All academic writers have some sort of revision process, but that process is often either insufficient (just nibbling around the edges) or scattershot (catching some things but missing others). To improve our revision practices, we generally have to both deepen them and make them more systematic.
My starting point here is the near impossibility of crafting reader-ready first drafts. If the material is conceptually complex, if you are still struggling to understand the implications of what you’ve learned, if the internal connections aren’t yet apparent to you, then the first draft is going to be clumsy. At that stage, the text will be something that you are still learning from rather than something that others can learn from. For most of us, making the transition from a text that helps you to a text that helps the reader takes multiple iterations. When I talk about needing to make a commitment to extensive revision, that choice of words might make it sound as if the main issue is one of will power. The truth is that developing good revision practices takes more than just commitment because revision itself is very challenging. Even with the best of intentions, we still run into problems:
“I always run out of time.”
In other words, “I’m not actually getting a first draft done early enough to make revision a rational part of my writing process; at the last minute, I’m trying to make it better, but I don’t actually have the time or space to tackle the hard stuff.”
“I try to edit, but then I get distracted by content.”
In other words, “Even if I have the time and space for editing, I quickly shift my focus away from the writing to issues of content.”
“I see some problems but not others.”
In other words, “Even with the best of intention, with sufficient time, with sufficient attention to matters of expression (rather than content), I still can’t see all the problems in my own text.”
As these comments demonstrate, the ability to revise our own writing doesn’t generally come naturally. In fact, the challenges of assessing our own writing are such that revision must be thought of as a craft that will need to be consciously cultivated. If we think of writing as an art, it makes sense to think of revision as a craft. No matter how you came to pull the first draft together, there are some recognized ways to get it into a more manageable form.
The first thing to say about the craft of revision is that it is different than proofreading. It’s crucial that we distinguish the process of revision from the final process of making sure there are no errors. Lumping proofreading in with revision may result from the fact that we often use the term ‘editing’ to refer to anything we might do to a draft. But separating revision and proofreading means that we are able to distinguish two activities that are inherently quite different: revision is the active reading and rearranging of our text and proofreading is the process of making corrections and checking for consistency (while not making the sort of revisions that so easily introduce new errors).
Even once we exclude proofreading activities, revision isn’t one monolithic thing; there are a broad range of activities that can be called revision.
- Word choice: Have you used apt vocabulary?
- Sentence structure: Are your sentences easy for the reader to follow?
- Flow between sentences, paragraphs, sections: Have you found the optimal order and then signalled that order to your reader?
- Tone: Have you engaged your reader while still conforming to academic writing conventions?
- Economy: Have you avoided distracting digressions or general wordiness?
- Overall coherence: Is there a clear and discernible argument or structure to your writing?
With all these potential questions, it is unsurprising that we often feel jumbled and ineffectual while trying to revise our own prose. One way to tackle these feelings is by creating an effective sequence for our revision process. Here is one such possibility, drawn from the always-helpful work of Joseph Williams.
Broad structural issues: The first thing to tackle are the big issues. This advice may sound obvious, but many writers do begin with the small stuff. The best way that I know to undertake a structural edit is to do a reverse outline. It is practical to do this sort of revision first, before we end up too attached to everything we’ve written and thus unwilling to make deep cuts. This stage should be somewhat ruthless, and ruthlessness comes easier early in the process. During this stage, we should also be on the lookout for those things that may have needed to be written but not necessarily read. Since writing so often functions as a way of clarifying thought, we need to be alert to the possibility that we’ve said more than is ultimately necessary for the reader.
Clarity: Revising for clarity means looking for extra words and for undue complexity. In our quest for clearer sentences, it can helpful to remember how consistently we are tempted to distance ourselves from our ideas with awkward expressions, weak verbs, and unclear subjects. More generally, we are often flummoxed by the conventions of academic writing, which at least appear to require a degree of complexity that works against clarity. There is always room for clarity, but these issues of tone can still give a lot of grief to novice academic writers who are grappling with complex topics while navigating the demands of a new discourse community.
Sentence-level errors: In this round of revision, we will be looking for errors that may not have been caught while we were thinking about clarity. We will ideally be guided here by an understanding of our own particular writing patterns as well as by an understanding of common issues such as subject-verb agreement, ambiguous reference, or punctuation.
Cohesion problems: By this point, we’ve made a lot of changes, so we have to make sure it all coheres. With all this revision, it’s inevitable that new inconsistencies and infelicities will have been introduced. A final round of revision is often required to make sure our newly arranged and polished text flows naturally.
These four stages reflect the revision order that I prefer, but the process could easily be altered to reflect your own preferences. The crucial notion is that revision should be sequenced—to allow different issues to come to the fore in turn—and that the sequence should run from broad to fine.
In conclusion, I want to stress the way that revision benefits both the writing itself and the writing process: as better revisers, we are better writers. Good revisers are better writers because they have the confidence to know that they can fix the problems that are inevitably created during the composition process. Since writing is usually accompanied by some discomfort about the manifest flaws of our first draft, it is so helpful to develop faith that we will be able to fix problems later. There are many valid approaches to academic writing, but they all must end with a solid approach to the craft of revision.