Where Do I Start? Identifying High-Impact Sentence-Level Revisions

Revision is often an intimidating prospect. The initial phases of drafting and composition can be intensive, and to start gut-renovating your first draft after its completion can be daunting. Half the challenge is getting started. One way to address this initial resistance to embarking on revisions is by starting with high impact quick fixes. Ask yourself: where can I get the biggest return on investment for relatively minor changes?

Or, to reconsider this question from the point of view of the reader: where will the reader be looking for guidance on your most important points? Think about introductory paragraphs, topic sentences, section headings and conclusions. These are all places that readers use as guideposts through your argument, and hence places where relatively minor, sentence-level issues can seriously undermine the clarity of the argument as a whole.

  1. Pick a category of “guidepost” to highlight: e.g., topic sentences, or more ambitiously, “blueprint” paragraphs where you’re laying out the main turns of argument for a chapter or section.
  2. Read through these key sentences or paragraphs carefully. Are they abundantly clear? Do they effectively communicate the contours of the content that immediately follows or precedes them? Are there grammatical or typographical errors? Are some sentences too long or verbose? Are there choices of phrasing that may obscure the central point?
  3. Resist the temptation to fix as you go. Rather, highlight or underline anything in these crucial sentences that bothers you and quickly jot down on a separate document what you might want to change. Once you’re to the end of your draft, review the list of changes you’ve written down. Are there common themes among your “impulse” revisions? Do your first thoughts about changes still feel justified, or are there different directions that come to mind when you review the proposed changes as a whole?
  4. Finally, go back through the draft and make the changes you’ve denoted that, upon reflection, seem to make the most sense.

By starting with sentence-level changes at critical moments in the draft, you can pick up momentum for further revisions. Simply starting the revisions process is important, of course, but starting with questions of clarity at high-impact places in the draft can also prompt you to refine the most essential parts of your argument and how to communicate those to the reader. Moreover, it may alert you to common issues or questions across these moments in the draft that will need to be addressed, and these insights may help guide further substantive revisions.

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