Category Archives: Revision

Posts that discuss strategies for revision

Bad News, Good News

During one-on-one writing consultations, I often find myself using the following phrase with students: ‘bad news, good news’. Of course, it is more natural to say ‘good news, bad news’, but I like to start with the bad news. I don’t do so to be discouraging, but rather to emphasize that the first impression given by their writing is problematic. Real readers—the ones who read your writing out of inclination rather than obligation—won’t necessarily last long enough to discover the good news: the ‘bad news’ is often what readers notice first. Novice writers who are accustomed to the dynamics of undergraduate writing may imagine that readers are routinely willing and able to distinguish valuable content from difficult writing. It’s true that some readers—particularly the ones who are paid to read your writing—will work through the hard parts to get to the interesting ideas. But we get fewer and fewer of those readers as we move through our careers, and, increasingly, we must submit our writing (to grant competitions or for publication or in support of job applications) to people who are not obliged to read our writing and who may in fact be looking for weaknesses as a way to differentiate among many qualified applicants. All of which is to say, first impressions matter.

First impressions can be influenced by simple things such as standard spelling, grammar, font, formatting, etc. But first impressions can also be influenced by a confusing structure. In such cases, I often write things like ‘transition?’ or ‘placement?’ in the margins. Those queries are then expanded in person: ‘Do you think this is what your reader is expecting you to discuss here?’. Since the message usually sounds a bit dire (‘as it stands, this piece of writing is pretty hard to understand’), I like to follow it up with the good news. The good news is that structural problems are often curable, especially if diagnosed in time. I mention time because structural decisions do become harder to reverse the longer they are allowed to stand. By curable I mean that fixing structural problems won’t necessarily require the hard work of rewriting every sentence. Some sentence-level work will inevitably be necessary at some point, but improving placement and transitions, even without that sentence-level work, can make a huge difference to your writing.

So what does this mean to you at home, where there is nobody to offer you these diagnoses? It means that reverse outlines should always be an early part of your revision process; I find them an invaluable way to transition from the drafting to the revision stage, but others may find this strategy to be helpful at various points in the writing process. It also means maintaining a strong sense of efficacy when confronted by real structural problems early in a draft. When editing yourself, use good editing strategies so that your ‘bad news’ isn’t just an inchoate sense that a piece of writing isn’t any good. By forcing yourself to engage in large-scale structural edits (rather than just playing around with individual sentences), you will see that much of your writing can be saved. Figuring out how to use what you’ve got to achieve your goals and meet your reader’s expectations means that you will be making real progress while still evaluating your existing draft with a necessarily stern eye.

Remembering to Edit

The hardest thing about editing may be that we often forget to do it. Not in an ‘oh no, I forgot to edit my paper and went to the mall instead’ way, but in an ‘oh no, I read the whole paper but stopped editing on the middle of page two’ way. Our own writing is notoriously difficult to edit. We are so familiar with our ideas and our choice of words, and familiarity often lulls us into an easy reading rhythm that isn’t sufficiently attuned to the editing task. However, if we have accepted that we must commit to extensive revision, we need ways to overcome these natural difficulties. Here are some editing strategies that help us to edit and not just read:

  1. Let time elapse.The most obvious technique will be to leave time before editing a draft. Your own work is the hardest to edit, of course, because you know what you are trying to say. Professional or peer editors can be guided to some extent by their own confusion. You have to devise ways of making sure that you are seeing the work from the perspective of someone unfamiliar with your project. Letting time elapse is the surest way of accomplishing this goal. When I discuss this strategy in class, students often appear highly sceptical, even amused. While they don’t usually say much, I imagine them to be thinking, ‘Sure, this sounds great and I know that I should be doing this, but I’m not and I never will, so what else you got?’. I do persevere with this pie-in-the-sky advice because it does actually become more realistic as graduate study progresses; during the thesis writing process, ‘letting time elapse’ is inevitable for even the most last-minute person. As you move ahead with later chapters, make sure you go back and work through earlier material with fresh eyes and without a looming deadline. But since we often do edit under time pressure, here are some other strategies that will work even when time is tight.
  2. Read your work aloud. Since your work will sound foreign to you as it is read aloud, this practice will help you to cultivate a different sort of awareness of your own writing.
  3. Read paragraphs out of order. This practice will help to prevent you from neglecting the writing itself in favour of focusing on the underlying ideas. Looking at paragraphs in isolation can also help focus your attention on paragraph cohesion.
  4. Stop at the end of each paragraph. By stopping at the end of each paragraph, you can confirm for yourself that you have actually edited that paragraph.
  5. Edit in stages. It is very difficult to edit with more than one problem in mind. Plan to edit your document a number of times, targeting specific issues each time. Choose a logical order, starting with the broadest issues and moving to finer issues.

Do you have other ways of concentrating your mind on the editing task? Feel free to share your successful editing strategies in the comments below.

Problem Sentences

Sentences come in many varieties: there are elegant sentences, workhorse sentences, clever sentences, short sentences, and long sentences. There are also problem sentences. You know the ones: you keep coming back to them and making changes without every being satisfied. In fact, after a while, you start to suspect that your newest changes are simply reinstating earlier versions of the sentence. This back-and-forth alone is significant; if you are alternating between two versions of a sentence without ever being happy with either, you need to do something dramatic. This need is intensified by the fact that these problem sentences are generally important sentences. I am generalizing, of course, but I am doing so with lots of evidence. The sentences that we use to convey key points are more likely to give us trouble, both because our investment in the topic can cloud our thinking and because our key points generally involve a complex array of information.

When you are confronted with such a sentence, my suggestion is to try what I call ‘blank-side-of-the-page writing’. Since sentences have this way of wearing a groove in our brains, we need strategies to help us get a fresh start. In one-on-one writing consultations, I often ask students to tell me what a challenging sentence is about. What they say is generally much stronger that what they have written. And stronger in two ways: more direct and less brief. You can see why direct is better, but you may be wondering why I am praising a lack of brevity. Indeed, most of us are less concise in writing than we ought to be, until we try to convey our key point; then, many of us become positively telegraphic. Forcing ourselves to devote more ink to our own ideas is a sure way to improve academic writing.

If you write down—on the blank side of the page—exactly what you come up with when you try to convey the key point to an imaginary interlocutor, you will have something new with which to work. Even if all you do is disrupt the pattern of futile revision, you will be ahead of where you were. But you may find that you do considerably more than that by forcing yourself to rearticulate a key point. Certainly, by inserting a potential reader into the process, you are immediately improving your chances of structuring your ideas in a way that will suit that reader.

It is hard to show an example of this technique since it requires an actual conversation (either between writer and writing instructor or between writer and herself/himself). But try it yourself and see whether it helps you. Here is how the process might work:

  1. Identify a sentence that has been giving you trouble. 
  2. Read it over, identifying its key ideas and thinking about the relationship between its parts.
  3. Turn over the page, so you can no longer see the original sentence.
  4. Imagine someone asking you what you were trying to say in the original sentence.
  5. Answer that question aloud and try to write down verbatim what you come up with. At this stage, be fulsome: take advantage of the fact that we tend to articulate things more fully in spoken language.
  6. Assess what you have come up with, remaining open to all possibilities (Should it be more than one sentence? Is it undermined by missing information? Does it appear at the correct point in the text?).
  7. Finally, edit it to be sure that it hasn’t retained any of the informal tone you many have introduced by transcribing a spoken version.

This strategy can help you get past an impasse with a particular sentence and can help you to push yourself to articulate your key ideas with more clarity and precision.

Scaffolding Phrases

This blog began with three key writing principles, all of which boiled down to the idea that we write initially for ourselves and ultimately for our reader. We write to clarify our thoughts, and then we revise extensively to craft a version that will meet the needs of our reader. In the early stages, when we are writing for ourselves and not yet fully for a reader, we may have some habits that serve us well but that might act as impediments for the reader. I am referring here to what I call scaffolding phrases, phrases that help us write but that may eventually be removed. We all have bad writing habits; my point here is that some of those habits will be ‘bad’ only in the sense of ‘bad for the reader’. These habits may actually be good for our writing, as long as we have the awareness to remove them later. As an example, I will use one of my own writing crutches: ‘in other words’. I use this phrase fairly indiscriminately to propel myself from one sentence to the next. Since the gravest writing troubles involve not getting from one sentence to the next, I am eager to hang on to anything that helps me do so. But my reader would be baffled by a series of sentences all of which were linked by ‘in other words’. When I find this phrase in my writing, I run through a series of options designed to help me understand the true relationship between the sentences:

1. Perhaps the second sentence is an example, in which case I can switch to a transitional expression such as ‘for instance’.

2. Perhaps the second sentence is expressing a consequence of the first sentence, in which case I can switch to a transitional expression such as ‘as a result’ or I can reword to say something like ‘Given this [idea from the first sentence], [second sentence]’.

3. Perhaps the second sentence is just a better way of expressing the idea and the first sentence is unnecessary. I find this option to be the case frequently; the second try is often better than the first.

4. Finally, perhaps ‘in other words’ does accurately describe the relationship and should be allowed to stand. This sort of rephrasing is particularly useful in those cases when the first way of saying it wasn’t fully your own. Following up a quote or a paraphrase with another way of saying it can be invaluable, especially when the ‘in other words’ leads to a rewording that explicitly picks up on your key themes and terminology, allowing the reader to see essential connections in your text.

Other common scaffolding phrases include ‘that is’, ‘what this means is’ and  ‘it is important to note that’. Some writers also use simple questions to advance their text. Consider this use of a question:

X is very important for Y. What do we mean by Y? Y means ….

In this case, the question can simply be removed, without any need to put something in its stead. I wouldn’t, however, want to prohibit the use of such questions if they are helpful. Often my students will point to various things that I have excised from sentences and say ‘so we should never do that?’ (everyone is hungry for absolutes in an advanced writing class). I always say–after a tedious little lecture about the impossibility of absolutes in writing–that even those elements that are ultimately unhelpful for your reader may still be helpful for you as a writer.

In sum, identify your writing tics and decide if they do any work for you during the composing process. Plan to remove them, if necessary, but don’t plan to do without them. Anything that helps you get your ideas down on paper should be thought of as a good strategy; the only cautionary note is that you need to be sure those ‘scaffolds’ aren’t lingering in your final work, obscuring your true intentions. If you think of any of these scaffolding phrases that are helpful in your own writing process, feel free to leave them in the comments below.

Next I am going to talk about dashes: their uses in academic writing and the difference between a single dash and a pair of dashes.

Reverse Outlines

My favourite revision strategy is the reverse outline. Simply stated, a reverse outline is an outline that we create from an existing text; rather than turning an outline into a text, we are turning a text into an outline. Regardless of whether or not you create an outline before you write, creating one after you have written a first draft can be invaluable. A reverse outline will reveal the structure—and thus the structural problems—of a text.

The steps to creating a reverse outline are simple:

1 Number the paragraphs
2 Identify the topic of each paragraph
3 Arrange these topics into an outline
4 Analyze this outline
5 Create a revised outline
6 Reorganize the text according to the revised outline
7 Check for topic sentences and cohesion

Step 1: Number the paragraphs
The basic unit of a reverse outline is the paragraph, so the first step is to number the paragraphs. The simple act of directing our attention towards paragraphs—and thus away from sentences—can be helpful: while writers naturally focus on sentences, we must always remember that our readers are naturally inclined to focus on paragraphs.

Step 2: Identify the topic of each paragraph 
Once the paragraphs have been numbered, try to identify a topic in each one. Since you are looking at an early draft, this process will be challenging: not all paragraphs will have topics and not all topics will be expressed neatly in a single paragraph. When doing a reverse outline, it is crucial to remember that you are trying to make evident what is there rather than what ought to be there. In other words, this step is diagnostic. You are simply noting what each paragraph was trying to do, for better or worse. Once you’ve done that, you can observe whether topic sentences can be found and make a note of paragraph length. Again, at this stage, you are observing rather than judging or remedying. Does the paragraph have a topic sentence? Yes or no? And how long is the paragraph? The latter can be recorded in word count or in more qualitative terms as short, average, or long.

Step 3: Arrange these topics into an outline
To create this preliminary outline, you are doing nothing more than listing the topics that you’ve identified, paragraph by paragraph. The crucial thing at this stage is to leave your original text alone and work just on the outline; you are trying to keep yourself away from the muddling effect of the detailed content in your own writing. As an advocate for your future reader, you are trying to see past the detail and look just at essential structure.

Step 4: Analyze this outline
The next step is to analyze this outline, paying particular attention to the logic  and proportionality of your internal organization. Understanding the logic involves observing the way elements have been placed in relation to one another. Understanding the proportionality involves observing how much space is being devoted to each element. This step is the bridge between noting what you have and preparing to create something new.

Step 5: Create a revised outline
During steps 3 and 4, you’ve been working with a list of topics; in step 5, you will have to transform that list into a genuine outline. Now that you can see all the topics and can start to see possible weaknesses in either your ordering of points or your allocation of space, you are ready to create a better outline for the text. You have the best of both worlds at this point: you know a great deal that you didn’t know before you started writing, but you are still working at a level of abstraction that will keep you from getting bogged down in the details.

Step 6: Reorganize the text according to the revised outline
Here comes the hard part. In steps 3, 4, and 5, you’ve been working with the outline. Now it’s time to use this new outline to transform the text. And unless you are an incredibly confident writer, you will find this scary. That initial draft—even with all the flaws that you’ve just uncovered—will generally have a real hold on you. That hold comes from the legitimate fear that you might take away existing coherence and flow without being able to replace it with something better. At this point, you need faith, faith in the new outline and faith in your ability to transform your text into something better. Practically, what you do here is move the text around to reflect the organization of the new outline. The result, at this point, can be pretty rough. If you take a few paragraphs from the second half of a paper, for instance, and move them up to an earlier section, they can’t possibly sit right. The time for massaging everything into a cohesive whole will come, but for now you must trust that the new outline has allowed you to devise a new and improved configuration of your text.

Step 7: Check for topic sentences and cohesion
The final step is to pay attention to the way your new paragraphs work. The new and improved configuration will be, needless to say, both better and worse. It will be better because it will reflect your careful and clearheaded analysis of what it needs to do; it will be worse because it will still bear too many traces of its earlier self. To get a head start on the next stages of revision, you can identify whether you have topic sentences early in your paragraphs and whether those paragraphs use their length effectively to develop clear topics. While there will still be lots of work to do, you can turn to that work secure in the knowledge that you have created an effective structure for this text. Polishing a text is time-consuming work, but it is easier and more efficient when you are working on a text that you know to be well-organized and well-proportioned.

In sum, the reverse outline is an effective strategy because it can create an objective distance between you and your text. Reverse outlining gives us a way into a text that might otherwise resist our editorial efforts. We often find our early drafts disconcerting: we know they are flawed but changing them can still seem risky. A reverse outline can give us purpose and direction as we undertake the valuable project of restructuring our written work.

This post describes the first of five key strategies for strong academic writing; I have chosen these five simply because they are the ones that I most frequently turn to in my work with students. In the four other posts, I discuss paragraphstransitions, sentences, and metadiscourse.

For more on using reverse outlines, you can consult these other posts:

Committing to Extensive Revision

This blog is grounded in three principles that I see as crucial for strong academic writing. The first stresses the connection between writing and thinking; the second emphasizes the importance of extensive revision; and the third underscores the value of understanding the needs of your reader.

The second key principle that informs my approach to academic writing is committing to extensive revision. Most people will readily agree that more revision would improve their writing. But despite this widespread recognition of the importance of revision, many writers simply do not make revision an essential part of their writing process. One reason for this resistance is that many writers believe their own first drafts to be uniquely flawed; in other words, they think the weakness of the first draft comes from their lack of writing skill rather than from the intrinsic weakness of any first draft. As a result, they have little faith in their ability to fix what ails their writing. I suggest a shift in perspective: rather than worrying that your writing requires an exceptional amount of revision, try thinking that all writing requires a great deal of revision. A first draft must be evaluated as stringently as we can, but there is no need to apply those harsh standards to ourselves as writers. This caution is important since very few people excel at writing first drafts; the tendency towards self-criticism means that the initial draft becomes a source of frustration rather than a valuable starting point. Accepting that the writing process must be iterative makes it easier to understand that writing will rarely be suitable for a reader without extensive revision.

Another obstacle that stands in the way of revision is the fact that many writers are stymied by their own drafts. When I ask students to bring me a piece of their writing with their own changes marked on the pages, those suggested changes are generally tentative and minor. Our own written texts can seem daunting; they may be flawed, but they do possess a certain unity and coherence. Changing them can be more challenging than letting them stand, even with their manifest weaknesses. However, we must be willing to treat our own texts as essentially mutable, as raw material that will eventually take the requisite shape. As we will see in the next post, we can learn more about the changes we need to make to our early drafts by understanding the needs of our reader.

For more on the challenges of revision, you can consult these other posts:

  • In Revising Out Loud, I articulate how important it can be to develop a process for committing to our own writing, even before we tackle revision.
  • In The Craft of Revision, I discuss my approach to the task of revision, from start to finish.
  • In Remembering to Edit, I present some strategies for ensuring that we keep our eyes on the task of revision.
  • In Bad News, Good News, I describe a common pattern: a lack of overall coherence despite local cohesion. In The Perils of Local Cohesion, I talk about the way that local cohesion can blind us to larger problems in our texts.
  • In Best Laid Plans, I encourage writers to think about the ideal relationship between prior planning and actual writing.
  • In Letting Go, I acknowledge how hard it can be to let go of hard-won text, even when it may not be serving any purpose.
  • In Scaffolding Phrases, I introduce the distinction between writing that may be helpful to us as writers and writing that serves the ultimate goal of satisfying the reader.
  • In Problem Sentences, I consider a radical revising solution: starting over.
  • Finally, in Reverse Outlines, I discuss the best way to tackle structural problems in our writing. The process of reverse outlining get elaborated in my discussion of Literature Reviews and Reverse Outlines. In Truth in Outlining, I stress the importance of being honest when crafting reverse outlines. In Topic Sentence Paragraphs, I look at a strategy that helps us to see if we have created coherence in a late-stage draft.