So you’ve realized that your paper maybe doesn’t fit the prompt as well as you imagined, or your professor suggests you need to rewrite some or most of your first draft. At the University Writing Center, we can help with this common writing situation, but here are a few tips to get you started on your own.
- Don’t think everything is “wrong.”
When you hear the phrase “substantial revision,” you might think you need to throw out all of your original paper and begin again. While this MIGHT be true (see tip #2), it probably isn’t. Perhaps your thesis statement didn’t reflect your ideas well, or your research skewed toward an interesting idea that unfortunately didn’t always fit with the prompt. However, if your ideas and thesis are solid, a “substantial revision” might mean rewriting a body paragraph or two in order to better support that thesis. Don’t think that everything you’ve already done is useless now!
2. Don’t be afraid of the blank Word document, again.
So you spent a week tweaking this paper, perfecting your word choice, refining your argument to a fine point, and your professor wrote Revise! in the margins. While you might be tempted to ignore their suggestion because of the amount of time and energy you poured into your work, this is commonly referred to as a Sunk Cost Fallacy, meaning that you shouldn’t compare the time you spent on a project that will not, in the end, work, against the time you would have to spend revising it. If your goals for the paper are to successfully navigate a writing assignment, don’t be afraid of the new document, or of reworking a major part of your paper. The time spent revising will pay off.
3. Ask for clarification.
If your professor suggests that you should substantially revise your paper, ask exactly what she means. Perhaps the ideas, research, and thesis are great, but you have some sentence structuring issues through the paper. Maybe one of the body paragraphs doesn’t support your thesis, but the rest of the paper reads well. Without clarification, you might spend time and energy changing things that don’t need changing, or actually be weakening your paper in the process.
4. Go back to the beginning.
What was your first thought when you received the assignment or prompt? How did your thought process progressing to your final paper draft? Were there points where you knew parts of your paper were less than stellar, but you continued working because of a deadline or other pressures? Or, were you rushing to finish the paper because of a time crunch? Many factors affect how college students write and edit their work, and being able to chart your working attitude with your writing can help you see where you might expand, improve, and revise.
5. Carry revision strategies into your next first draft.
I know, thinking about your next writing assignment while in the throes of a rewrite sounds ridiculous, but rewriting allows us to revisit our writing process and consider what we might improve on for the future. Do you spend too much time on sentence level revisions and ignore the larger flow of your paragraphs? Do you find yourself distracted from your thesis, leading to a muddled body section? Are your conclusions focusing too much on previously stated facts and not enough on connections and expansions? Rewriting is the time to look at your writing with fresher eyes than you would while editing a first draft, and you can and should think about the revising process as you begin brainstorming for your next assignment.
Peter Elbow wrote in Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process, Second Edition, “Don’t let yourself engage in taking the whole thing apart again for major revising even though your feelings say, ‘This thing must be completely done over, it’s worthless’” (174). He describes the nausea that sometimes accompanies the revising process, and even as a published and respected writer and professor, he feels the panicked revulsion at what he has written, and how he thinks he should change his writing. So you aren’t alone if the revision process seems overwhelming! At the University Writing Center, we enjoy working with writers at every phase of their writing process, and hope you will come in with a revision (or anything else) soon!