Revision: Cultivating a Critical Eye

Why And How To Revise

Most of us who compose on a computer understand revision as an ongoing, even constant process. Every time you hit the delete button, every time you cut and paste, every time you take out a comma or exchange one word for another, you're revising.

But real revision is more than making a few changes here and there. Real revision requires that you open yourself up to the possibility that parts of your paper - and even your entire paper - might need to be re-thought, and re-written.

Achieving this state of mind is difficult. First, you might be very attached to what you've written. You may be unwilling to change a word, let alone three or four paragraphs. Second, there is the matter of time: you sense that the paper needs major work, but it's due tomorrow, or you have an exam in physics, or you're coming down with a cold and know that you need to sleep. Third, you may have difficulty understanding what, exactly, is wrong with your paper. Finally, you might simply be sick and tired of your paper. How can you give it another go-through when exhaustion has you in its grip? Why should you be bothered with (or overwhelmed by) the process of revising?

Of course, we might convince you that revision is worth the extra effort simply by saying that revising a paper will help you to achieve a better grade. A reader can sense when a piece of writing has been thoroughly considered and re-considered. This "consideration" (and here we mean the word in both of its meanings) is not lost on your professor and will be rewarded.

But more important than grades is that revising your papers teaches you to be a better writer. Professional writers know that writing is rewriting, and that the best way to learn to write is to rewrite. In the revision process, you improve your reading skills and your analytical skills. You learn to challenge your own ideas, thus deepening and strengthening your argument. You learn to find the weaknesses in your writing. You may even discover patterns of error or habits of organization that are undermining your papers.

Though revising takes time and energy, it also helps you to become a more efficient writer down the road. If, for example, you have discovered through the revision process that you tend to bury your topic sentences in the middle of your paragraphs, you can take this discovery with you as you draft your next paper.

Perhaps we've answered the question "Why should I revise?" The next question, of course, is "How?" There are many different kinds of revising:

Large-Scale Revision.

This kind of revision involves looking at the entire paper for places where your thinking seems to go awry. You might need to provide evidence, define terms, or add an entirely new step to your reasoning. You might even decide to restructure or rewrite your paper completely if you discover a new idea that intrigues you, or a structure that seems to be more effective than the one you've been using.

Small-Scale Revision.

Small-scale revision needs to happen when you know that a certain part of your paper isn't working. Maybe the introduction needs work. Maybe one part of the argument seems weak. Once you've located the problem, you'll focus on revising that one section of your paper. When you are finished you will want to reconsider your paper as a whole to make sure that your revisions work in the context of the entire paper.

Editing.

Too often students confuse editing with revision. They are not the same processes. Editing is the process of finding minor problems with a text - problems that might easily be fixed by deleting a word or sentence, cutting and pasting a paragraph, and so on. When you edit, you are considering your reader. You might be happy with how you've written your paper, but will your reader find your paper clear, readable, interesting? How can you rewrite the paper so that it is clearer, more concise, and, most important of all, a pleasure to read?

Proofreading.

When you proofread you are looking for mistakes in your paper. Common mistakes caught in proofreading include punctuation errors, spelling errors, subject-verb agreement, its/it's confusion, their/there confusion, and so on. When you proofread, you need to slow down your reading, allowing your eye to focus on every word, every phrase of your paper. Reading aloud can help you slow down, pointing your attention to errors that have gone unseen.

The very best writers will revise in all the ways listed here. To manage these various levels of revision, it's very important that you get an early start on your papers so that you have time to make any substantive, large-scale revisions that your paper might need. Good writers also understand that revision is an ongoing process, not necessarily something that you do only after your first draft is complete. You might find, for example, that you are stuck halfway through the first draft of your paper. You decide to take a look at what you have so far. As you read, you find that you've neglected to make a point that is essential to the success of your argument. You revise what you've written, making that point clear. In the end, you find that your block is gone. Why? Maybe it's gone because what was blocking you in the first place was a hole in your argument. Or maybe it's gone because you gave your brain a break. In any case, stopping to revise as you draft often proves wise.

Developing a Critical Eye

We've yet to address the matter of how a writer knows what she should revise. Developing a critical eye is perhaps the most difficult part of the revision process. But having a critical eye makes you a better writer, reader, and thinker. So it's worth considering carefully how you might learn to assess your own work.

The first step in this self-assessment is to get some distance from your work. If you've planned your writing process well, you'll have left yourself a day or two to take a break from your writing. If you don't have this luxury, even an hour of video games or a walk over to the library pick up a hard copy of your draft might be enough to clear your head. Many writers find that their mind keeps working on their papers even while their attention is turned elsewhere. When they return to their work, they bring with them a fresh perspective. They also bring a more open, more detached mind.

When you return to your paper, the first thing that you'll want to do is to consider whether or not the paper as a whole meets your (and your professor's) expectations. Read the paper through without stopping (don't get hung up on that troublesome second paragraph). Then ask yourself these questions:

Did I fulfill the assignment?

If the professor gave you instructions for this assignment, reread them and then ask yourself whether or not you addressed all of the matters you were expected to address. Does your paper stray from the assignment? If it does, have you worked to make your argument relevant, or are you coming out of left field? If the professor hasn't given you explicit instructions for this paper, you'll still want to take a moment to consider what the professor expects. What are the main ideas of the course? What books has the professor asked you to read? What position do they take as regards your topic? Has the professor emphasized a certain method of scholarship (feminism, Marxism, etc.)? Has he said anything to you about research methods in his discipline? Does your paper seem to fit into the conversation that the professor has been carrying on in class? Have you written something that other students would find relevant and interesting?

Did I say what I intended to say?

This is perhaps the most difficult question you will ask yourself in the revision process. Many of us think that we have indeed said what we intended to say. When we read our papers, we are able to fill in any holes that might exist in our arguments with the information that we have in our minds. The problem is that our readers sometimes don't have this information in mind. They fall into the holes of our arguments, and they can't get out. It's very important, therefore, to think carefully about what you have said - and to think just as carefully about what you haven't said. Ask yourself: Was I clear? Do I need to define my terms? Has every stage of the argument been articulated clearly? Have I made adequate transitions between my ideas? Is my logic solid? Is it there,for all to see? If the answer to any of these questions is no, you will want to revise your draft.

What are the strengths of my paper?

In order to develop a critical eye, it's just as important to know when you've written well as it is to know when you've written poorly. It helps, therefore, to make a list of what you think you've done well in your draft. It's also helpful to pick out your favorite or strongest paragraph. When you've found a good paragraph, or sentence, or idea, think about why it's good. You'll not only be gaining an understanding of what it means to write well, you'll also be giving yourself a pat on the back - something that's very important to do in the revision process.

What are the weaknesses of my paper?

Looking for weaknesses isn't as fun as looking for strengths, but it's necessary to the revision process. Again, try to make a list of what you haven't done well in this paper. Your list should be as specific as you can make it. Instead of writing, "Problems with paragraphs" you might say "Problems with unity in my paragraphs," or even more specific, "Problems with the transitions between paragraphs 3 & 4 and 12 & 13." Also determine which paragraph (or sentence) you like least in the paper. Figure out why you don't like it, and work to make it better. Then go back through your paper and look for others like it.

Analyzing Your Work

If you've been considering the strengths and weaknesses of your paper, you've already begun to analyze your work. The process of analysis involves breaking down an idea or an argument into its parts and evaluating those parts on their merits. When you analyze your own paper, then, you are breaking that paper down into its parts and asking yourself whether or not these parts support the paper as you envision it.

We've been encouraging you to analyze your work throughout this Web site. Every time we've prodded you to reconsider your thesis, every time we've provided you with a checklist for writing good paragraphs, we have been encouraging you to break your writing down into parts and to review those parts with a critical eye. Here is a checklist reiterating our earlier advice. Use it to analyze your whole paper, or use it to help you to figure out what went wrong with a particular part of your work.

Consider Your Introduction

  • If you are writing a researched paper, does your introduction place your argument in an ongoing conversation?
  • If you're not writing a researched paper, does your introduction set context?
  • Does your introduction define all of your key terms?
  • Does your introduction draw your reader in?
  • Does your introduction lead your reader clearly to your thesis?

Consider Your Thesis

  • Does your thesis say what you want it to say?
  • Does your thesis make a point worth considering? Does it answer the question, "So what?"
  • Does your thesis provide your reader with some sense of the paper's structure?
  • Does the paper deliver what your thesis promises to deliver?

Consider Your Structure

  • Make an outline of the paper you've just written. Does this outline reflect your intentions?
  • Does this outline make sense? Or are there gaps in the logic? Places where you've asked the reader to make leaps you haven't prepared her for?
  • Is each point in your outline adequately developed?
  • Is each point equally developed? (That is, does your paper seem balanced, overall?)
  • Is each point relevant? Interesting?
  • Underline your thesis sentence and all of your topic sentences. Then cut and paste them together to form a paragraph. Does this paragraph make sense?

Consider Your Paragraphs

  • Does each paragraph have a topic sentence that clearly controls the paragraph?
  • Are the paragraphs internally coherent?
  • Are the paragraphs externally coherent? (That is, have you made adequate transitions from paragraph to paragraph? Is each paragraph clearly related to the thesis?)

Consider Your Argument and Its Logic

  • Have you really presented an argument, or is your paper merely a series of observations, a summary?
  • Do you see any holes in your argument? Or do you find the argument convincing?
  • Have you dealt fairly with the opposition? Or have you neglected to mention other possible arguments concerning your topic for fear that they might undermine your work?
  • Have you supplied ample evidence for your arguments?
  • Do you see any logical fallacies? (for more information on logic and logical fallacies, see Logic and Argument.)

Consider your Conclusion

  • Is your conclusion appropriate, or does it introduce some completely new idea?
  • Does your conclusion sum up your main point?
  • Does your conclusion leave your reader with something to think about?
  • Does the language resonate, or does it fall flat? On the other hand, have you inflated the language ridiculously to try to pad a conclusion that is empty and ineffective?

Tips for Revision

In addition to the advice given above, we'd like to offer the following tips for revising your paper.

We've said it before, but it's worth repeating:

Give yourself adequate time to revise.

If you don't start your paper until the night before it's due, you won't be able to revise. If you have a short paper due on Friday, finish your draft no later than Wednesday so that you have Thursday night to revise. If you are working on a long paper, of course you'll want to set aside more time for revising.

Print a hard copy of your paper.

Many people miss problems in their papers when they are reading from the computer screen. Because you can't see the whole paper on the screen, it is sometimes hard to diagnose big structural problems. Having a hard copy of your paper will not only help you to see these problems, but it will give you space in the margins where you might write notes to yourself as you read.

Read your paper out loud.

Sometimes you can hear mistakes that you don't see. Reading aloud will signal to you when something doesn't make sense, when sentences go on for too long, when punctuation has gone awry, and so on.

Get a second reader.

It's often difficult to figure out what's gone wrong in your own paper. This is why getting a second reader is the smartest thing you can do as a writer. A second reader can do a lot for you: she can tell you where she got bored, or confused, or offended, and she can give you advice for improving your work. Remember, though: when you ask someone to read your work, you should be prepared for any criticism they might make. Don't be defensive; instead, try to figure out why your reader feels as she does about your paper. Of course, you don't have to follow every suggestion that your reader makes, but you will certainly profit from her comments and questions, even if you do decide to ignore her advice in the end.

Be a second reader.

There's no better way to learn how to revise your paper than to help someone else revise his. You'll find that your critical eye works much better when it's focused on your friend's paper than it does when it's focused on your own. You can be more objective when looking at someone else's work. You can see more easily what's gone wrong in a paper and how to fix it. When you practice these skills on someone else's paper, you become more adept at practicing them on your own.

Visit RWIT.

Technically, this falls in the category of "getting a second reader." But at RWIT, you get a reader with a difference: that reader has been trained to understand and respond to the problems in your work. Our tutors not only help you to write a better paper, they also ask questions aimed at helping you develop your own critical eye. (For more information, visit the RWIT Web page).