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Revising Your Work

"I always consider the entire process about failure, and I think that's
the reason why more people don't write."
Ta-Nehisi Coates

Here is a great example of revising the same Haiku multiple times.

Revision: what is it and how do we do it? 

“All writing is revision.” ―Don Murray

“Revision is not going back and fussing around, 
but going forward into the highly complex 
and satisfying process of creation.”May Sarton

In an essay titled "You Are Insane,"
Kim Addonizio writes
that your first draft always sucks, 
so you must revise.
"Think of it this way: Build a city, then blow it up to save it."
“Re-vision [is] the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, 
of entering an old text from a new critical direction….” Adrienne Rich

“Writing it all out for the first time is painful because so much of the writing 
isn’t very good….But now I don’t mind at all because there’s that 
wonderful time in the future when I will make it better, when 
I can see better what I should have said and 
how to change it. I love that part!” Toni Morrison

“I've found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend 
that somebody else wrote it and then 
to rip the living shit out of it.” ― Don Roff

"All writers writer the same way:
they put something down and then have to come up
with a strategy to put something else down."
John Gallaher, Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook


That we need to revise is obvious to most of us, but how to go about it is not quite as clear. For better or worse, the only way to revise is to do it, and the it is a lot of work.

The first step in revision is rereading. Reread the instructions, reread the draft you’ve written, and reread any feedback you’ve already received on your work.

  Then, ask yourself these questions. 

What’s the take-away from this draft? What’s my ultimate purpose?
          If you can answer those questions, move on.

          If you don’t yet have a satisfactory answer, keep writing until you do.

2.    Does each paragraph of the essay work toward the take-away/purpose you identified in question one?

If yes, move on.

If not, keep writing until they do.

3.    How do you figure this out?

Well, you can do an outline of what you’ve already written and see how well that outline matches your purpose.

Or, you can title every single paragraph and see how those connect back to your purpose.

4.    Does each paragraph or event in the essay come in the best order?

If yes, move on.

If no, reorder them. Strategies for working on the organization of a text include writing the events of the essay on notecards and re-arranging them. Or, print a copy of the essay and cut the paragraphs apart into separate pieces and then rearrange them.

5.    Is there enough development/reflection/detail? Does this development support your purpose?

If yes, move on.

If not, keep writing.

6.    Is there a clear introduction and conclusion?

If yes, move on.

If not, get busy on those.

7.    Are there sections you can delete to make what you have more concise, more powerful?

If yes, delete them, but don’t throw them out. Open your rough draft on the computer and select “save as.” Then, rename your document as “deletedpartsnameofessay.” Close that document and re-open the one you were working one. Then you can delete the unnecessary bits but all of your old material is still there, untouched, in the other file.

Sometimes revisions are messier than first drafts. It happens and it’s okay.

Sometimes the entire focus of the essay changes during revision. That’s okay too.

If you feel like the first draft was a total mess, you can always start in a fresh word document and refer back to old one as necessary

At many points in the process you may need to start over at the beginning and see additional feedback. This is what we mean when we say that writing is recursive—the steps repeat and overlap as a rule.

The Recursive Writing Process. Creator of the above image unknown.

If you find yourself in a ditch, that's normal, too.

Other Tips for Revising

The general purpose of all revision is to make our own writing clear and effective. However, each writing scenario defines these goals differently. What is effective for one audience might fail for another. What is clear for one set of readers might confuse another. There are certain strategies we can employ for revision that work for many kinds of writing, but ultimately what kind of revision a piece of writing needs is determined by the context in which the piece is being written and read. There is no one way that always works, but there are many possible options that might be used effectively.

General strategies for holistic revision

Specific strategies for editing/proofreading final drafts

Revision Checklist Adapted from Jean Wyrick’s Steps to Writing Well

Revise for Purpose, Thesis, & Audience

1.      Do I understand the purpose of my essay?

2.      Is my purpose reflected in my controlling idea (thesis)?

3.      Do I have a clear picture of my audience?

4.      Have I fulfilled the objectives of my assignment?

5.      Did I reread the grading criteria (rubric)?

Revise for Ideas & Evidence

6.      Is there a clear relationship between my controlling idea (thesis) and the major points presented in my essay?

7.      Did I write myself into a new or slightly different position as I drafted this essay? Do I need to modify my working thesis to reflect this new position?

8.      Have I given my readers sufficient background on this topic?

          9.      Have I been specific with my examples and support? 

Revise for Organization

10. Are my major points ordered in a logical, easy-to-follow pattern?

11. Is there a smooth flow between my major ideas? Have I used transitions effectively?

12. Are parts of my essay out of proportion? Too long or too brief to do their job effectively?

 Revise for Clarity & Style

13. Are my sentences as clear and precise as could be for readers who do not share my perspective?

14. Are there any sentences that are unnecessarily wordy?

15. Can I clarify and energize my writing by adding “showing” details and by replacing bland, vague words with vivid, specific ones? By using active verbs rather than passive ones?

16. Can I eliminate any pretentious or unnecessary jargon or language that’s inappropriate for my audience? Replace clichés and trite expressions with fresh, original phrases?

Click here for a Printable Editing Checklist.

Edit for Errors

17. Did I read my essay aloud to hear how it sounds? Or, did I have someone else read my essay aloud to me so I could listen and look for errors?

18. Did I read my essay backwards (sentence by sentence) looking for errors?

19. Did I use the spell check and thesaurus effectively?


20. Did I print out a hard copy draft to proofread before submitting the essay?

21. Did I check my MLA formatting and assignment directions if necessary?