On Revising

Writing calls on two skills that are so different that they usually conflict with each other: creating and criticizing. In other words, writing calls on the ability to create words and ideas out of yourself, but it also calls on the ability to criticize them in order to decide which ones to use. It is true that these opposite mental processes can go on at the same time. When they do, you find yourself writing words that that are at once inventive and rich, yet also shrewd, tough-minded, and well-ordered. But such magical sessions are rare. Most of the time it helps to separate the creating and the criticizing processes so that you can generate as many words and ideas as possible without worrying whether they are good; then turn around and adopt a critical frame of mind and thoroughly revise what you have written – taking what’s good and discarding what isn’t and shaping what’s left into something strong. You’ll discover that the two mentalities needed for these two processes – an inventive fecundity and a tough critical-mindedness – flower most when they get a chance to operate separately.  —Peter Elbow

In revising your writing, the chief point you need to keep clear in your mind is the distinction between revising and editing. Editing is best thought of as housecleaning: you pick up, sweep, vacuum, occasionally move a small pice of furniture or two. That is, you check your spelling and punctuation, make sure your syntax is clear and your word-choice precise, cut unnecessary words or sentences, and occasionally move sentences around for greater clarity or force.

Revising is more like remodeling — or at least making remodeling a real possibility in your mind. The reviser has to be ready not just to pick up and clean up and do a little rearranging; the reviser wants to make the house all it can be, and is therefore willing to paint the whole darn thing, turn the living area into a dining room and a bedroom into a study, retile the bathroom floor or even add a new bathroom. That is, the reviser looks at his or her whole essay and asks what has to be done to make it what it should be. Do I need a whole different tone throughout (more casual or more formal)? Should my third subthesis (major point) be my first? Do I have six subtheses treated superficially when I really need just two treated in depth? 

Faced with these decisions, the reviser sometimes thinks it would be a heck of a lot easier just to throw the old essay out and start over. Alas, I do not offer this option. The skills of revising — of making an existing thing better — are not learned by throwing something out and starting over.

So: how do you know how much to revise? How do you know when to make minor changes and when to make major ones? Start by asking yourself some questions:

  • Do I have a thesis? (You’d better, because if not you’re in trouble.)
  • Do my subtheses all support that thesis? (If not, immediately delete all the ones that don’t, and work from that point on with those that do.)
  • Do I explain clearly how my subtheses support my thesis?
  • Have I placed the greatest emphasis on my strongest evidence?
  • Are my paragraphs in the strongest possible order?
  • Have I written clearly?
  • Have I written vividly?

There are several excellent Internet sites devoted to revision, and you can get a good list of them here. Scroll a bit down the page and you’ll find links to sites that will help you with editing, citing sources, and other useful skills.

Grading (this only applies to a formal revision assignment, not to revisions you do on drafts): When I'm grading revisions, I evaluate them in two ways. First, I ask myself what grade I would give the essay if it were a brand-new one. Second, I consider how much better the essay is than its predecessor — that is, than the essay that it's a revision of. The revision's grade will, roughly speaking, be the average of those two evaluations.

An example: let's say that your first essay received a grade of 65. (Ouch, huh?) You think you can do better, and you do a pretty thorough revision. I read it, and decide that if it had been an original essay I would have given it an 85, a solid B. But that's a pretty significant improvement — if I thought of improvement only I would probably give it something like a 93. So, averaging those two, I call it an 89. If the essay had been a little better, say a 90 if it were an original, then that would mark a tremendous improvement over the original, so the final grade would be a 95. So if you work very hard at producing a thorough and careful revision, you can bring your grade up significantly. (If you're the sort of person who cares about that kind of thing.)

But: if all you are willing to do is some editing — if you're not up to the noble challenge of true revision — then you'd be better off declining the opportunity to revise. Your degree of improvement will not be admirable, and therefore the math will not be in your favor. Better in that case to leave things as they are.

Also, for general comments on how I grade, see this page

© Alan Jacobs 2017