People adjusting to the expectations of graduate-level writing often find one thing in particular to be true: more and more time goes into revising their work. Revision Strategies is an online resource containing a range of practical methods that can help you navigate the revision process more effectively.
Why is graduate-level writing so hard? And why is this difficulty most felt as the need for extensive revision? If the goal of academic writing is to persuasively communicate a knowledge contribution to an audience of professional academics, then this goal is especially challenging for two reasons:
- The material one has to convey is often complex and multi-faceted, making it hard for writers to understand for themselves, let alone communicate to their readers in a sufficiently accurate and nuanced way.
- Professional scholars, the presumed audience of an academic text, tend to read strategically and in haste. In other words, they tend to approach a new text with the goal of quickly feeling out the degree of relevance it has to their own work. This means the readers you are writing for need the information to be easily digestible and that they will have little to no patience for moments that are confusing or unclear. Because academics approach new scholarship from a position of skepticism–always trying to notice mistakes or omissions that might mean the author’s claims are not valid and reliable–they tend to treat moments that leave them confused as a red flag.
Advanced academic writing requires so much revision because these two competing factors are very difficult to reconcile. When a scholar is first writing something, their goal is usually to capture for themselves the complexity of the thing they are talking about. This is an essential step for any writer to take in order to clarify their own thinking. However, the writing that results from this initial process tends to be constructed in a way that does not take the presumed reader’s needs into account. This is why it usually takes a great deal of revision to produce a final draft that conveys complex material that is also clear and easy for readers to follow.
The collection of revision strategies contained in this online resource are grouped into categories: Structure, Hierarchy, Argument, Key Terms, Orienting, Style, and Grammar/Mechanics. Each of these categories represents an aspect of academic writing that you need to be thinking about during the revision process. Below, we offer a brief description of each category.
Decisions about structure are of primary importance when writing to convince readers that your knowledge contribution is both necessary and valid. Revising your way toward a clear and effective structure is essential because of two inescapable conditions under which your reader is encountering your work:
- Your reader begins from a position of relative ignorance. While they may come to your piece with some existing knowledge that is relevant, they don’t know nearly as much as you do about the existing scholarly conversation, your original research, the conclusions you’ve reached, the analysis that supports your conclusions, and information you plan to offer as necessary context for your claims, among other things.
- Your reader can only encounter your work sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, which means they have to be moved from their position of ignorance to one of understanding by way of a sequence that gives them what they need when they need it.
As a writer, structural decisions can be challenging because your knowledge contribution makes the most sense to you when you think about it as a complete picture. Consequently, it can be very hard to figure out the right way to break your presentation into a logical sequence of steps that still “adds up” to a complete understanding for your reader.
Whereas “structure” has to do with matters of sequence (i.e., what happens first, second, third, etc.), “hierarchy” has to do with matters of emphasis. In other words, hierarchy names the work of signaling to your readers the difference between your primary argument and various levels of subordinate claims. More generally, it names the work of indicating the different levels of emphasis you mean to attach to the many different things you say in your academic writing. Entries in this category focus on two different approaches to conveying hierarchy: signposting and placement.
Good academic writing doesn’t have a thesis, it has an argument. To put the point another way, an academic knowledge contribution does not exist in a vacuum; instead, it exists in the context of other proposed knowledge about the same object of analysis. This means that a new knowledge contribution must make space for itself by arguing for and against the validity of various scholarly efforts that precede it. Argument names the work of persuading readers that various elements of previous scholarship contain sound/unsound knowledge and that one’s own claims are valid. Revising with a focus on argument often involves paying close attention to a draft’s introduction, but the work of arguing ultimately extends through the entirety of an academic text. Take, for example, the need you sometimes feels to respond to a potential objection some readers might raise against a particular step in your analysis. Giving voice to that objection and responding to it is the work of argument.
In every academic discipline, scholars participate in the project of collective knowledge-building by making claims about their object of analysis and supporting those claims with two things: (1) Evidence and (2) Analysis that interprets the Evidence in support of the claims being made. Depending on the kind of object you happen to be analyzing (astrological data, a literary text, a subculture) different kinds of things will count as Evidence and methods will be used when doing your Analysis of it. Whatever the case may be, one thing remains constant across all academic disciplines: it is not possible to make an effective knowledge contribution unless you choose the right Evidence in support of each claim and perform effective Analysis of that Evidence. This is why checking your Evidence and Analysis during the revision process is so essential.
Key Terms are words and short phrases that are imbued with precise technical meaning. The project of collective knowledge-building, which is the guiding purpose of all academic writing, is only possible when everyone defines their Key Terms and remains consistent in the meaning implied by their use. Just as the key or legend on a map enables its viewers to understand how to use the map in a meaningful way, Key Terms make it possible for readers understand how to name and discuss the complex phenomena and know they are talking about the same thing. At times, managing Key Terms involves coining a new term and imbuing it with its precise meaning. At other times, it involves defining existing terms for your reader, commenting on the differences between competing Key Terms used by different scholars in your field, and noticing when you or someone else is relying on a word or phrase that should be treated with technical precision but that is currently being used in ways that loosely wander between a range of common-sense meanings.
Defined by Gordon Harvey as “bits of information, explanation, and summary that orient the reader.” Orienting a reader is an essential part of academic writing because the people who read your work expect to be put in a position to make their own judgments about the validity of your claims, and so they need to know enough about the relevant context of whatever you’re discussing to feel “in on” the conversation. Ultimately, however, it can be quite challenging to orient your reader effectively. On the one hand, you will likely feel an urge to share everything you know about your object of study when writing your first draft. After all, isn’t everything you’ve learned relevant context? On the other hand, your reader will experience any orienting that goes beyond the bare essentials for that moment as a distracting digression from your main argument and analysis. Striking the right balance between being informative and economical is made still more complicated by the fact that it all depends on the knowledge level being assumed of your audience. Are you writing for an audience that specializes in the very sub-topic you are addressing? Are you writing for broad discipline who likely don’t know much about your area of specialization? Are you, as is often the case, writing for a presumed readership that includes people from both of these groups? When it comes to orienting effectively, the best approach will depend on how you answer these questions.
Creating impactful academic writing means attending not only to what you’re saying, but also to how you’re saying it. More specifically, it means considering the ways in which your delivery of what you say impacts the way that your readers will receive it. For example, making a particular conclusion feel punchier by writing is as a particularly short sentence. Or, after a series of fairly short sentences, conveying a complicated idea in an elegantly long one. To think about writing style is to consider ways in which writing choices affect precisely how your reader takes in your meaning. It is to think about using more colorful language at a moment when you’re saying something you really want your readers to notice and remember, or shifting into a more conversational tone to make your reader feel like you’re addressing them more intimately. For academic writers, the first challenge when drafting a piece is figuring out what you need to say; working on how you say it almost always gets taken up during the revision process.
Of perennial concern for writers are issues of mechanics: things like grammar, punctuation, spelling, and citation format. The revision strategies in this resource will focus on ways to notice when issues with grammar and punctuation are interfering with the meaning you’re trying to convey to your reader.