Cycles of Revision

I read about the cycles of revision when I was trying to teach my students how to improve their work. I think they were in a Penguin handbook back in the day–I tend to purge writing handbooks regularly so I can’t cite them exactly.

  1. After reading your draft, clarify your thesis. As any good writing teacher will tell you, you often won’t know what you want to say until you’ve said it. Even if you start out with a thesis, it may need to be modified. Also, during the thesis stage, eliminate all writing that is not relevant to your thesis.
  2. Next, work on paragraph organization. I like to write a one-word summary next to each paragraph, which often helps me see where I need to rearrange. Also, if a paragraph can’t be easily summed up in a word or two, it may have more than one main idea in it and need to be divided.
  3. Now that you know your thesis and you have the structure of your paper figured out, look for places to add evidence. Some of the quotes you cut, for example, may need to be replaced with more appropriate citations.
  4. Read the paper out loud, slowly. Correct any issues of sentence clarity and transitions between paragraphs.
  5. Give your writing to someone else to review. If you want to communicate well, audience feedback is essential.

I find that focusing on different types of problems helps me do a more thorough job of revision. (It is always very difficult for me to avoid the temptation of stopping working once I have a first draft. At the same time, if you’re an endless tinkerer maybe having clear steps to follow would speed you up a bit.)

If you try to correct sentence clarity first, you end up wasting time (re-writing sentences that may not relate to your thesis) or, much worse–never get around to addressing major issues. It’s easy to not see the forest for the trees in revision. Reading with an eye for discovering your thesis–and only discovering your thesis–does more to improve your project than perfect grammar could ever do.


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