Revision is not the process of reading through your paper strengthening your sentences (which is really editing) or looking for errors right before you turn it in (which is really proofreading). Instead, revision focuses on meaning-making.
Think about the word for a moment: re-vision. It literally means “see again.” To be able to revise well, you need to be willing and able to rethink what you’ve written. It is one of the most crucial parts of your writing process. Good writers are good revisers, and revising at this level can make the biggest difference in whether or not your project succeeds.
Global revision involves looking at big-ticket items, like your thesis and organization. At this stage, you should also examine how well your draft project meets the assignment. The strategies in this chapter are designed to get you thinking about any large changes that your project may need to be successful, and so these should be done early in your revision process.
First, some general advice:
- Give yourself TIME, TIME, TIME.
- Give yourself at least 24 hours away from your writing. The more time away from your text, the easier it will be for you to see it as a reader would.
- For long, complex projects, try to start revising a week (or more) before the project is due.
- Get feedback.
- A set of eyes outside of your own can tell you what’s working and what’s not working.
- Getting feedback can also be a good way to get time away from your text.
- Start with global revisions and then move to paragraph-level changes.
- Look first for aspects of your writing that could involve major changes to your final project, like your thesis and overall organization.
- Then check the focus, development, and coherence of your paragraphs (see the next chapter for more on these areas).
Remember that you are working to develop a writing process that works for you and the flexibility to change that process as your writing tasks change.In this chapter, I am providing a range of strategies—some that I recommend highly and others that I suggest you try to see if they work for you. You need to determine for yourself which strategies work best for you. The more you practice the useful ones, the better you’ll get at using them, and the stronger your writing will become.
Revision can be some of the most challenging work on a writing project, but it can also be some of the most rewarding. Personally, I find the initial drafting to be the most difficult phase, but revising is… well, I won’t say fun, but certainly more enjoyable. I really like seeing changes that improve my text and make it communicate what I want to communicate.
Prioritizing Your Revisions
After you have had some time away from your project, start your revision process by rereading the assignment in its entirety, paying particular attention to the project’s requirements.
Then, read your draft, as you go. At this stage, it can be helpful to print out your project if you can, even when the final version will be electronic. Looking at your text in a different medium can help you see things you might miss on screen.
On your first read-through, I recommend not making any changes beyond very small ones (like typos). Instead, make notes about changes you want to make.
It might be tempting to go through your paper looking for the easy changes: typos, grammatical problems, sentences that are worded strangely or don’t quite say what you mean.
However, there’s a problem with this approach. If you spend 15-20 minutes fixing these sentence-level problems in a paragraph, how likely are you to delete that paragraph, even if it turns out that the paragraph doesn’t fit your thesis? While some writers can, most students tend to write in an economic mode, so they usually are not willing to waste time that way.
Instead, put off sentence-level work until the content of your paper is solid. You’ll probably still make some sentence-level edits as you go, but don’t let those edits pull you away from content-level revision work.
Once you have given yourself a set of notes about changes to make to the draft, try prioritizing those revisions. Here are some guidelines as you make this list:
- Highest priority: Revisions that will help your project meet the assignment requirements. If your project doesn’t meet the requirements, it’s unlikely to be successful, no matter what else you do. Revisions of this caliber could include adding another point to meet a length requirement, changing or adding sources, and revising a thesis to match the purpose of the assignment.
- Second priority: Thesis changes. While sometimes you need to change your thesis so that it better fits the assignment (making it a first priority), other times you may find that the thesis you originally wrote is not exactly what you want to claim any more. You might change your mind completely, which would definitely require major revision work; however, it’s more likely that you have learned something in the process of writing your first draft that could help make your paper stronger. Since your thesis guides your whole paper, you will want to start there.
- Third priority: Major additions or deletions. Since you produced your draft, you may have determined that you missed a point you would like to explain or that you have included something that doesn’t belong. Changes like this may also affect your thesis, but not necessarily.
- Fourth priority: Large organizational revisions. Changes to the structure of your project can make your text more effective, but they can also require you to adjust your transitions between paragraphs and to rethink the order of the ideas inside paragraphs so that your reader can follow your points. Changes of this kind need to be considered if you are changing your thesis or making additions or deletions, but even if you aren’t, sometimes reorganizing your ideas can strengthen your claims.
Once you have your list, start tackling your revisions based on this priority order.
When you reread your work after some time away, you’ll see things that need changing. It can be helpful to create a bulleted list of the changes you want to make, prioritizing the big changes first. Your list might look something like this:
- Change thesis to match paper
- Split up paragraph 2
- Add evidence to paragraphs 3 and 4
- Redo conclusion
- Check citations
- Fix commas
Then, as you make the changes, you can cross them out.
Read through a project that is ready for revision at least twice, making notes about changes you think you should make.
Turn those notes into a list.
Then, using the guide above, prioritize those changes.
Deleting: A Strategy to Clear Away Extraneous Material
All of us write junk sometimes. Junk includes words, sentences, or even paragraphs that don’t really belong in the final project. Maybe you were trying to meet a length requirement, or maybe you made a point that no longer seems relevant.
If something doesn’t fit when you are reading it in the revision phase, cut it out.
This can be difficult. Students usually don’t like seeing their word count drop, particularly when they feel like they have put so much effort in. I get it. But those 200 words that don’t really fit your argument aren’t going to help it succeed. Your professor will recognize them as junk, and your project will be better for deleting them and replacing them with 200 words that actually contribute to your point.
Using a project that you are revising, read your draft with an eye for what doesn’t belong and delete that material.
As you are deleting, help yourself make effective revisions by doing the following:
- Leave notes for yourself about the content you plan to add in place of the text you’re deleting. For instance, if you need to replace an example that isn’t working with a better one, make a note about any ideas you have for the replacement example.
- If you aren’t sure what to add, be sure to talk with your peers, a writing tutor, and/or your professor.
Deleting text doesn’t have to mean that your words are gone for good. There are ways of “deleting” that will let you hang onto those words in case you change your mind later.
- Save your document under a new name. For example, when I’m revising a document, I often keep the same name but add “-R1” or “-R2” to indicate which revision I’m working on. Then, when you delete, you are deleting on a copy instead of the original.
- Try highlighting that text in black so that you can’t see the actual words. Then, when you reread the text, you can see whether it makes sense to remove that material.
- Cut and paste larger deletions (like whole paragraphs) into a new document. You can save this document separately so that you don’t lose the text.
- If you are working with paper and pen, cross out the parts that need to be deleted.
Creating a Topic Sentence Outline: A Strategy to Strengthen Structure
Your is a summary of your paper, and your are summaries of your body paragraphs. In academic writing, your reader should be able to get the gist of your paper from reading just those parts.
Do the following activity to create a topic sentence outline (also called a reverse outline) and to review that outline, ideally with a partner. Once you have completed this review, make notes to yourself about the changes you believe are necessary.
This activity works best with a partner who is familiar with the assignment but who is not particularly familiar with your paper. You can ask someone who doesn’t know the assignment to help with this, but be sure to give them the assignment, too.
Step 1: Create the Outline (done by you)
- Copy your thesis statement from your introduction into a new document.
- Skipping lines between sentences, copy the topic sentence from each body paragraph into the same document. If you cannot find a topic sentence in a paragraph, create one or at least some kind of statement about the focus of that paragraph. Every body paragraph in your paper should have a sentence in this outline.
- Copy your restated thesis from your conclusion to the bottom of that same document.
Step 2: Review the Outline (done by your partner)
Ideally, swap with a partner to do the following steps. The instructions are written for that partner, but you can do this for yourself.
- Read the thesis statement, and check the assignment. Does the thesis statement meet the purpose of the assignment?
- Place the answer to this question on the line after the thesis statement in a different color font.
- If you think changes need to be made to the thesis statement so that it meets the assignment, suggest those changes here, too.
- For each topic sentence, create a color-coded match to the thesis statement to identify the part of the thesis statement that each topic sentence is addressing:
- Each in a different color, highlight the parts of the thesis statement that you expect to see explained in more detail in the paper.
- Highlight each topic sentence in the color that corresponds to that part of the thesis statement. Note: You might have more than one topic sentence that needs to be the same color. It is also possible to have topic sentences that refer to multiple parts of the thesis. Both of these situations are not necessarily problems.
- If there are any topic sentences that do not have a counterpart in the thesis statement, do not color them, but give the author at least one suggestion about how to revise. Remember that one possible option is to delete the paragraph attached to that topic sentence.
- Compare the first and last versions of the thesis statement. Are there any substantial differences between them? If so, make a note of those differences after the restated thesis at the bottom.
- Look over the outline, including both versions of the thesis statement, and try rewriting the thesis statement in your own words at the bottom of the page. Do this in a different font/color so that the author knows this one is yours.
Step 3: Evaluate the Results (done by you)
Read through the responses you have received, paying particular attention to the following:
- Does your current thesis statement match the assignment? If not, make notes about how to revise it.
- Does your current thesis statement match the order of the paragraphs in your paper? If not, make notes about rearranging either the points in the thesis statement or the paragraphs in the paper.
- Do you have any paragraphs with topic sentences that aren’t clearly connected to your thesis statement? If so, check to see whether these should be deleted or whether the topic sentence should be revised so that the connection is clearer.
- Look at any comments about your restated thesis from your conclusions. Make notes about any changes you want to make based on the feedback on that sentence.
- Does the thesis statement written by your partner match your main idea in the paper?
- If so, consider whether any of the ideas in that revised thesis statement could be incorporated into your existing thesis statement.
- If not, make notes about what isn’t accurate and whether there are ways you could adjust your thesis to make your point clearer for your reader.
And then, of course, work on making these changes!
Reordering Your Paper: A Strategy to Strengthen Organization
Sometimes, it helps to pull your paper apart and get another opinion about how to put it back together. It can be easy to get stuck in the organization that we originally devise for a project, but that order is not necessarily the best or only option. This strategy is intended to give you feedback specifically on the order you have created.
As with the previous strategy, this activity works best when you work with a partner. Unlike the last one, though, knowing the assignment is not crucial, so readers who aren’t familiar with the assignment can be helpful here.
For this strategy, I encourage students to use a physical copy of their paper. Print it out, and use scissors and tape. Even for writers who work well on screen, this strategy can help you see your paper as building blocks that don’t necessarily go in the order you originally thought.
Step 1A: Prepare Your Draft (print version; scissors and tape needed; done by you)
- Print out a clean (no annotations or comments), single-sided copy of your paper.
- Cut your paper apart into paragraphs.
- Cut off your heading and title from the beginning and your Works Cited or References list from the end of your paper.
- Cut off any headers and page numbers.
- If a paragraph runs across a page break, tape the parts of the paragraph together.
- Mix up your paragraphs and stack them up so that you have a pile of paragraphs in a random order.
Step 1B: Prepare Your Draft (electronic version; done by you)
- Save a copy of your paper under another name so that you have the original version intact.
- Delete your header, your title, and your Works Cited or References list.
- Rearrange the order of the paragraphs, including the introduction and conclusion. The point is to mix them up so the entire essay is a jumble of paragraphs.
Step 2: Organize the Pile O’Paragraphs (done by your partner)
- Put the paragraphs in an order that makes sense to you.
- Don’t worry about being “right.” Instead, think about the logic of the paper as a whole. As a reader, what do you expect to read first, second, etc.?
- Check paragraphs that are a full page long or more. If you see a paragraph that seems too long, see if you can find a place to split that paragraph. If you do, either cut the paragraph apart (print) or and add a paragraph break (electronic). In a comment or note right at that paragraph break, make any suggestions you have for transitions that would help a reader understand how these parts are related.
- Make connections among short paragraphs that seem to belong together. If you see paragraphs that are too short and that belong together (or that belong with another longer paragraph), tape those pieces together (print) or put them together in a paragraph (electronic) in the order you think the ideas should appear. In a comment or note where you joined the paragraphs, make any suggestions for helping the blended paragraph hold together well, including any additions or deletions you think are needed.
- Make suggestions for short paragraphs that don’t connect. If you see a short paragraph that doesn’t belong with another paragraph but that you think is important enough to keep, make suggestions for developing the paragraph more fully. You should still place that paragraph where you think it belongs logically.
- Point out junk. If you see a paragraph that you think doesn’t belong, make a note of that and why you think it shouldn’t be in the paper. Put this paragraph at the bottom of the pile (print) or leave that paragraph at the very end with some spaces between it and the rest of the paper (electronic).
- Feel free to leave your partner other notes, but keep the focus on the organization.
- Once you have an order that you think works, number the paragraphs (print) or save the file (electronic), and return the version with your organization to your partner.
Part 3: Review the Organization (done by you)
- Compare the order in which you received the paper from your partner with the order it was in before you jumbled it. Make note of any differences and whether or not you like the changes.
- Ask your partner about any of their decisions that you want to understand better.
- Write up notes on what, if anything, you are going to change based on this feedback.
This strategy is designed to help you determine whether you are providing your reader with enough and enough to make your case. While much of the actual work needs to be done in your body paragraphs (and so we’ll talk about that in the next chapter), it can be helpful to know if your paper as a whole is out of balance.
Keep in mind that most college-level academic papers include between 25% and 50% evidence. These percentages are rough and will depend on the type of assignment you have. For example, summaries will have a much higher percentage of evidence.
Unlike some of the activities, I’ve suggested, this one tends to work better if you do it yourself. This is because you know best which sentences (or parts of sentences) are your ideas and which are coming from sources.
Part 1: Highlighting
Using the highlighting feature in your word processor or actual highlighters on print versions, do the following:
- Highlight or otherwise mark all the supporting evidence in the body of your paper in one color. For the purposes of this analysis, ignore your introduction and conclusion.
- From textual sources, this would include quotations and paraphrases, facts, examples, and background information. Include the attributive tags and citations in these highlights.
- You can also do this with evidence from personal experience and observations or data that you have personally collected. These would be considered evidence in projects that don’t rely heavily on published sources.
- Using a different color, highlight or otherwise mark differently all of the explanations of that evidence that you have provided. This material should all be coming from your own ideas. Note: You may have sentences that are part evidence and part explanation. That is perfectly fine.
- Be sure that you have highlighted every sentence in the body of your paper.
Part 2: Analyzing Your Balance
- Determine the rough percentage.
- You can eyeball this by scrolling out the view on your screen so that you can see all of the pages in your project.
- If you are working on a print version, you can lay out all of the pages side-by-side.
- If you’d like to be more precise, you can count up the number of lines of text in your paper and then the number of lines of each color (though this probably isn’t necessary and could be a waste of time).
- If the percentage is weighted too heavily in favor of either evidence or explanation, make notes about what you might alter to bring the project closer to where you want it, keeping these notes handy when you shift to paragraph-level revisions.
- If there are particular paragraphs that may be too heavy in one or the other, make note to examine those paragraphs in more detail when you are revising paragraphs. Keep in mind that sometimes you will need paragraphs that are heavily weighted in one direction or the other, so specific paragraphs may not be a problem, as long as the overall balance is what you want.
- Strong global revisions can make the biggest difference in the success of your project.
- Global revision focuses on big-ticket items like your thesis, organization, and overall development. This is also a good moment to make sure that your project meets the assignment requirements.
- A good starting point is to read over your draft and make notes about changes you think would improve your work. Once you have those notes, turn them into a list, and prioritize them so that you are working on the biggest changes first.
- When you revise at the global level, you want to check the following areas (activity suggestions above):
- Delete any material that isn’t contributing to your point or to the purpose of the assignment.
- Make sure that cover all of the topics in your thesis statement and that you do so in an order that matches your thesis statement.
- Make sure that the order of ideas in your paper is clear and logical.
- Make sure that your evidence and your explanations are balanced appropriately for the type of paper you are writing.
The introduction to this chapter, “Prioritizing Your Revisions,” and “Deleting: A Strategy to Clear Away Extraneous Material” were revised with the help of Tia Lidonde and Joseph Payne, students in my class during Spring 2022.
Make notes on or otherwise mark up a text.
The controlling idea for an academic text, though some other kinds of texts may have such a statement, too. See also "working thesis statement."
A sentence that summarizes the main point of a paragraph.
Material from sources other than yourself and your own experiences, as distinct from explanation, which is where you explain your own ideas (including your understanding of your sources). See also "explanation."
Material in which you explain your ideas, as distinct from evidence, which is material from outside sources. See also "evidence."
Developed writing provides the reader with enough evidence and enough explanation to support the claim that the writer is making. This term applies to both full projects and to individual paragraphs.