also be read as an allegory concerning a playwright and his audience.
- The "War on Drugs" has not only failed to reduce the frequency of drug-related crimes in America, but actually enhanced the popular image of dope peddlers by romanticizing them as desperate rebels fighting for a cause.
- The bulk of modern copyright law was conceived in the age of commercial printing, long before the internet made it so easy for the public to compose and distribute its own texts. Therefore, these laws should be reviewed and revised to better accommodate modern readers and writers.
- The usual moral justification for capital punishment is that it deters crime by frightening would-be criminals. However, the statistics tell a different story.
- If students really want to improve their writing, they must read often, practice writing, and receive quality feedback from their peers.
- Plato's dialectical method has much to offer those of us engaged in online writing, which is far more conversational in nature than print.
Make sure that your reader knows your position on the issue. This should be properly expressed in your thesis, but check your entire introduction for "wishy washy" sentences. Unless you're only writing a summary, your introduction should make it clear how you feel about the issue at stake.
Avoid sentences or "thesis statements" such as the following:
- Abortion is a very controversial issue in America.
- Capital punishment is both good and bad.
- This paper will present the pros and cons of modern copyright law.
Are these examples stating an issue and taking a position, or merely stating what everyone knows already? Again, your reader should already know that the issue you're writing about is controversial, otherwise there would be little reason to write about it. Unless you've been instructed to merely write a report or summary of an issue, assume that your professor wants you to take a position and defend it with the best evidence you can muster.
Besides explaining what your paper is about and your argument, an introduction may also state what you will and won't cover. For instance, let's say your paper is about an issue affecting mothers infected with HIV. Your introduction should reflect this focus, rather than present your paper as a general overview of HIV. If your scope isn't clear, then readers will constantly wonder when you'll address the larger topic--or even assume you simply forgot to do it.
Let's say you wanted to write a paper that argued that Ford makes better cars than Chevrolet. However, your introduction didn't mention Chevrolet at all, but instead had the line: "Ford makes better cars than any other car manufacturer." Your reader would quickly begin to wonder why you're not talking about Toyota or Nissan! Try to anticipate what your reader will expect to see covered, and, if necessary, state it explicitly:
- Although my topic is capital punishment, I will focus on one aspect of that larger issue: the execution of convicts who are mentally ill.
- Although we interviewed over two hundred doctors in our study, we will discuss only three of them in detail here.
- In the following essay, I will be discussing only the first edition of Leaves of Grass, and my claims may or may not apply to Whitman's later editions.
As you build support for your thesis in the "body" paragraphs, always ask yourself if you are spending your readers' time wisely. Are you writing unnecessarily complex and confusing sentences, or using 50 words when 5 would do? If a sentence is already plain and direct, there's no need to fluff it up. Flowery words and phrases obscure your ideas: when writing, being concise is key. For example, why write, "Cats have a tendency toward sleeping most of the day" when you could simply write, "Cats usually sleep most of the day"? How about changing "The 12th day of the month of April" to "April 12th?" Try to pick out such sentences and substitute simpler ones.
But wait--don't you need to inflate your text so you can meet the minimum word count? Wouldn't it be better to use "due to the fact that" for "because" and "in addition to" for "and," since these phrases use far more words? Answer: NO. Any experienced reader will instantly see through such a pitiful scheme and will likely become irritated by the resulting "flabby" prose. If you are having trouble meeting the minimum word count, a far better solution is to add more examples, details, quotations, or perspectives. Go back to the planning and drafting stage and really ask yourself if you've written everything useful about a topic.
Other students worry that their sentences don't sound smart enough. Compare these two sentences:
- Do not ask what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.
- Do not submit a query concerning what assets and benefits your country can bestow upon you and yours, but rather inquire as to what tasks or activities you yourself can perform and carry out that will be useful for the citizens of your own country.
Although the second sentence is longer and harder to grasp, that doesn't make it more intelligent. In fact, it's far more impressive to write a complex thought in simple prose than vice versa.
How about your organization? From sentence-to-sentence, paragraph-to-paragraph, the ideas should flow into each other smoothly and without interruptions or delays. If someone tells you that your paper sounds "choppy" or "jumps around," you probably have a problem with organization and transitions.
Keep in mind that very few writers can write a well-organized paper in one draft. Instead, their first drafts are disorganized and even chaotic. It takes patience to sort through this mess, consolidating related ideas into coherent paragraphs and helping the reader to follow their train of thought without derailing. Compare:
- Proofreading is an important step in the writing process. Read your paper aloud to catch errors. Use spell check on your computer.
- Proofreading is an important step in the writing process. One technique is to read your paper aloud, which will help you catch errors you might overlook when reading silently. Another strategy is to use spell check on your computer.
The second example has better transitions between ideas and is easier to read. Note that the example with better transitions is also longer. Good transitions can improve your style and help you reach the minimum word count!
After all the work you have exerted on your paper, you want to end with a good conclusion. The conclusion and the introduction may be similar but may take several forms. Conclusions may be a simple restatement of your thesis to reestablish what the entire paper is about. They may also sum up your main points, reflect on the information presented, ask a thought-provoking question, or present a "call to action," telling your readers what you want them to do with the information you have presented. Often, this choice will be determined by the genre, audience, or purpose of your paper. Nevertheless, your conclusion should accurately reflect the paper's subject and provide the reader with closure.
Be sure not to end a paper with new ideas or a thesis you have not already dealt with in the paper.
Before and After Revision Examples
Example Before Revision
Example After Revision
With only a few changes made, notice how much nicer the Example After Revision reads than the Example Before Revision.
- The order of a few paragraphs was re-arranged. Notice how the focus changes perspective from the past to the present. It immediately centers and controls what the author wants the reader to "see" and sets the tone for the rest of the essay. Also, notice the way the author repeats the words "Pete and I" to keep the reader on track. Notice that the paragraph that was moved to the beginning provides a more solid introduction. It immediately tells the reader why the rest of the essay is relevant. The writer is considering getting married so it is a good time to talk about household chores. This puts the rest of the essay into context and helps orient the reader to what will be coming and why the author wrote the essay. The concluding paragraph was also rearranged and now offers a more accurate summary of the essay as a whole. The example before the revision had a concluding paragraph that veered off topic to deal with the idea of gender roles, which, although mentioned, is not the main idea.
- Punctuation was included inside of quotation marks rather than outside quotation marks. This makes for easier reading and tells your reader/professor that you are conscious of the proper technique when quoting, and keeps the clarity of the speaker consistent.
- "6" was changed to "six." Be aware of numbers in your writing. Generally, the rule is to spell out numbers one through nine and use numerals for numbers 10 or higher.
- Some material was added to the Example After Revision for clarity. When you believe something can be added or taken away to provide your reader with a better idea of your meaning or thought process, do so. Clarity is extremely important when writing a paper. If your reader becomes confused, this will damage the paper's effectiveness. Do your best to guide your reader, so there will be little to no re-reading and a grade to reflect this.
- 18 Revising Tips
- Revision Checklist
- Paradigm Online Writing Assistant
- Revision: From First to Final Draft