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Revision


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Revision is writing, say many. Revision is a natural and necessary part of the writing process. William Zinsser, a noted journalist, said, “Rewriting is the essence of writing well – where the game is won or lost.” Revision means to see again, to look at something from a fresh, critical perspective. It is an ongoing process of rethinking the paper, reconsidering your arguments, reviewing your evidence, refining your purpose, reorganizing your presentation, and reviving stale prose. Proofreading, on the other hand, is fixing the commas and spelling. Rewording, looking for better words, avoiding repetition, and using a thesaurus is the part of revision called editing. It is “ … never too late, in life or in fiction we create, to revise” – Nancy Thayer. Maturity is realized when we accept that we are responsible for our lives and have important decisions to make. With knowledge, we can revise not only our writings, but our choices, ideas, and decision to write well.

Writing is a process of discovery and you do not always produce your best stuff when you first get started. Revision is a chance for you to look critically at what you have written to see,

  • If it’s really worth saying
  • If it says what you wanted to say, and
  • If a reader will understand what you are saying

First, concern yourself with the larger issues. Ignore minor errors like punctuation. What is the focus of your essay? Is it responsive to the writing prompt? Does it meet the rhetorical style needs of the prompt, e.g., an analytical essay about nonfiction, fiction, persuasive or an argumentative essay? Do you stay focused in every sentence? While William Falkner was a creative alcoholic, he was an amazing writer. He said that one should not “ … bother to merely be better that your [peers ;] try to be better than yourself.” No one, perhaps especially me, should insist on understanding and seeing with perfect clarity, for if one does, one will never make a decision.

Is the introduction of your essay brief and clear? Does it include the author’s name and the title of the text? Think honestly about your thesis. After studying the body paragraphs of your essay, do you think it is focused on the same ideas and subjects? Should it be modified, strengthened, or focused? Does it make a sophisticated, provocative claim? Does it generalize rather than use specificity? Should it be deleted and rewritten? The first step in deciding to learn new ways to write and learn, to change and revise, to take first steps, however many we must take, is that hardest lesson. One cannot learn without a commitment to make first in line the time to learn and study, for considerable time is imperative to achieving the original writing of a work worth reading again and again.

Are some parts of your essay out of proportion in length to the others? Do you have paragraphs longer than ½ to ¾ of a page? Do you spend an approximately equal amount of written text on each claim and analysis? Do you begin each area of analysis with a claim or argument (or, if applicable, a topic sentence)? Do you use formal language or conversational language – if the latter, formalize the language. Do you ask questions in your essay? This is not recommended because (1) few students correctly answer their questions, or (2) the questions are rhetorical and not intended to be answered, which serves no analytical purpose. For each claim, do you have a supportive major quote or paraphrase? Do you accurately, but in your own words, provide the lesson the text author is teaching? For each area of analysis, did you write sentences that begin with your idea for analysis and end with supporting textual evidence?

Do you spell correctly (words in essays from my classes):

accept                            except
whether                         weather
their                              there
your                              you’re
exceed                          accede
ascent                           assent
advice                          advise
altar                             alter
cannot                          can not
casual                          causal
choose                         chose
cite                             site
definite                      defiant
affect                         effect
eminent                      imminent
excess                         access
hear                            here
incidents                     incidence
its                               it’s
led                             lead
lose                           loose
manner                     manor
miner                       minor
nobody                    no body
no                            know
pain                           pane
past                           passed
personal                    personnel
quiet                         quite
than                           then
threw                        through
waive                         wave

Is your essay logically organized? Are your facts, quotes, paraphrases, summary sentences cited properly? Do you use transition sentences where appropriate? Sometimes revision means throwing out the entire essay and beginning over. You will try hard to keep parts of the original and, with advice, parts may well be retainable. However, if you wrote a summary essay, throw it out and start over. Professional writers know when to toss out writing.

Work from a printed copy when you revise. It is important to be able to place pages next to each other to identify repetition, redundancy, or similarity of context use (this refers to placing pages 3-4 next to page 7, et al). Read your essay out loud or to someone else. Whenever you sense something is wrong, mark the essay and revisit it and figure out what the problem is. Think about opposing views to avoid showing a bias. The more you produce (outlining and writing), the more you have to work with and you can choose between weak and strong paragraphs or arguments. Demand clarity and focus of your writing.

Never use a thesaurus to simply replace a word – usage is often different. If you are going to use a dictionary (for CSUSM students), use the on-line database Oxford English Dictionary and use the full definitions and usages choice, not the brief reference. Do not use dictionary.com or similar online tools. The paperback desktop dictionaries are not recommended for new words. For example, in most desktop dictionaries, the word character has five or six meanings or usages. In the OED, you find nineteen definitions or usages.

When do you start to revise? When you finish the first draft and before you hand it in. Many students treat a first draft as a rough draft, believing that since they have the choice of later revising the essay and receiving a new grade, they will do so. My experience is that the vast majority fail to do revisions in a timely fashion and procrastinate, running out of time. At the end of the semester, the course grade is calculated based upon all graded items and other things. Why end up with a C+, B-, or B, when you could receive an A?

Reorganization. Reverse outline your essay to identify organization problems. This task lets you identify other problems: no or weak claims, no or author driven lessons, poor discussion or analysis or failure to write conclusions, among other issues. Review your essay with a Writing Center tutor or your instructor. Take notes when someone provides you with feedback. Do not reply on your memory – it is faulty.

Increase clarity by avoiding wordiness:

society                                                   the world
in fact, what [name] meant                  what [name] meant
in the event that                                    if
concerning the matter of                      about
due to the fact that                               because
in fact                                                   [delete]
at that point                                         then or when
in all cases                                           always
regardless of the fact that                   although

Avoid using clichés. You may think it sounds good – it does not. They are trite, boring and of no literary value except perhaps in a creative writing work. Own your writing! Say it for yourself. Use your own words. You may think what someone else wrote but, using it is called cheating! Use key words correctly. Professors need to know you are learning from your books, materials, lecture and handouts.

Repetition means: the action of repeating or saying over again something which one has already said; reiteration; or, the use of repeated words or phrases. Redundancy means: superabundant, superfluous, excessive, or, characterized by superfluity or excess in some respect; having some additional or superfluous part, element, or feature, or, capable of being removed without causing loss of meaning.

Reflection refers to the action of fixing the thoughts on a subject, meditation, deep or serious consideration, and recollection or remembrance, a remark made in reflection on a subject. Reflection, an important part of sophisticated writing, contemplates that you:

  • Choose a claim or topic within your essay that allows deep reflection
  • Present the occasion for reflections concretely and interestingly
  • Clearly imply the relevance of the occasion to reflection
  • Develop the reflection
  • Surprise your reader with unexpected insights
  • Move at least tentatively from personal experience to implications relevant to the claim and subject
  • Maintain thematic coherence in your essay

I have never pretended to have all the answers or to have a writing pedagogy that is perfect. John P. Loughrane said, “It is a sign of strength, not of weakness, to admit that you don’t know it all the answers.” Nor am I claiming any particular strength greater than anyone else, but I do my best to teach competent writing.

How do you revise at the sentence level?

Read your paper out loud, sentence by sentence, and follow Peter Elbow's advice: "Look for places where you stumble or get lost in the middle of a sentence. These are obvious awkwardness's that need fixing. Look for places where you get distracted or even bored-where you cannot concentrate. These are places where you probably lost focus or concentration in your writing. Cut through the extra words or vagueness or digression; get back to the energy. Listen even for the tiniest jerk or stumble in your reading, the tiniest lessening of your energy or focus or concentration as you say the words ". . . a sentence should be alive."

TIPS and Practical advice for ensuring that your sentences are alive:

Use forceful verbs - replace long verb phrases with a more specific verb. For example, replace "She argues for the importance of the idea" with "She defends the idea."

Look for places where you've used the same word or phrase twice or more in consecutive sentences and look for alternative ways to say the same thing OR for ways to combine the two sentences.

Cut as many prepositional phrases as you can without losing your meaning. For instance, the following sentence, "There are several examples of the issue of integrity in Huck Finn," would be much better this way, "Huck Finn repeatedly addresses the issue of integrity."

Check your sentence variety. If more than two sentences in a row start the same way (with a subject followed by a verb, for example), then try using introductory clauses.

Aim for precision in word choice. Don't settle for the best word you can think of at the moment - use a thesaurus (along with a dictionary) to search for the word that says exactly what you want to say.

Look for sentences that start with "It is" or "There are" and mark through them with heavy black marker and swear that in the future you will use such constructions only in the most desperate cases.

Start early. That way you can give yourself some time to come back to look at what you've written with a fresh pair of eyes. It's amazing how something that sounded brilliant the moment you wrote it can prove to be less-than-brilliant when you give it a chance to incubate.

Reorganizing your draft

A lot of students who come to Writing Center tutors wonder whether their draft "flows" -- that is, whether the ideas are connected in a logical order to make a compelling argument. If you're worried about "flow," chances are you're already sensing some problems with your organizational scheme. It's time to reorganize!

Prerequisites:

Three prerequisites will help you reorganize your draft. One is vital: a working thesis statement to give you a focus for organizing.

Strategies

Here are five strategies you can use to reorganize. Read through all of them before you begin and decide which seems like the best fit for solving the problems you see in your draft.

Strategy 1. Reverse Outlining

Your paper may benefit from reverse outlining, in order to help it realize its promising thesis. Your aim is to create an outline of what you've already written, as opposed to the kind of outline that you make before you begin to write. The reverse outline will help you evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of both your organization and your argument.

Read the draft and take notes - Read your draft over, and as you do so, make very brief notes in the margin about what each paragraph is trying to accomplish.

Outline the Draft - After you've read through the entire draft, transfer the brief notes to a fresh sheet of paper, listing them in the order in which they appear. You should end up with something like this:

Paragraph 1: Intro

Paragraph 2: Background on Huck Finn

Paragraph 3: River for Huck and Jim

Paragraph 4: Shore and laws for Huck and Jim

Paragraph 5: Shore and family, school

Paragraph 6: River and freedom, democracy

Paragraph 7: River and shore similarities

Paragraph 8: Conclusion

Examine the Outline

Look for repetition and other organizational problems. In the reverse outline above, there's a problem somewhere in Paragraphs 3-7, where the potential for repetition is high because you keep moving back and forth between river and shore.

Re-examine the Thesis, the Outline, and the Draft Together

Look closely at the outline and see how well it supports the argument in your thesis statement. You should be able to see which paragraphs need rewriting, reordering or rejecting. You may find some paragraphs are tangential or irrelevant to the focus of your argument or that some paragraphs have more than one idea and need reworking.

Strategy 2. Talk It Out

This strategy forces to explain your thinking to someone else. Find a friend,, a relative, a Writing Center tutor, a class peer, a group member, or any sympathetic and intelligent listener. Since we are more accustomed to talking than to writing, the ways we explain things out loud often makes more sense both to us and to our audience than when we first write them down. Pressure, anxiety, and expectations can cloud our writing, so it's a good idea just to talk about ideas in order to relieve some of those feelings.

Explain What Your Paper Is About

Pay attention to how you explain your argument verbally. Chances are that the order in which you present your ideas and evidence to your listener is a logical way to arrange them in your paper. Let's say that you begin (as you did above) with the working thesis. As you continue to explain, you realize that even though your draft doesn't mention "private enterprise" until the last two paragraphs, you begin to talk about it right away. This fact should tell you that you probably need to discuss private enterprise near the beginning.

Take Notes - You and your listener should keep track of the way you explain your paper. You probably won't remember it all if you don't, and then you'll just rely on what you've already written. Compare the structure of the argument in the notes to the structure of the draft you've written.

Get Your Listener to Ask Questions

As the writer, it is in your interest to receive constructive criticism so that your draft will become stronger. You want your listener to say things like, "Would you mind explaining that point about being both conservative and liberal again? I wasn't sure I followed" or "What kind of economic principle is government relief? Is it communist? Archaic? Ridiculous?" Questions you can't answer may signal an unnecessary tangent or an area needing further development in the draft. Questions you need to think about will probably make you realize that you need to explain more your paper. In short, you want to know that your listener fully understands you; if not, chances are your readers won't, either.

Strategy 3: Listing and Narrowing Your Argument

What might be giving you trouble with organization is that you've created some very broad categories to work with (slavery, morality, institutions). They're all relevant to the Civil War, but there's only so much you can do in a three-, five-, or even ten-page paper. If you look more closely, you can narrow your argument by finding more specific terms; narrowing your argument will, in turn, help you rethink your organization.

Make a list - In two columns, list the reasons why each side fought the Civil War, limiting yourself to ones you address (however briefly) in your draft. Let's say you come up with something like the following:

Re-examine the draft's general structure

It seems from the list and the revised thesis statement that you probably want to establish the similarities first and then explain the differences. Check your draft; did you begin with the similarities and move on to the differences? If not, you need to reorganize.

Reorganize the argument

You still need to ask yourself which differences are most important. The order in which you present your points generally reflects a hierarchy of significance for your readers to follow.

Strategy 4: Sectioning

Sectioning works particularly well for long papers where you will be contending with a number of ideas and a complicated argument. It's also useful if you are having difficulty distinguishing between the goals of each paragraph.

Re-examine the Entire Argument

Which section do you want to appear first? Why? Which Second? Why? In what order should the paragraphs appear in each section? And so on. Look for an order that makes the strongest possible argument.

Strategy 5: Visualizing

Many people find that a visual brainstorming technique called clustering, mapping, or webbing is a good tool for rethinking a draft's organization. We tell you how to do it in our handout on brainstorming.

Word Choice and Vocabulary.

If you frequently find words like "awkward," "vague," or "wordy" in between the lines and on the margins of your graded papers, this is the handout for you. Keep in mind that this handout is intended for use during the revision process. Finding the right words is fundamentally an issue of choice, which means first locating what’s not quite right with original choices. Revising for word choice is not about prettifying your writing or sounding sophisticated; it is about expressing your ideas clearly and effectively.

As you read further into the handout, keep in mind that it can take more time to "save" words from the original sentence than to write a brand new sentence to convey the same meaning or idea. Don’t be too attached to what you’ve already written; if you are willing to start a sentence fresh you may be able to chose words with greater clarity.

I. Increasing Clarity by Eliminating Wordiness:

So you write a paper that makes perfect sense to you, but it comes back with "awkward" scribbled throughout the margins. Why, you wonder, are instructors so fond of the term "awkward"? If they had difficulty comprehending the sentence, rather than rewrite it for you, they jot down a marker like "awkward" to encourage you to rewrite it more clearly.

How does a sentence get cloudy despite our desire for clarity? Our writing can become unclear in a variety of ways, including:

v misused terms, e.g.: "I sprayed the ants in their ‘private places.’"

v unclear pronouns, e.g.: "My cousin Jake hugged my brother Trey, even though he didn’t like him very much."

v misused words, e.g.: "Cree Indians were a monotonous culture until French and British settlers arrived."

v jargon, e.g.: "The dialectical interface between neo-Platonists and anti-disestablishment Catholics offers an algorithm for deontological thought."

v garbled syntax, e.g.: "As a woman, he liked her."

v loaded language, e.g.: "Huck Finn suggests that to recover democratic ideals, one must leave civilized society."

v Colloquialisms, e.g.: "Moulin Rouge really bit because the singing was of poor quality and the costume colors were nasty."

II. Audience

Academic writing does not ask you to sound intelligent. Rather, it asks that you get your intelligent points across clearly and understandably. But what about those articles or books you read for class that rely on large, complex words and do "sound intelligent"? Don’t be fooled. While intelligent points might lurk beneath that intelligent-sounding language, you should be wary: big words frequently hide pretty simple thoughts. Like other professionals, professors have cultivated a style, but it’s probably not one that you are immediately able to imitate.

When writing for your professor, think about clarity and proper usage. Using simple but precise words does not indicate simple thoughts. In an academic argumentative paper, what makes the thesis, and presumably the ensuing argument, sophisticated, are the connections made in simple, clear English.

III. Selecting and Using Key Terms

When writing academic papers, it is often helpful to find key terms and use them within your paper as well as in your thesis. This section does two things: comments on the crucial difference between repetition and redundancy of terms and works through an example of using key terms in a thesis statement.

Repetition vs. Redundancy

These two phenomena are not necessarily the same. Repetition can be a good thing. Sometimes we have to use our key terms several times within a paper, especially in topic sentences. Sometimes there is simply no substitute for the key terms and selecting a weaker term as a synonym can do more harm than good. Repeating key terms emphasizes our important points and signals to our reader that the argument is still being supported. This kind of repetition can give your paper cohesion and is done by conscious choice.

In contrast, if you find yourself frustrated, tiredly repeating the same nouns, verbs, or adjectives, or making the same point over and over, you are probably being redundant. In this case, you are swimming aimlessly around the same points because you have not decided what your argument really is or because you are truly fatigued and clarity escapes you.

Building Clear Thesis Statements:

Writing clear sentences is important throughout our writing. For the purposes of this handout, let’s focus on the thesis statement-one of the most important sentences in academic argument papers. You can apply these ideas to other sentences in your papers.

A common problem with writing good thesis sentences is finding the words or phrases that best capture both the important elements and the significance of the essay’s argument. It is not always easy to summarize several paragraphs or several pages into concise key terms that, when combined in one sentence, can effectively describe the argument. However, taking the time to find the right words offers writers a significant edge in the clarity and organization of their arguments. Concise and appropriate terms will help both the writer and the reader keep track of what the essay will show, and how it will show it.

Strategies:

Do not use words you are unfamiliar with.

Make sure that you are using the right words in the right context.

If you feel that the words you’re using aren’t quite right, look up alternatives in the thesaurus and then, if you’re not overly familiar with those words, check their meaning in a dictionary to make sure they’re appropriate in the context of your paper.

Make sure you are first using accurate and strong nouns and verbs before you revise for accurate and strong adjectives. (e.g., "The novel shows…" "Chicken fighting reflects…" "The policy illustrates…") As a second step you can ask yourself …What? How? Why?

Make nouns into verbs, eliminate prepositions, and avoid passive constructions whenever possible.

Try the slash/option technique, which is like brainstorming as you write. When you get stuck, write out two or more choices for a questionable word or a confusing sentence, e.g., "questionable/inaccurate/vague/inappropriate." Pick the word that best indicates your meaning or combine different terms to say what you mean.

Look for repetition. When you find it, decide if it is "good" repetition (using key terms that are crucial and helpful to meaning) or "bad" repetition (redundancy or laziness in reusing words that shows you’ll need to work harder to say what you really mean).

Write your thesis in five different ways. Make five different versions of your thesis sentence. Compose five sentences that express your argument. Try to come up with four alternatives to the thesis sentence you’ve already written. Find five possible ways to communicate your argument in one sentence to your reader.

Whenever we write a sentence we make choices. Some are less obvious than others, so that it can often feel like we’ve written the sentence the only way we know how. By writing out five different versions of your thesis, you can begin to see your range of choices. The final version may be a combination of phrasings and words from all five versions, or the one version that says it best. By literally spelling out some possibilities for yourself, you will be able to make better decisions.

Read your paper out loud and at… a… slow… pace. You can do this alone or with a friend, roommate, TA, etc. When read out loud, your written words should make sense to both you and other listeners. If it seems confusing, rewrite it using different words and altered syntax and/or grammar that make the meaning clear.

Try this "out loud" strategy but instead of reading the paper itself, put it down and just talk through your argument as concisely as you can. If your listener quickly and easily comprehends your essay’s main point and significance, you should then make sure that your written words are as clear as your oral presentation was. If, on the other hand, your listener keeps asking for clarification, you will need to work on finding the right terms for your essay. If you do this in exchange with a friend or classmate, rest assured that whether you are the talker or the listener, your articulation skills will develop.

Have someone not familiar with the issue read the paper and point out words or sentences they find confusing. Do not justify their confusion by assuming they simply don’t know enough about the topic. Instead, rewrite the sentences so that your "outsider" reader can follow along at all times.

Questions to Ask Yourself:

Am I sure what each word I use really means? Am I positive or should I look it up?

Have I found the best word, or just settled for the most obvious, or the easiest, one?

Am I trying too hard to impress my reader?

What’s the easiest way to write this sentence? (Sometimes it helps to answer this question by trying it out loud. How would you say it to someone?)

What are the key terms of my argument?

Can I outline out my argument using only these key terms? What others do I need? Which do I not need?

Have I created my own terms, or have I simply borrowed what looked like key ones from the assignment? If I’ve borrowed the terms, can I find better ones in my own vocabulary, the texts, my notes, the dictionary, or the thesaurus to make myself clearer?

Are my key terms too specific? (Do they cover the entire range of my argument?) Can I think of specific examples from my sources that fall under the key term?

Are my key terms too vague? (Do they cover more than the range of my argument?
Did I use first or second person?