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In her book on writing called Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott celebrates “shitty first drafts.” She says, “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts” (21). Novelist Vladimir Nabokov once said, "I have rewritten–often several times–every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers."
For most writers, the process of writing and revision is the way we figure out exactly what we want to say. Writing helps us think. Revision can be one of the most important, instructive, and even pleasurable parts of the writing process. We respond to others’ critiques and questions and watch the work transform into something stronger, clearer, and more persuasive. It may seem like a paradox, but the better we get at writing, the more time we will probably spend revising.
Many people hear the words “critique” and “critical” and pick up only negative vibes. However, a critique can energize us and make us feel good about our writing. We can learn to be critical of ourselves in a constructive way and still feel good about ourselves as writers. Critiques don’t mean we’ve done something wrong. It’s better to see them as an opportunity to hear another perspective. Most well-regarded books include acknowledgments pages that thank all the people who gave feedback. The authors know that getting feedback and making changes is a normal part of producing the best possible work.
What Should We Prioritize in Revision?
By revision, we mean looking for ways to make ideas clearer and more convincing. When revising, we add, cut, move, or change whole sentences or paragraphs. Revising is far more than just editing; it is really a re-vision of an entire essay: ideas, organization, and development.
It’s most efficient to revise from “big” to “small.” That is, we focus first on ideas and organization before turning our attention to sentence-level clarity. If we separate out these two stages, we won’t waste time editing the grammar of sentences that we might later have to change or cut.
Once we feel like we’ve finished the content of the essay, we can move on to sentence-level editing. Then we take a second look at how we expressed our ideas. We add or change words; fix problems in grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure; and improve the writing style. The goal is to turn out a polished piece of writing we feel proud of.
Strategies for Getting Perspective
Often the intense process of writing a draft leaves us feeling unsure where to begin revising. We may be too immersed in what we have done to see what can be improved. Here are some revision strategies that writers use to get a fresh perspective on what they have written:
- Take a break. Set aside your writing for a few hours or even a day until you can look at it objectively.
- Print out a clean copy of the essay you plan to revise. Mark revision notes by hand and later use the printout to go back to the computer and make changes.
- Read your work aloud to yourself or a friend, or use a computer reader like NaturalReaders.com to listen to it. Often in listening, we notice more things that we skip over when reading.
- Ask a tutor or someone you trust for feedback and constructive criticism.
- Pretend you are one of your readers. Are you satisfied or dissatisfied? Why? Think of yourself as a translator whose job it is to translate your writing into clearer, more dynamic English.
- Use the tutoring resources that your college provides. Find out where your school’s writing lab is located and ask about the assistance they provide online and in person.
Four Ways to Approach Revision
Focus on the Connections between Ideas
One way to revise is to look at the structure of the essay and see if it is solid. We want to make sure all of our points are related to the main point—they unite to support the thesis. When a piece of writing has unity, all the ideas in each paragraph—and in the entire essay—clearly belong, and the reader can see how each idea relates to the one before it. We can achieve this through referring back, repeating key words and phrases, and using pointing and transition words. See 12.3: Showing How a New Idea Fits in and 12.4: Referring Back to Make the Connection.
Often when we are first trying to get something on paper, we may wander off topic, adding information that doesn’t develop the main idea. That’s fine, as long as we catch it and correct it in revision. We can check each paragraph to make sure it helps prove the thesis. Then we can make sure the sentences in the paragraph support the topic sentence. Have we addressed the important ideas and questions that will come to readers’ minds?
Don't be afraid to delete material if you realize it is off topic. Alternately, you might see if you can reframe that material so it more clearly connects to the thesis and the idea that came before it.
Focus on Balancing “They Say” and “I Say”
As we have seen in Chapter 4: Assessing the Strength of an Argument (Logos) and Chapter 5: Responding to an Argument:, many college essays require both a summary of another text and a response to that text. In such essays, we aim for a balance of summary and response, or “they say” and “I say.” If you have been told or suspect that you need more sources to back up your claims, or you need to give more of your own opinion, try this exercise:
Assess How Much “They Say” and “I Say” You Have:
- Take two different-colored highlighters.
- With your first highlighter color, highlight all the sentences in the body of the essay that summarize, paraphrase, or quote the ideas of your source text.
- Now, take out highlighter color two. Go through and mark those passages containing your opinions, viewpoints, unique ideas, or thoughts. Many students will find this color a bit underused, but others will notice too much color here if their essays lack source material.
- Take a moment to diagnose these disparate problems. Too much of one color means source overload—too much “they say” and not enough “I say.” Too much of the other color means empty opinion and guesswork—too much “I say,” not backed up by “they say.” Check your essay assignment to see if the teacher has given any guidance about how much of the essay should be “they say” and how much should be “I say.” Do you need to add more of one or the other?
Bring in More “I Say,” If Needed:
Take one of your sources and read yourself a few paragraphs. After each major thought or idea, free-write a response in your own words: don’t restate what the author says, respond honestly with your own opinionated, conversational response to what the source has just said. Pretend that you’re talking face-to-face with the author, replying naturally.
Once you feel you’ve got sufficient conversation/dialogue generated on paper, read your replies quietly to yourself, creating an actual conversation. Can you bring some of this “dialogue” into your essay? Strong essays should read like all the sources, including your analysis, are talking to each other.
Repeat with any other source texts.
Bring in More “They Say,” If Needed:
- Next, try the same with the highlighted source sections of your drafts. After each assessment or opinion you give, check to make sure it is linked with corresponding ideas from your source texts.
- Pretend the author of the texts are speaking back to you. What would they have to say about your claims? Comb through their work and try to find instances in which they agreed, disagreed, or complicated your read and consider weaving it into the text. If they offer a counter-argument then you might want to address it. If they reinforce your ideas, then you may have strengthened your ideas.
- Repeat with any other source texts.
Focus on the Thesis
- Find the essay’s thesis statement, the one-sentence version of the whole essay. (Some teachers may allow for two-sentence theses, but most commonly the thesis can be expressed in one sentence). If you cannot find it, read the whole essay, and craft one.
- Does your thesis consist of a clear claim? Will readers know what you mean after reading that sentence alone? Imagine reading it to a friend. Would you want to change anything so they could understand it better?
- Does the thesis include or at least touch on all the ideas developed in the essay? If not, you may need to revise it so it covers more.
- If the thesis is very general, consider ways to make it more specific. Whom does this apply to? When? Where? What are the claim’s implications? Look for generalizations, and replace them with specifics.
Focus on Developing the Ideas
If your ideas don’t feel fully developed or you’re struggling to fill the page requirement, one approach is to go through each sentence of each paragraph to see what you need to add. For each paragraph, determine whether all the ideas included are sufficiently explained.
- Are all terms defined for the reader?
- Has each point been explained in enough detail?
- Have you given an example, quotation, or other specific information to support each point that needs it?
- Is there anything you mention that might well leave readers confused or asking questions?
- Is it clear how the paragraph relates to the previous paragraph and the thesis?
Revise each under-developed paragraph to answer questions and provide a full picture for the reader. If a paragraph seems to be getting long, consider whether it includes more than one important point. Often a paragraph on one topic can be split into two paragraphs, each on a subtopic. The transition can show how they are related.
Lamott, Anne. “Shitty First Drafts.” Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Random House, 1994. Print.