Revision is a frequent topic on this blog: how it is foundational to the academic writing process; how it so easily gets neglected; how it can be organized into a systematic process. But I haven’t talked much about how revision is connected to decisions about technological platforms and formatting. Revision is, of course, a conceptual activity, but it is also a physical activity. When we revise, we aren’t just thinking about the ideas contained in our text, we are engaging with the physical manifestation of those ideas: words and sentences and paragraphs laid out on pages. That layout–how our text looks–makes a difference to our revision process. Needless to say, every type of technology leads to its own revision workflow. There’s no need for nostalgia for any particular technologies, for handwriting, typewriting, actual carbon copies, carets, or whiteout. It is crucial, however, to look at the cycle of revision that is afforded by your current technology and make sure that it supports an optimal revision process.
To start, I want to reinforce the importance of physical engagement with your text. How are you manifesting your concerns and clarifications as you revise? On screen, you can annotate with the tools available in your writing platform. In hard copy, you can underline or highlight to emphasize what you want to focus on. If necessary, you can even simulate annotation with your voice. When reading aloud, you can direct your attention to a particular aspect or pattern; basically, you are using your voice to mimic annotation when you aren’t able to mark up your writing. Revision ultimately requires all of us to change the manner of our interaction with our texts, from passive reading to active engagement. The kinesthetic act of highlighting the patterns in your own writing–using cursor, pen, or voice–can help to shake up your familiarity with text that you are seeking to improve.
In order to allow that engagement to happen, however, we need to have formatted our text in such a way that we are able to see it as ‘available’ for revision. Writers can easily short-circuit revision by moving too quickly to something that looks finished. A text must look recognizably like a draft, so your brain can see it as ready for revision. I often switch to a ‘light’ version of my writing font when revising because that looks noticeably unfinished to me. Obviously, ‘looking like a draft’ is a relative concept; it has to look like a draft to you. In general, I recommend being wary of features that allow you to turn an early draft into something that looks like a final draft; I often see student writing that is still very rough but is dressed up to look more finished than it actually is. Some writers feel empowered by creating something that looks more polished–it makes them feel like a finished text is within reach–but I think the downsides are significant. Revision is hard enough without sending our brains mixed signals.
Once you have committed to tactile engagement with your text and have created visual cues to reinforce the need to revise, a question still remains: Will you be revising on a screen or on a hard copy? I’m frequently asked about the relative merits of the two, but it’s a question without a definitive answer. Some people need to revise on paper; others can manage the full writing-revision process electronically. Again, the important issue is whether your choice supports the act of revision. Working in hard copy is inherently disruptive; we are no longer able to interact with our text in the way we were during the composition process. Instead, our textual interventions become limited to those we can manage with a pen. The advantage of working in hard copy is the way that it prevents an unwanted blurring of writing and revision. By looking at your words on the page, you are forced to think about how you wish to alter them, rather than just doing it. While ‘just doing it’ might sound more efficient, that approach makes it hard to bring your attention to issues beyond the local. In order to think about the text more broadly–possibly by doing a reverse outline–you need the ability to evaluate the full text without immediately altering it.
While revising on paper may facilitate the ability to see the text anew, many of you prefer to work on screen. The reasons for this may be practical; hard copies may feel wasteful, or printing may be inaccessible. Or the reason could be more substantive; working on screen may feel so natural that it has become essential to your ability to engage with your text. But if staying online is hampering your ability to do substantial revision, the changes in formatting that we’ve been discussing here might help. Before revising, you can change the font to one that signals your commitment to revision. Or you can change the layout on the screen. You can even turn your text temporarily into a PDF and make your annotations on screen that way. Revision requires extra discipline when being done online. We can so easily be distracted by our ability to tinker; reading in an evaluative manner can absolutely be done online, but doing so requires interventions to boost our good intentions. Since willpower is often insufficient to keep us on task, using formatting to create tangible reminders to revise can be invaluable.
In sum, maintaining a physical engagement with text during revision is challenging because we so easily lapse into a simpler–and speedier–form of reading. In order to resist that tendency, whether you are working online or on paper, you need to use formatting to remind yourself that your writing is, in fact, available for revision.