Getting Started with Revising

Adam Robinson, Associate Director

With a week left to go in the semester, I imagine that many of you are finishing up final revisions.  I have some advice about how you might start the revision process.

AdamFirst, I recommend that you think about revising and editing as two different processes.  Revising is connected to rethinking your argument, reorganizing parts of your paper, rewriting paragraphs, adding new sources, taking out paragraphs that don’t seem to fit in the paper.  Editing focuses more on proofreading your grammar and punctuation errors, checking your citations, rephrasing sentences that may confuse readers.  Revising and editing are equally important, but as you probably know through experience, revision takes a lot more time.

It’s useful to make this distinction between revising and editing for a few reasons, but one in particular comes to mind.  If your professor asks you to revise, then you know based on the distinction you have made between revising and editing, that she or he wants you to make some significant changes to your paper—to restate your thesis—to rewrite a section of the paper—to add new sources that strengthen your argument.  Your professor does want you to edit your work too—but editing doesn’t do the work of revision.

Okay…so you have in your mind the differences between the two.  What next?

I’d reread your paper.  Odds are you haven’t read your paper in a while, so it’s very likely you will have a new perspective when you do so.  Hopefully, you’ll notice places where you can add more analysis or you’ll notice a paragraph doesn’t have as much substance or insight as some of the others in your paper.   Hopefully, you’ll notice some parts of your paper you really like too.  You may decide to focus your revision on what you feel you are doing well.  That’s an important thing to note.  Oftentimes, a writer will view the “good parts” of her or his paper as the parts that can be left alone when revising and editing.  But sometimes the opposite should happen.  Sometimes the best section of a paper needs to be more than a section of the paper—it needs to be the whole paper!   The big point here is that a big part of revision has little to do with actual writing—thinking or rethinking is equally important.

After you’ve reread the paper and started to come up with things to work on, check again on what you were asked to do with the assignment.  This starts with taking another look at the assignment sheet as it usually will have some clues about how you can approach your revision.  Not only do assignment sheets have lists of requirements (this many sources, this many pages, etc.), but often they have insight into why your professor asked you to do the assignment to begin with.  This seems obvious I know, but it’s easy to miss assignment details when you write your first draft.  Writers are often just eager to get thoughts down on the page with early drafts, so details can get skimmed over.

Look at professor comments if you have them.  Read those comments as soon as possible to be sure you understand what you’re professor has written—you may need clarification.   And I recommend drawing a diagram—or some kind of chart—where you organize the comments your professor gave you.  What comments ask you to revise?  What comments ask you to edit?  If you take anything away from reading this blog, it may be the following the point: Be sure to address those revision comments.  It’s easy to fix commas and misspelled words (the editing stuff)—it’s harder, for example, to strengthen your paper by reworking your introduction so it frames your paper more effectively or by rewriting a paragraph so it connects better to your argument.

Finally, this comment relates to any paper that requires you to use sources or requires you to analyze a book, film, etc.—which is a lot of papers in college.  Before you go and track down more sources, go back to the sources you already have.  For example, you may be citing a scholarly source or analyzing a novel.  Scholarly sources and novels can be pretty dense; you usually need to read them more than once to really get everything the writer is trying to say.  So rereading all or part of that source again may allow you to draw on some more material.  And also go back to your paper, to the places where you use sources.  Are you getting everything you can out of the source?  When you quote, do you take time to discuss the quote and really flesh out for the reader what you see when you read the quote?  Basically, what I mean to get across here is that you may have all the material you need right in front of you.  Or you may not!  You may need to read some more.  You may need to change the direction of your paper.  But at least doing some of this preliminary work can help you figure out what you will need to do to successfully revise.

Before I end this blog, I have to credit Alex Clifton (a consultant in the University Writing Center) who  created a wonderful handout about revision strategies.  Check out Alex’s handout, along with all of our other newly revised handouts, all of which, are located on our new website.

Good luck revising!


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