Higher Order Concerns for Revision
Regardless of writers’ levels of experience or areas of expertise, many struggle with revision, a component of the writing process that encompasses everything from transformative changes in content and argumentation to minor corrections in grammar and punctuation. Perhaps because revision involves so many forms of modification, it is the focus of most scientific writing guides and handbooks. Revision can be daunting; how does one progress from initial drafts (called “rough drafts” for good reason) to a polished piece of scholarly writing?
Developing a process for revision can help writers produce thoughtful, polished texts and grow their written communication skills. Consider, then, a systematic approach to revision, including strategies to employ at every step of the process.
A System for Approaching Revision
Generally, revision should be approached in a top-down manner by addressing higher-order concerns (HOCs) before moving on to lower-order concerns (LOCs). In writing studies, the term “higher order” is used to denote major or global issues such as thesis, argumentation, and organization, whereas “lower order” is used to denote minor or local issues such as grammar and mechanics. The more analytical work of revising HOCs often has ramifications for the entire piece. Perhaps in refining the argument, a writer will realize that the discussion section does not fully consider the study’s implications. Or, a writer will try a new organizational scheme and find that a paragraph no longer fits and should be cut. Such revisions may have far-reaching implications for the text.
Dedicating time to tweaking wording or correcting grammatical errors is unproductive if the sentence will be changed or deleted. Focusing on HOCs before LOCs allows writers to revise more effectively and efficiently.
Bearing in mind the general system of revising from HOCs to LOCs, you can employ several revision strategies.
- Begin by evaluating how your argument addresses your rhetorical situation—that is, the specific context surrounding your writing, including the audience, exigence, and constraints.
- For example, you may write an article describing a new treatment. If the target journal’s audience comes from a variety of disciplines, you may need to include substantial background explanation, consider the implications for practitioners and scholars in multiple fields, and define technical terms. By contrast, if you are addressing a highly specialized audience, you may be able to dispense with many of the background explanations and definitions because of your shared knowledge base. You may consider the implications only for specialists, as they are your primary audience. Because this sort of revision affects the entire text, beginning by analyzing your rhetorical situation is effective.
- Analyze your thesis or main argument for clarity.
- Evaluate the global organization of your text by writing a reverse outline. Unlike traditional outlines, which are written before drafting, reverse outlines reflect the content of written drafts.
- In a separate document or in your text’s margins, record the main idea of each paragraph. Then, consider whether the order of your ideas is logical. This method also will help you identify ideas that are out of place or digressive. You may also evaluate organization by printing the text and cutting it up so that each paragraph appears on a separate piece of paper. You may then easily reorder the paragraphs to test different organizational schemes.
Reverse outlines are a great way to see how your actual essay has deviated from your original outline, and also see if the "new" outline is rigorous with its thesis statements, topic sentences, and supporting details all tying in together.
Set your draft aside for a while (at least a day) so you can approach revision processes with a fresh mind. First, re-read your draft and consider the draft in the context of your purpose and audience. If the draft doesn’t “fit” your writing purpose or audience, you will need to do some major re-thinking and revision.
Then, still on the level of big ideas, consider your thesis and topic sentences to make sure they are thesis and topic sentences, and that they relate to one another. Ask and answer the following questions:
- As a reader, can I clearly identify a thesis and topic sentences?
- Do I actually have a thesis with a topic and an angle/argument/assertion about that topic?
- Do all of my topic sentences and their units of support also have topics and angles, and do my topic sentences relate
One method that may help you answer these questions is to annotate your draft and do a reverse outline. Annotation involves noting the main ideas in each section of the essay. Number your paragraphs in the essay. Then make a numbered list and write the main idea of each paragraph, in the order in which the ideas actually occur in your draft, and analyze your list. Questions to ask yourself when analyzing your reverse outline include:
- Are the ideas organized into categories or groups that make sense?
- Is the order of ideas (topic sentences and units of support) logical, given the thesis?
- Are there paragraphs that should be shifted to other locations, because they really relate to different topic sentences and units of support?
- Is there an overall introduction-body-conclusion structure?
- Does the introduction appropriately introduce the topic of the essay, interest a reader, and offer the main idea?
- Does the conclusion re-state the main idea?
The following video explains how to do a reverse outline:
Rachael Cayley’s blog entry on Reverse Outlines, mentioned at the end of the video, is a useful resource for information on doing “big” revisions.
The reverse outline mentioned above is also known as a post-draft outline. Guidance for how to complete one for an entire essay draft, as well as for an individual problematic paragraph, are found in this presentation.
Editing: Reverse Outline. Authored by: Academic Skills, The University of Melbourne. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube license.
Contributors and Attributions
- Adapted from Revising for Flow of Information. Authored by: Susan Oaks in College Writing. Provided by: Empire State College, SUNY OER Services. License: CC BY-NC
- Adapted from Writing for Success. Provided by: The Saylor Foundation. License: CC-NC-SA 3.0.
- Adapted from Higher Order Concerns for Writing in Guide to Writing. Provided by: Lumen Learning. License: CC-BY
This page most recently updated on June 5, 2020.