Having drafted your essay, you have gained the perspective of hindsight. Was the subject matter more complex than you anticipated? Did your preconceived ideas prove less interesting than discoveries you made while writing? Would you like to revise, but feel uncertain about how to do so?
How to revise:
- Put your draft aside. Time away from your essay will allow for more objective self-evaluation.
- Get feedback. Since you already know what you're trying to say, you aren't always the best judge of where the 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.
- Construct a backward-outline of your essay. Identify the main idea(s) in each paragraph. Rank their importance in advancing your thesis. Consider connections between and among ideas.
- Rethink your thesis. Based on what you did in the previous step, restructure your argument: reorder your points, cut irrelevancies or redundancies, add complications and implications. You may want to return to the text for additional evidence.
- Now that you know what you're really arguing, work on the introduction and conclusion. Make sure to begin your paragraphs with topic sentences, linking 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 stylistic infelicities. (Your ear will pick up what your eye has missed.)
An example of revision:
In 1969, E. B. White wrote a one-paragraph comment on the first moon walk. Eventually, White took the comment through six drafts. On the next page of this hand-out, you can see his third and sixth drafts. White's main points are underlined. In Draft 6, White gets right to the point. He states the problem he's addressing—"the moon is a poor place for flags"—in his third sentence. In Draft 3, he does not suggest this until the sentence that begins "Yet," and never directly; it is the sum of the large amount of underlined material. Revision enabled White to be clearer by articulating concisely and directly an idea that was earlier implied; correspondingly, revision let him move an idea that was clear by the middle or end of an early draft to the beginning. He also cut his introductory device, the beach trip. The amount of space he devotes to it in draft 3 suggests that White was attached to this example. But it prevents him from getting to the point. So he substitutes the bouncy dance, which preserves the playfulness of the trip to the beach but is more economical.
Planning a trip to the moon differs in no essential respect from planning a trip to the beach. You have to decide what to take along, what to leave behind. Should the thermos jug go? The child's rubber horse? The dill pickles? These are the sometimes fateful decisions on which the success or failure of the whole outing turns. Something goes along that spoils everything because it is always in the way; something gets left behind that is desperately needed for comfort or for safety. The men who drew up the moon list for the astronauts planned long and hard and well. (Should the vacuum cleaner go, to suck up moondust?) Among the items they sent along, of course, was the little jointed flagpoles and the flag that could be stiffened to the breeze that did not blow. (It is traditional among explorers to plant the flag.) Yet the two men who stepped out on the surface of the moon were in a class by themselves and should have been equipped accordingly: they were of the new breed of men, those who had seen the earth whole. When, following instructions, they colored the moon red, white, and blue, they were fumbling with the past—or so it seemed to us, who watched, trembling with awe and admiration and pride. This moon plant was the last scene in the long book of nationalism, one that could have well been omitted. The moon still holds the key to madness, which is universal, still controls the tides that lap on shores everywhere, still guards lovers that kiss in every land under no banner but the sky. What a pity we couldn't have forsworn our little Iwo Jima scene and planted instead a banner acceptable to all—a simple white handkerchief, perhaps, symbol of the common cold, which, like the moon, affects us all!
The moon, it turns out, is a great place for men. One-sixth gravity must be a lot of fun, and when Armstrong and Aldrin went into their bouncy little dance, like two happy children, it was a moment not only of triumph but of gaiety. The moon, on the other hand, is a poor place for flags. Ours looked stiff and awkward, trying to float on the breeze that does not blow. (There must be a lesson here somewhere.) It is traditional, of course, for explorers to plant the flag, but it struck us, as we watched with awe and admiration and pride, that our two fellows were universal men, not national men, and should have been equipped accordingly. Like every great river and every great sea, the moon belongs to none and belongs to all. It still holds the key to madness, still controls the tides that lap on shores everywhere, still guards the lovers that kiss in every land under no banner but the sky. What a pity that in our moment of triumph we did not forswear the familiar Iwo Jima scene and plant instead a device acceptable to all: a limp white handkerchief, perhaps, symbol of the common cold, which, like the moon, affect us all, unites us all!
As you revise your own work, keep the following principles in mind:
- Revision entails rethinking your thesis. Because clarity of vision is the result of experience, it is unreasonable to expect to come up with the best thesis possible—one that clearly accounts for the complexities of the issue at hand—before beginning a draft, or even during a first draft. The best theses evolve; they are the products of the kind of precise thinking that is only possible to achieve by writing. Successful revision involves bringing your thesis into focus—or, changing it altogether.
- Revision entails 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, cutting irrelevant sections, adding implications. 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 a clearer, more persuasive, more sophisticated essay than a first draft can be.
Copyright Laura Saltz, 1998, and the President and Fellows of Harvard College, for the Writing Center at Harvard University.
Simple Steps to Writing, Revising and Editing an essay
Writing a good essay requires refined critical thinking, which can be improved by experience. But one of the key elements to a good essay is form, and we are here to help you with it. There are numerous forms of writing that we face everyday. The following is an explanation of the process of writing in a simple and understandable way.
An essay can have many purposes, but the basic structure is basically the same. You may be writing an essay to argue for a particular point of view or to explain the steps necessary to complete a task.
Either way, your essay will have the same basic format.
If you follow these simple steps, you will find that writing an essay is easier than you had initially thought.
- Select your topic.
- Choose the thesis, or main idea of your essay.
- Prepare an outline or diagram of your main ideas.
- Outline your essay into introductory, body and summary paragraphs.
- State your thesis idea in the first paragraph.
- Finish the introductory paragraph with a short summary or goal statement.
- In each of the body paragraphs the ideas first presented in the introductory paragraph are developed.
- Develop your body paragraphs by giving explanations and examples.
- The last paragraph should restate your basic thesis of the essay with a conclusion.
- After you followed these easy steps your writing will improve and become more coherent. Always remember, form is only a part of the process. You become a better writer primarily by reflecting and analyzing rather than memorizing.
Guidelines on how to revise an essay
The best writers revise. And they revise again. Then they revise yet again. So, given that professional writers revise, it would be wise for beginning and intermediate writers to revise, too. One Professor, when asked how students could improve their writing, said these three words: "Revise, revise, revise." It's such a common mantra for writers and artists that a recent online search came up with over 16,000 hits for the phrase!
Revision means, literally, to see again. There are several stages to revision.
The first thing to consider is the goal of revision: Writing to communicate.
In order to communicate well, here are some guidelines to consider while you revise:
- Don't necessarily include everything
- Especially for academic writing, include a thesis, which is your answer to a (researched) question or your (reasoned or researched) position on a debatable topic.
- Include clear markers or transitions, citation of sources, and other help so readers can follow you along the path of your thoughts (argument, analysis, critique)
- Include the main points and the highlights from your research or reasoning that which supports your thesis, and that which might appear to contradict your thesis except that you, as a "tour guide," will explain why the material doesn't fit or why the contradictory material is wrong, and that which readers might reasonably expect, given your subject matter
- Include support and evidence for each main point, which might be logical reasoning, explanations, data, and arguments of your own; or evidence, arguments, and theories from other sources (properly credited)
- Often you should include answers to these questions: who, what, where, when, why and how about the whole topic; about major sources, theories, concepts; and about major developments related to the topic
- Make sure the result is clear communication that will be understood by your intended audience
Revision gives new life to your writing. The first stage involves going through the draft and reorganizing main ideas and supporting ideas so that they are grouped in a way that is understandable to your reader. Your organization will usually first put forward stronger points (in an argument), earlier information (for a narrative), or background (in many cases). However you organize, your readers need to understand what you are trying to communicate.
After that, refine your arguments and evidence, your descriptions, and all of the details, so that they give a sense of the writing being of one piece, or a whole. Let one description arise from another, or one piece of evidence support the next. Put all of the pieces in that are needed, and remove those that are not.
Even the most experienced writers make inadvertent errors while revising--removing a word or adding a phrase that changes the grammar, for instance.
Here are some tips to help focus your revision:
- Have other readers looked it over? A professor, boss, classmates, colleagues, roommates or friends
- Explain to a few different people what you've written, same group as other readers
- Read more on the topic (new sources, but also revisit already cited sources)
- Make an outline or highlight your draft as though it were a reading
- Set it aside for a day or two (longer, if possible) and then re-read it
- Read aloud to yourself
- Read it backwards
- Make a presentation. Presenting your paper orally to others often helps shape and focus your ideas
- Write a new introduction and conclusion, and then see if the paper fits the new introduction and the new conclusion
- The final stage or revision is copy editing, or proof reading.
Tips for editing a paper or an essay
Good editing or proofreading skills are just as important to the success of an essay, paper or thesis as good writing skills. The editing stage is a chance to strengthen your arguments with a slightly more objective eye than while you are in the middle of writing.
Indeed, editing can turn a good essay or paper into a brilliant one, by paying close attention to the overall structure and the logical flow of an argument. Here we will offer some tips on how to edit a paper or an essay.
Tips for editing a paper or essay:
1. Read over other things you have written, to see if you can identify a pattern in your writing, such as problematic punctuation, or repeated use of the same adjectives.
2. Take a break between the writing and editing.
3. Read by sliding a blank page down your lines of writing, so you see one line at a time. Even in editing or proofreading, it is easy to miss things and make mistakes.
4. Read the paper out loud to get a sense of the punctuation, and make any changes to parts that feel unnatural to read.
5. Allow someone else to read over your paper, fresh eyes can see things you will not see.