The only reason to write a rough draft is to give you something to revise.
How to Revise a Paper
First things first:
- Not everything needs an intense process—some kinds of writing really are informal.
- Different writers revise differently, and the computer has really changed the way we work.
- You need to get your ego out of the loop. If you wrote a poor paper, that does not mean you are a terrible person—even if the topic was dear to your heart.
- Revision = re + vision = looking at the thing again. Simply running the spell checker is not revision.
There is no great writing, only great rewriting. —Justice Brandeis
Who is my audience? What am I trying to do to them?
If your answer is "anyone who is reading this paper," you are being lazy; you don't have an answer yet. You cannot really revise until you know your audience and your message.
If your answer is "my teacher" and "persuade the teacher to give me an A," that's a start. Ask yourself what sort of writing the teacher really respects.
If your answer is more focused, you have a better idea whether the draft is a success—and how to change it.
You will notice that the process below takes time. Most working writers think of a finished rough draft as the halfway point; if you are beginning the revision process an hour before the paper is due, you are already in trouble. My best advice is to run the spell checker, give it one good read for stupid errors, and promise yourself to do a better job next time.
Begin by letting the rough draft rest—overnight is ideal, but at least a few hours if you can. The idea is to approach the revision process with fresh eyes and brain.
Read through the draft and use the following list as a diagnostic. You should at least take a look at each item, but then decide where you want to enter the process.
- You should probably do these in order. It's useless to fix the spelling in a paragraph that is so off-topic that you will delete it later.
Where to enter the revision process?
- Basic direction of the piece.
- If this is a school assignment, reread the assignment. Ask yourself, in detail, whether you did what you were asked to do.
- If you were asked to do more than one thing, did you do all of them?
- Can you write a one-sentence summary of the paper? (Note: If you cannot do this, you probably have a problem with essay unity.)
- This summary is not a question; it's the answer to a question.
- If you are just writing a bus schedule (first I wrote about this, then about this), you don't have a thesis yet. You just have a discussion of procedure.
- How well does that sentence hang together? If you wrote, "My aunt Gertrude is an excellent housekeeper and she has a wooden leg," you really are writing about two things that are unrelated.
- How well does the one-sentence summary relate to the assignment?
- Did you say enough to really prove the point your thesis made?
- How even is your gathering?
- Are all the parts of your idea well-supported?
- What is the quality of your evidence?
- Are you asking the audience to believe something simply because you believe it? (Hint: Scan the paper for all the times you wrote, "I think that" and "to me this means." Those are the times you are setting yourself up as the all-knowing power of the Universe whom we all must accept as the ultimate authority.)
- Do you depend on easy and shallow sources (answers.com) or biased sources that are likely to lie just to drive their point home (Breitbart, Fox, etc.)?
- Is this the best sequence for your paragraphs? (Hint: Cut them apart with scissors and try rearranging them.)
- When you get them into a decent order, is something missing?
- What about paragraph unity? Does each paragraph stick to explaining its topic sentence? (Note: Avoid the cheap transition trick of sticking the topic sentence of paragraph #3 to the bottom of paragraph #2. That's not a transition; it's simply an annoying disruption to the flow of your paragraph.)
- Copy-editing. (This is different from finding support for your points.)
- If you quoted someone, is the quotation accurate? Did you introduce your own errors?
- Did you get the little facts right?
- Numbers are extremely difficult, especially in research papers. You do not want to tell us that Abraham Lincoln died in 1965.
- If this is a research paper with citations, are the citations correct? Did you actually do a good APA or MLA paper? Did you fall into the common student error of using APA in-text citations with an MLA Works Cited page?
Books aren't written, they're rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the
hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn't quite
done it. —Michael Crichton
All the material up to this point has been fairly mechanical. At this point in the revision
process, you have a paper that responds to the assignment, makes its point, and (with any
luck) tells truth with good-quality evidence to support it.
Now comes the hard part. To quote the English Department's grading standard for a "C"
paper: "The paper responds to the assignment in an ordinary way." The standard for an "A"
paper says, "Sentences are carefully crafted. Words are accurately chosen; informal
language, slang, or dialect is used only when appropriate. The paper is insightful and vivid.
The writing is tight and effective throughout."
You want to work toward "writing is tight and effective," not "responds in an ordinary way."
For professional writers, the most time-consuming part is getting the style right. You cannot
do this at the last second.
I have made this letter longer, because I have not had the time to make it
shorter. -Blaise Pascal
- Do not fear cutting out fatty words/sentences. If you did your gathering well, you will not be sweating about the word count. (And most teachers will not reward verbosity.)
- This is a good time to think again about your audience. What kind of word/sentence will best communicate your point to them? Are you being insulting? Flying too high?
- This is also a good time for reading the paper aloud. Get a friend to tell you if it makes sense. Find the awkward transitions.
The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one
will do. —Thomas Jefferson
Now that you have gone through all that work, we come to the items that most freshmen think of when they are asked to revise a paper.
- Reading for sentence grammar and word usage.
- Look back at previous papers for the red marks, so you know your own characteristic problems.
- Read your draft carefully for your own group of problems. It might help to reread the draft backward, sentence by sentence.
- If you do not know what a sentence fragment (Frag.) or run-on sentence (R.O.) are, find out. Don't simply add or delete words and punctuation marks blindly, hoping that you will hit the mark. You won't.
- If you have been getting a lot of wrong word (W.W.) or word choice (W.C.) marks, look at all the places where you got creative or daring with your vocabulary. Use a dictionary to learn whether you actually said what you meant to say.
- Some errors are so common (writing "defiantly" when you mean "definitely," for example) that you should do a special computer search for them.
- Homophones (often called homonyms) are a special problem. These are the words which sound alike but mean very different things (their/there/they're, for example). Spell-checkers won't catch them. Your best hope is to ask a friend (choose someone who knows a lot about writing) to read the paper, looking especially for this problem.
- Hint: If you make a rule for yourself to eliminate contractions (you're, they're) and use full spelling, many of your homophone issues will vanish.
- If neighborhood and informal jargon are part of your normal speech, ask someone who is not from your home-town neighborhood to read the paper. Much of this jargon does not travel well. (Most readers would not understand "he had a seldom look on his face" to mean he was about to start a fight.)
- Finally, run the spell-checker.
- Never accept the spell-checker's advice unless you know that the new word is correct! If in doubt, look it up.
- On the other hand, don't just reject all the spelling and grammar suggestions. MS Word is quite good, for example, about hyphens, and these are a common student trouble spot.
- Modern auto-correct introduces its own problems.
- Often, auto-correct substitutes new words for the ones you spelled correctly, but their suggestions are weird and wrong. Your only hope is careful reading.
- If you are using Google Docs, you should know that its spelling and grammar checker is very weak, especially in capitalization and punctuation. Google Docs finds no problems whatsoever with:
- “I come from columbus ohio and i am taking a english class at ashland university.”
- Note: That sentence has nine errors. Here it is, done correctly:
- “I come from Columbus, Ohio, and I am taking an English class at Ashland University.”
The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.
Revised 6/20/20 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: email@example.com.