FYWP Online Help Module II: Revision Strategies

Need to take your draft to the next level? Try these great strategies!

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Strategy 1: Before You Turn It In (Review, Rate, and Revise)

 

hemingway-fitzgerald2You've finished writing a draft of your paper. What now?

As any writer will attest, you need to revise your paper before you turn it in. No matter how well written it might be, the first draft of an academic paper is almost never A-quality work. You will need to reread it, and revise. Sometimes, the revisions will be minor. Other times, more drastic changes have to be made. Either way, in almost every case, something has to be changed and improved.

Even the most highly regarded and famous authors need another pair of eyes. Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway showed a draft of A Farewell to Arms to F. Scott Fitzgerald seeking a second opinion.

To get you there, we have devised a series of steps to guide you through the revision process. In what follows we will ask you to review your assignment, rate the draft you have so far, and revise what you have in order to strengthen your work and avoid potential problems. Revision takes time and work; but the effort you put in will significantly improve your final draft.

Before you begin, print out a copy of your draft and have it nearby as you move through this tutorial.

Strategy 2: Review

 

Before beginning to revise, it is important to review what you are expected to write and to what end. This may seem obvious, but taking the time to return to the original prompt and think carefully about the assignment and instructions can help you transition from your first draft to your final product. You might want to revisit your syllabus, as well, and consider the course goals: if, for example, you're in a research-based history course, and your paper is an opinion piece on current events, you probably want to rethink your strategy. Take 10 minutes to reflect on the following questions and write your responses in the 'Writing Practice Text Box' or write on paper.

•  What is the purpose of the assignment? What are its requirements? Does your paper satisfy those requirements? For example, does your paper require evidence or outside research? If so, have you incorporated citations into your paper?

•  Who is the audience? Certainly it is your professor. But every essay has an imagined audience a writer must consider when crafting the essay's voice, tone, organization, and use of evidence. Is your audience very familiar with your topic? Generally interested? What does your audience absolutely need to know in order to understand your paper?

Strategy 3: Rate

 

rate-croppedNow that you have a firm idea of the paper's requirements and how well your paper satisfies those requirements, it is time to review the strength of your essay and how it works.

First, consider your introduction. The purpose of the introduction is primarily to lay the groundwork for your thesis. Review your answers to the questions dealing with audience, above. What does your imagined audience already know about your topic? What do they need to know in order to understand your thesis? Anything more than the essentials will make it look like you're padding your paper in order to fill pages. Does your audience absolutely need to know, for example, that "since the dawn of time, people have argued about politics"? Probably not. Take out anything that's not essential. Get straight to the point. 

Once you've cut the fluff out of your introduction, you're ready for the interactive exercises, below. Write your responses in the 'Writing Practice Text Box' or on paper.  

  1. To begin, please write your thesis, argument, or main point in a single sentence.
  2. Now take a moment to assess your thesis. How original is it? Is it vague or specific? How engaging is your argument? Is your argument debatable, or is it simply an observation. For example, a paper that claims "Almost every community has grocery stores" does not really have an argument – this is an observation that no one would really dispute. On the other hand, a paper that claims "Most community grocery stores disrupt our natural relationship with food" offers a more controversial and debatable argument.
  3. Take 5 minutes to assess below the quality of your thesis. What aspects of your thesis might be improved, made more specific, or original? If you are writing an argument, can you imagine readers who will disagree with your argument? Why? 
  4. Next, check your final paragraph. What is your conclusion? Try to summarize it in a single sentence.
  5. Is your conclusion just a restatement of your thesis? How is your conclusion different from your introduction? In other words, how does your conclusion extend your thesis or main point (as stated earlier) to connect to larger conversations connected to your topic? Take 5 minutes to review the quality of your conclusion. 
  6. Between your introduction and your conclusion, enter the number of paragraphs. A box will appear for each paragraph. Within each box, write the main idea of the paragraph. Try to summarize the main idea in a single, complete sentence.

Reverse Outline

skeletonWhat you have now is a list of sentences, starting with the thesis and ending with your conclusion. This is a reverse outline, or a kind of x-ray of your essay's structure.

Reflecting on this skeleton, evaluate how well your paper leads from beginning to end. Are the main points in logical order? Are there steps that need rearranging; do you need better transitions between main ideas? In some cases, this is simply a matter of switching the order of the paragraphs. In other cases, you might need to completely rewrite a few paragraphs, or add paragraphs to support your thesis more effectively. You might find that the main idea of one paragraph simply repeats the main idea of another paragraph. Repetition is almost never persuasive.

Write your responses to this exercise in the 'Writing Practice Text Box' or on paper.

  1. Write for 10 minutes on what you notice about your outline and what might be improved.
  2. Now is also the time to consider your title. Write your title below.
  3. How does your title introduce your topic and argument? How does it engage and excite your reader? Is it obvious or creative? Are there ways you can use humor, controversy, or a question to strengthen your title? The title is where your essay begins and provides the first impression for the reader. Therefore, it is worth taking time to craft a thoughtful and memorable title. Use the space below for a few minutes to try different titles.

Strategy 4: Revise

 

Now that you have a much clearer idea of your paper's purpose and what it needs, it is time to revise.

There are two kinds of revision. One type of revision deals with the big picture: the content of your paper, as well as the overall structure. The other kind of revision (sometimes called editing) deals with the sentence-level details: grammar, punctuation, spelling, and sentence structure. If you want to earn a high grade, you'll want to do both kinds of revision.

Focus first on the overall shape. The paper has to be well organized and clearly move from beginning to middle to end. Each paragraph needs to present and develop a main idea. As you read your paragraphs, look for the main idea in each paragraph and make sure that all the other details in the paragraph relate to it. If you find details that don't relate to the main idea, then you should think about removing them (or else moving them elsewhere in the paper).

You might try going through a paragraph with two different color highlighters. Highlight the main idea in one color. Highlight any sentence that doesn't relate to your main idea in a different color. Then reread your paper and see if you can find a more logical place to put the sentences that don't relate. Sometimes, you'll find you have to write a new paragraph altogether. Other times, you'll just have to scrap the extra sentences. It's better to throw a few things out than it is to have your paper crammed with extra words.

Remember: revision is usually at least half (if not 85%) of the work you need to do in order to write a really good paper. The fact that you spent seven hours writing the first draft doesn't mean very much. Even bestselling writers revise their work, sometimes deleting entire paragraphs, even pages, of text in order to keep their writing concise. Consider the sample below, from the notebooks of UMass Lowell Professor Andre Dubus III, bestselling author of the novel House of Sand and Fog. Below, in the right margin, are pages from the original handwritten draft of his memoir, Townie.    

Dubus1Dubus2In this scene, Dubus describes the way it felt to give his father a piece of bad news.

You can easily see how much text Dubus threw out in order to arrive at the brief, powerful paragraph, below, which appears in the published version.

excerpt-andre

Don't be afraid to throw some of your writing away. As a writer, you have to make choices: not just about what to say, but what not to say. Some of your best work will be the result of careful editing: by making cuts, like the one above, you'll produce concise, persuasive prose, whether you're writing a personal essay (similar in spirit to Townie) or an argumentative research paper. As much as your professors might insist on a particular word count, they are never asking for fluff. If, for example, your professor asks for a thousand words, he or she is expecting one thousand words that matter: not five hundred words of substance and five hundred more words thrown in to meet the length requirement. The most important thing is to make sure that every sentence counts. Concise writing will always win the day.

As you navigate the process of revising your draft, you will find it helpful to get feedback from your professors and/or other readers. Professors have a good sense of what they expect from you on your papers, and they often provide very detailed feedback. Consider the example of a student's paper from a UMass Lowell course, Introduction to Epidemiology.

Thanks to Prof. Leland Ackerson and his student for the use of this example. You can view other drafts of this paper, listed in the following table.

Draft 1  Draft 1 with Comments

Draft 5   Draft 5 with Comments

Draft 2  Draft 2 with Comments

Draft 6  Draft 6 with Comments

Draft 3   Draft 3 with Comments

Draft 7   Draft 7 with Comments

Draft 4   Draft 4 with Comments

Final Draft

As we mentioned above, other readers can offer good feedback, too. Consider making an appointment with The Write Place, UML's tutoring service for writers. You can find information about the Write Place at http://www.uml.edu/CLASS/Tutoring/The-write-place.aspx. You also might consider asking a friend or classmate to read your paper and provide feedback. It might seem unusual to ask a friend to read your paper. However, you might find that peers provide some of the most useful feedback you will receive.

As you receive this feedback, revise your draft. You may incorporate a lot of the suggestions of your readers, and you may find that you have your own ideas for revision as well. Though it can be a challenge to make your writing stronger, clearer, and more interesting, you will be happy with the results. If you would like help producing new material, see our other online module’s sections on "Generating Content."

Once you have finished your content-level revision, you should move to some of the "small stuff." Look for recurring patterns of error, as well as "typos" that pop up from time to time when we type quickly. The small stuff is important, so don't leave out this step, even though you might have been working on your paper for quite a long time now. Remember that if your paper is full of mistakes—if the sentences aren't clear, if there are several misspelled words or misplaced commas—it's going to significantly impact your final grade.

While there can be no substitute for a good style manual and dictionary, using your word processor's spell-checker is a good start. 

Resources

 

Here is a list of resources that we think you might find useful as you revise:

Online Writing Lab (OWL): http://owl.english.purdue.edu/
Donald Murray, The Craft of Revision (2004)
Joseph Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (1990)
William Zissner, On Writing Well (2006)