Now the real work begins...

How to Revise Drafts

After writing the first draft of an essay, you may think much of your work is done, but actually the real work – revising – is just beginning. The good news is that by this point in the writing process you have gained some perspective and can ask yourself some questions: Did I develop my subject matter appropriately? Did my thesis change or evolve during writing? Did I communicate my ideas effectively and clearly? Would I like to revise, but feel uncertain about how to do it?

Also see the UMN Crookston Writing Center's Revising and Editing Handout.

How to Revise

First, put your draft aside for a little while. Time away from your essay will allow for more objective self-evaluation. When you do return to the draft, be honest with yourself; ask yourself what you really think about the paper.

Check the focus of the paper. Is it appropriate to the assignment prompt? Is the topic too big or too narrow? Do you stay on track throughout the entire paper? (At this stage, you should be concerned with the large, content-related issues in the paper, not the grammar and sentence structure).

Get feedback. Since you already know what you’re trying to say, you aren’t always the best judge of where your draft is clear or unclear. Let another reader tell you. Then discuss aloud what you were trying to achieve. In articulating for someone else what you meant to argue, you will clarify ideas for yourself.

Think honestly about your thesis. Do you still agree with it? Should it be modified in light of something you discovered as you wrote the paper? Does it make a sophisticated, provocative point? Or does it just say what anyone could say if given the same topic? Does your thesis generalize instead of taking a specific position? Should it be changed completely?

Examine the balance within your paper. Are some parts out of proportion with others? Do you spend too much time on one trivial point and neglect a more important point? Do you give lots of details early on and then let your points get thinner by the end? Based on what you did in the previous step, restructure your argument: reorder your points and cut anything that’s irrelevant or redundant. You may want to return to your sources for additional supporting evidence.

Now that you know what you’re really arguing, work on your introduction and conclusion. Make sure to begin your paragraphs with topic sentences, linking the idea(s) in each paragraph to those proposed in the thesis.

Proofread. Aim for precision and economy in language. Read aloud so you can hear imperfections. (Your ear may pick up what your eye has missed). Note that this step comes LAST. There’s no point in making a sentence grammatically perfect if it’s going to be changed or deleted anyway.

As you revise your own work, keep the following in mind:

Revision means rethinking your thesis. It is unreasonable to expect to come up with the best thesis possible – one that accounts for all aspects of your topic – before beginning a draft, or even during a first draft. The best theses evolve; they are actually produced during the writing process. Successful revision involves bringing your thesis into focus—or changing it altogether.

Revision means making structural changes. Drafting is usually a process of discovering an idea or argument. Your argument will not become clearer if you only tinker with individual sentences. Successful revision involves bringing the strongest ideas to the front of the essay, reordering the main points, and cutting irrelevant sections. It also involves making the argument’s structure visible by strengthening topic sentences and transitions.

Revision takes time. Avoid shortcuts: the reward for sustained effort is an essay that is clearer, more persuasive, and more sophisticated.

Think about your purpose in writing: Does your introduction clearly state what you intend to do? Will your aims be clear to your readers?

Check the organization. Does your paper follow a pattern that makes sense? Doe the transitions move your readers smoothly from one point to the next? Do the topic sentences of each paragraph appropriately introduce what that paragraph is about? Would your paper be work better if you moved some things around?

Check your information. Are all your facts accurate? Are any of our statements misleading? Have you provided enough detail to satisfy readers’ curiosity? Have you cited all your information appropriately?

Revision doesn’t necessarily mean rewriting the whole paper. Sometimes it means revising the thesis to match what you’ve discovered while writing. Sometimes it means coming up with stronger arguments to defend your position, or coming up with more vivid examples to illustrate your points. Sometimes it means shifting the order of your paper to help the reader follow your argument, or to change the emphasis of your points. Sometimes it means adding or deleting material for balance or emphasis. And then, sadly, sometimes revision does mean trashing your first draft and starting from scratch. Better that than having the teacher trash your final paper.

Revising Sentences

Read your paper out loud, sentence by sentence, and look for places where you stumble or get lost in the middle of a sentence. These are obvious places 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.

Tips for writing good sentences:

  • 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.” Also, try to stay in the active voice.

  • 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 sentence “There are several examples of the issue of integrity in Huck Finn” would be much better this way: “Huck Finn repeated 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 a different sentence pattern. Also, try to mix simple sentences with compound and compound-complex sentences for variety.

  • 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 see if you can revise them to be more active and engaging.

By Jocelyn Rolling, English Instructor
Last edited October 2016 by Allison Haas, M.A.