Drafts, editing, and revision

Writing is a process that takes time. Often students forego the revision stage or confuse revisions with proofreading. This site introduces revision and proofreading as two separate (yet connected) stages of the writing process.

Revisions to a piece of writing can happen at several different times during the process. Some writers revise as they go along, laboring intensely over each and every sentence until it seems just right. While this is not necessarily a wrong approach, it is a time-consuming one and it might indeed be hindering a more natural flow of the argument of the paper. Getting stuck on a particular word, a sentence, a paragraph, and revising it obsessively before moving on to the next word, sentence, or paragraph is common for many writers, but it is advisable to try and let go of perfectionism in the beginning and write a rough draft that will then be revised extensively. One model of writing that includes revisions at several points could look like this:

  • Free-writing on the topic
  • Development of a thesis based on the free-writing
  • A rough draft (can use the concept on free-writing at each step of the paper if necessary)
  • Revision of the draft (this is a draft that you can have your professor or a friend read)
  • Break
  • Revision of the draft considering input from readers
  • Proofreading

While this looks labor intensive, most students will go through most of the steps in one way or another without realizing that this process can be planned. What this model captures is the crucial difference between doing revisions to a piece of writing and simply proofreading it.

Harvard researcher Nancy Sommers describes how most students and other inexperienced writers do not use the word “revision” when speaking about their writing process. Instead they describe how they go over the paper looking to correct mechanical errors such as punctuation, incorrect grammar, dangling modifiers, or looking for violations of writing advice such as “never start a sentence with a conjunction”, “don’t use a repetitive sentence structure.” When asked about this approach, these students said that this is what revising a piece of writing means. However, most faculty and more experienced writers in her survey said that to them revisions means approaching the whole paper to look for coherency of argument, the overall structure of the paper, and whether or not the paper flows and offers the right information at the right point. Revision requires more than correcting individual errors; it involves moving paragraphs around, realizing that another source is needed, that a quote is superfluous, and assessing the paper as a whole. The following offers some possible ways of doing revisions:

  • Once you are done with the first draft of your paper, it is a good idea to let it sit for a little while and then come back to it. This will allow you to see your work in a clearer fashion. Imagine that you are reading it for the first time just as your reader will be doing.
  • If working on the computer, you can increase the right hand margin of your paper (for now) and print your paper. Then go over your paper and paraphrase each paragraph of the entire paper. This will allow you to get a better sense of the flow of information in your paper.
  • On a different sheet of paper (or another document on the computer), copy each paraphrase in the order they appear in your paper. This is essentially an outline of your paper. Now, make sure that you are actually arguing what you set out to do (i.e. that you are indeed working with your thesis), that your quotes are in the right places, that you have an introduction and a conclusion, etc. Remember that during this part of your revision, you are paying attention to the larger structural and content related issues of your paper.
  • Once you are sure that everything flows in the most efficient and logical way, you are ready to pay attention to your language and the logic of each paragraph. Read through your paragraphs (reading aloud is a very efficient way of noticing if something sounds strange) and make sure that the paper progresses correctly and logically.
  • Having done revisions on your paper you are now ready to proofread and edit it; this is where you read each sentence again and make sure that it is grammatically correct, that you used the right words, and that your punctuation is correct. For some pointers regarding common grammar and usage mistakes, see Writing strategies for multilingual students.