Rewrite, Revise, Rinse, Repeat

Academic writing is often such a grueling process that we celebrate the moment we put the period at the end of the last sentence of the rough draft. The writer feels a euphoric rush. “I’m done!” he or she crows in triumph, “I’ll send this to my committee (or other reviewer person) right now!”

Before sending the draft to anyone, however, the writer must revise and rewrite the text. To paraphrase William Zinsser in On Writing Well, even seasoned writers need to revise many times to craft polished writing. Every piece of writing needs revision, from tweets (an alarming number of mine contain serious typos) to Facebook posts to dissertation chapter drafts. By the time you read this blog post, I will have revised it at least three times and spent many hours rewriting.

Revision and rewriting is much more than just correcting grammar errors and typos. Revision is the step-by-step process of reviewing the work in stages for structure, style, and mechanics.

Before any revisions begin, take a short break and return later to the work with fresh eyes.

When you start revising, work in multiple rounds, from from the biggest problems to the smallest.

First, evaluate the work as a whole. People in the editing business call this developmental editing. Look at the overall structure of the entire work as if making an aerial survey. What does the text look like from the air? Have you used a chronological, thematic, or unique structure to frame your argument and evidence? Is this a logical way to organize your work? Would a different structure work better?

Identifying all of the topic sentences of the individual paragraphs helps to evaluate the organization of the text (at least those structured in more traditional ways). The reader expects that the first sentence of the paragraph will be the topic sentence. If you’ve buried the topic sentences somewhere in the paragraph, find them and move them to their proper place. Using the topic sentences, make an outline with them, placing them in the order in which they appear in the text. Based on this outline, can the reader understand the logic of the route you’ve chosen?

Make sure you’ve clearly articulated the main argument. This often requires a direct, declarative sentence (”I argue that…”) to help the reader find your major point. Thoughtful writers place the main argument in a place the reader expects to find it. I know of one influential work of history (names omitted to protect the guilty) in which the writer chose to put the argument at the end of the work. This is not where most readers expect to find the main argument. As a writer, be kind and don’t make them to wade through the entire text just to find the main point.

Judge all the evidence you present to make sure it supports the main argument. If the argument falls apart halfway through the chapter (the argument substantially changes throughout the work) or a gaping hole exists in the evidence (it doesn’t support the argument), deal with these problems first. The writing can be fixed later, but if the argument or evidence doesn’t hold together, no amount of good writing will save it.

Once you’ve evaluated the work as a whole, revise individual sections and paragraphs. Identify the purpose of each paragraph. What does each one do? How does it relate to the one before and the one that comes after? Do the paragraphs move the work forward or do they trap the reader in verbal quicksand? If certain paragraphs don’t work together, reorder them. Sometimes reversing the order of a section or a piece of writing that isn’t working sparks some new ideas to improve the overall flow of the text.

Conclude with a conclusion. What have we learned from your text that changes the way we think about the topic? Writers often arrive at the conclusion having discovered along the way what it is they want to say. The first draft of the conclusion sometimes makes a better introduction. If this is the case, move the conclusion to the introduction and write a new conclusion.

The first round of revision sometimes involves destroying certain parts of the text. Novelists long have heard the old adage, “kill your darlings,” meant to spur writers to sacrifice a cherished passage for the greater good of the work. Nonfiction writers must do the same. Many writers find it hard to raze parts of their writing that they treasure. Nevertheless, not all writing, even those pieces crafted with love, serves a purpose in a text. A dazzling section can become dead weight if it serves no clear goal. If you must chuck large pieces of your writing into the scrap heap, hang on to them. You may be able to recycle these discarded bits and pieces into a future work.

Second, move on to copy-editing. Copy-editing improves sentence structure, clarity, and style. Here, you shift focus from your needs as the writer to those of the reader. As I talked about in my last post, you need to make friends with the reader; editing for style and clarity creates a good basis for this friendship.

Break up long sentences, focusing on one idea at a time and then moving to the next. Academics often forget (guilty as charged!) that short sentences have just as much force as long ones. Over-stuffing a single sentence with multiple ideas leads to bloated sentences that confuse the reader. Inserting some short, punchy sentences into your writing creates variety and rhythm.

Remove all jargon unless it’s absolutely necessary to what you’re saying. Jargon often seduces beginning writers because it sounds so important. Don’t fall for this trap. Be ruthless and remove it. Examples of academic jargon include words like, the Other, discourse, hegemony, and teleology. Most jargon also makes awkward clunking sounds when read aloud and ends in -ity, ion, -ize, -ness, -ence, -ism, etc. Performativity (does anyone really know what this means?). Ambiguousness. Problematize. Conceptualize. Marginalization. Contestation. Transcendence. Antidisestablishmentarianism.

Remove as many conceptual nouns and verbs as possible and replace them with concrete nouns and verbs. Just as short sentences can be powerful, so too can short words add vigor to your work. Concrete nouns include words like sky, child, home, student, and ice cream.

Remove all words that add nothing to your writing. Some old standbys:

  • In this way…
  • Needless to say…(THEN DON’T SAY IT)
  • It is known that…
  • It is important to note that…
  • Very, actually, really, etc.

Root out passive voice. Make sure your sentences have actual people doing things, not some people standing around having things happen to them in that awkward passive-voice kind of way.

Make sentence structures parallel. Here is an example of a non-parallel structure:

They went to the meeting and would learn about botany.

This is an awkward construction because the verbs aren’t in parallel form, but are instead in different tenses and forms. Non-parallel structures ruin the flow of your writing. To fix this problem, make the verbs parallel and use the same tenses.

They went to the meeting and learned about botany.

Third, proofread your writing. Look for the little things, like mechanics and punctuation. Read at a slow rate; consider each word by itself and then as part of the sentence to which it belongs. Read aloud to find words that may be spelled correctly, but which are the wrong words in your sentence (e.g. the ration-state). Check all punctuation.

Finally, style guides are not just for citations. The Chicago Manual of Style looks intimidating, but can solve many style mysteries. Is it “the president of the United States” or “the President of the United States”? (Chicago recommends the former.) Do you italicize foreign words? Is it Malthus’ or Malthus’s? Tiny details seem tedious to find and fix, but using a style guide simplifies making these types of changes. Using a style guide creates consistency and makes reading a smoother experience. Fix any remaining formatting problems: indent footnotes, center headings, and adjust font.

Revision doesn’t happen overnight or in one session. Once you’ve revised your work, start again with the big picture and work through the entire revision process. Each round should polish the text a little more and leave a sparkling final draft in the end.