The Art of Revising

Why revise? Simple: you want to put your best writing forward, whether that writing is a job application or dissertation chapter. The best way to do that is to give your initial draft some resting time (away from your eyes and brain) and then—ideally after feedback from an outside reader—return to it with a fresh pair of eyes and tighten it. While you may have had successful past experiences submitting writing without taking the time to revise it, revising is one of the best ways to make your writing as strong as you can. Here are some tips:

1. Outside readers

The best thing you can do is get someone else to read and comment on your work.  Why? Because your goal in writing is always, fundamentally, to communicate ideas to an audience, whoever that audience is—whether it’s your adviser, journal editors/readers, a prospective employer, or others. Getting feedback from an outside reader helps you learn how a sample audience responds to your writing. What did s/he take away from your writing? What did s/he understand? Find confusing? Often, things we think are coming through clearly in our writing don’t get through to outside readers; we’re often so immersed in our own knowledge of what we’re trying to say that we may not see places where we fail to fully explain things. For this reason, an “outside reader” doesn’t have to be a professional, or someone outside your field—it simply refers to anyone who’s not you. Do try, though, to ask someone whose general judgment you trust. This may be a friend or family member; it can also be a colleague, fellow student, or professor.

Here are some questions you might ask an outside reader:

  • What did you take away from the piece? What did you come away thinking the main point was?
  • Which parts felt clear?
  • Which parts felt confusing or unclear? Were there any points where you felt lost?
  • Which ideas/points felt strong or compelling?
  • Was there anything that felt like it needed more substantiation or needed to be fleshed out more?
  • Any specific concerns you have about your piece, ask for feedback about them. For instance, if you’re worried whether the piece is too long or short, ask. If you’re worried about whether it flows in an organized, logical-feeling way, ask.
  • You can also ask your reader to help you figure out what your main point is. Let’s say you’re writing an article, and you feel solid about each of the individual subsections, but aren’t sure if there’s an overall thesis tying it together. Ask your reader what s/he feels about that: did s/he feel the sections tied together? If so, how? Did s/he see an overarching or recurring theme or argument? Often, in these cases, you actually do have an underlying thesis; it can sometimes simply take a fresh set of eyes to tease it out.

2. Incorporate feedback but listen to your inner voice

The whole point of getting an outside reader is to get feedback; of course your next step is to incorporate that feedback into your new draft. But trust your own judgment as well. Remember that feedback is, at the end of the day, subjective: different readers will respond in different ways, and you can’t please everyone. If you get feedback that simply goes against your gut feeling of what’s right—listen to your gut. There are exceptions to this, of course. If this is a paper you’re writing for a class, and the feedback comes from your professor, you may want to prioritize your professor’s perspective; similarly, if this is an article for publication, you may want to prioritize the editor’s perspective. Even in these cases, though, if the feedback you receive goes strongly against your own judgment, it’s worth a longer conversation. And in lower stakes situations—e.g. peer feedback—definitely balance what your reader says with your own instincts.

Some good rules of thumb here are:

  • If your outside reader says that anything is confusing or unclear, listen to this. This is likely an indication that, for any audience, it’s worthwhile for you to revisit the sentence/paragraph/section in question. Ask your reader to elaborate on what felt confusing, and what they thought you were saying—this will help give you a sense of what information you need to clarify.
  • If your reader felt something needed more substantiation, you likely want to consider this. This is especially (and obviously) true if the reader is your adviser, but this can also play out in other scenarios. For instance, if a peer reads your cover letter and thinks you could give more concrete examples to demonstrate the skills you’re trying to highlight.
  • If your reader gives feedback about stylistic elements, balance this with your own judgment. After all, it’s your writing—it should be in your voice. And style is often subjective (assuming we’re not discussing hard grammar rules). Exceptions here include if you’re publishing the piece within a publication that has an explicit style guide, or if the reader is your adviser and the writing in question is your dissertation or class paper (in the latter case, it’s fair to stick to your guns, but it may make your life easier to incorporate your professor’s style preferences).
  • If your reader tries to change the direction of your actual content—i.e. tries to alter your basic ideas—run away, fast. This is not a helpful outside reader. If this happens with your adviser regarding your dissertation, then of course this needs to be a more complex, thoughtful conversation between the two of you. And editors may wish you to add or remove content from a piece for publication. But if someone, even an adviser or editor, is trying to change your core ideas and thesis, this should set off warning bells.

3. Take a hiatus; then return and reread

Sometimes you don’t have time for an outside reader, or the people you’d ask are unavailable. In this case, try to put yourself in the place of an outside reader new to this writing. The best way that I’ve found to do this is to put the writing aside for some time (at least a day, if you can afford that), distract yourself with unrelated stuff in the meantime, and then return to it. The more time you can take away from your writing, the fresher your eyes will be when you come back. This is a good chance to switch gears and work on other projects, get life chores done, or give yourself some much needed downtime. Or, if you’re really short on time, try taking a brief hiatus—even just an hour—but do something utterly different in that time, something that distracts your brain. For me, television or reading helped here (as versus, say, walking around the block, during which time my mind still focused on my writing). When you return to your writing, try as much as you can to put yourself in the shoes of someone completely unfamiliar to the piece, and ask yourself how it might read to such a person. You can ask yourself the same questions listed above that you would ask an outside reader. Granted, this system does not work nearly as well as asking an actual outside reader these questions—but if you’re short on time, it’s still better to do this than to not revise at all.

4. Revising may include substantial writing

Unlike editing, which usually focuses on micro, surface-level changes (such as spelling or grammar), revising can really vary in scope. In some cases it might simply entail short, fast tweaks, while in other cases it might mean making significant changes: cutting huge sections and/or adding lots of new writing. There’s usually no way to gauge this ahead of time, so err on the side of caution, and set aside time for significant revisions—if you only need to make small revisions, you’ll be ahead of schedule, and if you need to make large ones you’ll have the time to do so.

Further Resources

Check out Rachel Toor’s thoughts on revision in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Harvard Writing Center offers great advice here.

For advice on revising an article for publication, especially in the social sciences, check out this blog post

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