Revise, revise, revise

If you do a quick Google search of the topic “why is revision important in writing,” you’ll find educators of all levels chiming in. If you were to ask your favorite writer whether revision is important, the answer would be “it’s essential.”

Let me make a distinction here. As I use the terms, at least, there is a difference between revision and editing. Revision tends to the “big picture” concerns in writing: paragraph structure and organization, idea clarity, connections within and between paragraphs, coherence, focus, and so on. Editing is concerned with “little picture” concerns, primarily what I call GSP–grammar, spelling, punctuation–but also, in academic writing, correct documentation and overall essay format: how the thing looks on the page. (Side note: if you’re writing for an academic audience–either in the context of a class or for a professional publication–how your work looks on the page is absolutely essential. It’s like dressing appropriately for a job interview; no one will know how good you are as a candidate if you don’t look right walking in the door. The overall format of your essay is how you look “walking in the door” for your audience.)

As you might imagine, you need to do both steps: revising and editing. And if you think about it, it makes sense that you need to revise first. After all, it doesn’t make sense to worry about the GSP of a sentence that doesn’t even make it into the final version of the writing.

But revision is really challenging, because it requires you to step outside of your own mind and see your writing as if it had been produced by someone else. My students used to ask me, “Why do I need to revise? I did my best on the first version.” Yes, I’m sure you did, but time after time, I had the experience of sitting down with a student several days or even a week after the essay had been written, and the student suddenly could see places that weren’t clear, or didn’t connect–or even that the essay didn’t have a thesis at all.

Like any other skill, if you want to be really good at writing, you need to be willing to spend a lot, and I mean a lot, of time on your work, combing through it over and over, asking yourself “Is this clear? Could I make it more clear? Is it obvious how this piece connects to that piece? Does the whole thing hold together and do what I set out to do?”

If you read my post about thesis statements, I talked about having a thesis-ish statement to start with but being willing to change it–and revision is where that happens. Even the most skilled of writers (including yours truly) has had the experience of starting out with an idea in mind–“This is the argument I’m making”–only to find that, as we write, we’re actually saying something different, usually better. Revision allows you to have the “Oh, this is what I’m really talking about” moment, so you can pull your argument together in the strongest, most compelling way possible.

Unfortunately, there are no simple, concrete steps to help you see your writing from an outsider’s perspective–and in fact, it can be helpful to actually ask a trustworthy outsider to read your work and offer constructive feedback. (You don’t need a cheerleader who will just say, “I think it’s great! Go you!” You need someone who will say, “This is a cool idea, but it seems out of place here; maybe it would work better there” or “I liked this point, but I wasn’t sure how it connected; maybe it doesn’t belong in this essay at all?”) But even once you get that feedback, it’s still your essay; don’t let anyone take it away from you and make it into theirs. You get to decide whether you agree with the critique–and if you do, you get to decide how to make the adjustments to address the critique.

That’s another thing about revising that’s hard–and this is why tutoring can be extremely helpful. Sometimes you know that something just isn’t working the way you want it to, but you have no idea how to fix it. We can help with that! We’ll offer suggestions, which you can take or adapt until you’re happy with the result. We can also let you know when you’re being too hard on yourself, second-guessing yourself out of anxiety about doing well. You need to learn to recognize what you’re doing right, too; that’s maybe even more important than seeing the places where there’s room for improvement.

One final thought about revision (for this post anyway). You can revise pretty much endlessly. There have been plenty of times when the only thing that stopped me from doing further revision was that I ran out of time and had to submit whatever it was (to my professor, or to an academic journal). But there have also been times when I’ve gone back to something I wrote, which I revised multitudes of times and finally felt pretty content with–and I’ve thought, “Wow, I wrote that? I’m smarter than I thought!” Perfection may be unattainable, but through repeated revisions, you can get to the point where you go, “There. That’s danged good, and I’m happy to send it out there into the world like it is.”