Options For Revision

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This class has finally taught me that rewriting isn't just about correcting and proofreading, but about expanding my ideas, trying experiments, and taking risks. Why did it take me so long to learn this? And why don't I do it on all my papers?!

Yes, Rachel, rewriting is about expanding ideas, trying experiments, and taking risks. It's also chancy, unpredictable, laborious, frustrating—and impossible to do if you don't make time for it. But in every way, it makes your writing better. There are no guarantees, no formulas, no shortcuts. How and when then, do we learn to rewrite? I do it all the time, yet I'm not always sure what I'm doing. Often when I rewrite, I don't know exactly what I'm looking for, but recognize the need for change when I see it. I doubt I ever rewrite the same way twice, sometimes starting here, sometimes there, but I always do rewrite, and because I do, my writing always gets at least a little better than it was before.

Revising differs from editing. Revision is conceptual work, where I reread, rethink, and reconstruct my thoughts on paper until they match those in my mind. Revising is reseeing my approach, topic, argument, evidence, organization, and conclusion, and experimenting with change. In contrast, editing is stylistic work, changing language more than ideas. I usually edit after I know what to say, testing each word or phrase to see if it is necessary, accurate, and correct. The last stage of editing is proofreading, checking spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and the like. (See Chapter Fourteen, "Options for Editing").

It makes more sense to revise before you edit, to attend to conceptual matters first, then to fine-tune your sentences. But don't be worried if sometimes you revise and edit simultaneously. In my own case, there are times when I can't develop an idea further until I get a certain sentence or paragraph just right, where the revising and editing simply blur. As a writer, what I've learned above all else is "There ain't no rules" that apply to every situation—only good suggestions that sometimes work better than other times.


Much that has to do with writing is a matter of habit and time. To change writing habits or find more time, remind yourself that all writing by all writers gets better when returned to, reviewed, and revised. If you want to improve your writing, from now on, plan for revision. Plan to make more time.

Start Today

If an essay, report, or story is due next week, start this week, no matter if you have all your information and ideas or not, no matter how otherwise busy you are. Beginning to write, even for ten minutes, will start the incubation process in your own mind, and you'll actually be working on the paper in your subconscious as you go about your daily business. You cannot revise if you haven't first written. Start your papers before the night before they are due.

Set Deadlines

All writers are deadline writers. Learn that deadlines are friends, not enemies. Use the external deadlines set by the assignment, then create your own internal ones to get it done on time. Plan at the outset to finish on time. And plan for at least three drafts—one rough, one revised, one edited—or more. I always do more.

Keep a Revision Notebook

Make a point of writing about revision in your journal or class notebook. Record notes about books, authors, and articles related to your project. Capture ideas about theme, direction, and purpose. Writing informally about your revision plans will almost certainly advance the project in useful and surprising ways.

Compose with a Computer

Computers make rewriting almost easy. Save early drafts by relabeling files; that way you always have early copy to restore in case you change your mind. If you don't have access to a computer, try to make at least one typed draft before the final one: Typed words give you greater distance from your own ideas and invite more possibilities for change. For early drafts, start a new file each time and see what else your paper can become. You can always merge files later on and synthesize your several insights. (And always make backup files [copies] of every paper on separate disks, in case a disk or drive goes bad!)

Prepare to Let Go

Treat first drafts as language experiments, meant to be changed, even discarded. No matter how much you like the draft as you write and just after you finish, know that you will like it less the next day, even less the day after. And that's okay! Sometimes there are exceptions, and your first language will stand the test of time; that will be wonderful, but don't plan on it happening.


Some of the following specific practices may help you revise. Revise for Ideas

Focus on what you want and need to say, try to get that out, and worry later about how it looks.Keep rereading and keep asking yourself:What is my story? What else should be included? What's no longer necessary? At this stage, don't worry too much about sentence structure, word choice, spelling, or punctuation. (It's not an efficient use of your time to carefully edit a paragraph which you later delete because the gist of your paper changed.)

Establish Distance

Let your draft sit overnight. When you return to it the next day, you'll see more clearly what works well, what doesn't, and where it can be improved. Do the same for each draft, returning later to see freshly.

Believe and Doubt

Read your first draft, trying to believe everything you've written; put check marks next to the passages that are most convincing. Read your draft again, this time trying to find places that don't convince you; put an X next to each such passage. Revise accordingly.

Writing should teach readers something. Reread your paper and, at the end, ask what have you learned. If you're not sure, it's time to revise.

Evaluate Evidence

To convince readers that your claims or assertions are good ones, double check your facts and examples, and ask: What evidence supports my thesis or advances my theme? What objections can be raised about this evidence? What additional evidence will answer these objections?

Find the Center

Gloss each paragraph by writing in the margins about its central idea. If there is more than one idea, should there be more than one paragraph? Use the margin notes to reassess the arrangement of your paragraphs: Are related paragraphs kept together? Does a different arrangement suggest itself? Is the beginning, middle, and end as you want it?

Limit and Focus Close

When you're describing a personal experience, write a second draft that tells what happened during one small moment of that experience—an important day or hour of the story. Focus close on the details of setting, character, and action. When you're writing a paper based on research, write the second draft about one small part of your story. In either case, ask detail questions: What time of day? Where did this happen? Who else was there? What words were said? What color, size, and shape was it? What ran through your mind? This limited draft does not need to be your final version of the story, but the careful details here may suggest how to add similar details to other parts of your story, or what to emphasize and what not to emphasize in your final draft.

Add Research Information

Find supporting information in the library or on the Internet that will make your case stronger. In addition, wherever appropriate, interview experts in the field; quoting people adds both useful support and liveliness to your writing. And where appropriate, visit places and carry that information back into your paper by your own careful observation and note taking. Remember, personal narratives as well as research essays will benefit from conveying accurately recalled information, and such information is often most accurately recalled by returning to the site of the experience.

Switch Positions and Points of View

Sometimes, when your writing seems especially dull, stuck, or blocked, consider switching perspectives. Consider adopting another point of view: If you've been telling your story from the first-person point of view, switch to third person. Or write a draft from your opponent's perspective—seeing the other side lets you answer questions before someone thinks to ask them. Likewise, if you've been writing in past tense, try a draft in the present tense. Any of these seemingly mechanical changes actually cause interesting conceptual shifts and add new life to old ideas.

Let Form Follow Content

Writing can be, do, and look like anything you want it to. There are, of course, certain conventions, and following these usually helps readers understand you. Don't be afraid to experiment with form: Is your story best told as a report? Would it make sense as an exchange of letters? As recreated journal entries? As drama? Does it need to be logical? Chronological? See what happens to your ideas in these alternate forms: They may continue to metamorphose and enter still newer territory.

Reconsider Everything

When you return to your draft, reconsider the whole text. If you change the information on one page, it may change ideas on another. If a classmate or instructor suggests improvements on some pages, don't assume the others are perfect. Even when you return to a draft that you think just needs a conclusion, reread the whole thing all over, from start to finish, with an eye toward still other possible changes. The conclusion may be all the old paper needed when last you read it, but don't stand pat: Keep looking for what else could happen to the story you are telling.

Play with Titles, Introductions, and Conclusions

Beginnings and endings are emphatic, highly visible points in any paper. Provocative titles catch readers' attention. Good introductions keep readers going. Powerful conclusions leave strong memories in readers' minds. But these same elements work on the writer as well as the reader, as a good title, introduction, or conclusion can suggest changes for what follows (or precedes). Sometimes these elements come first—as controlling ideas—sometimes later, but in any case they can capture (or recapture) the essence of your paper, telling you what to keep and what to cut.

Rewrite to Your Audience

Keep your teacher or several skeptical classmates in mind as you reread. Of course your writing is clear to you, but ask: What information do they need to know that I already take for granted? Then put it in because they'll understand you better.

Seek Response

As soon as you have enough copy in reasonable shape, show it to someone you trust and get his or her reaction. Another person can often see what you cannot. Most good writers ask others to read and react to their work before the final copy is due. Listen, don't be defensive, and take good notes, but you needn't feel obligated to take all the suggestions you're given.

Listen for Your Voice

Finally, read your paper out loud and see if it sounds like you—your ideas, your commitments, your style. If it doesn't, revise so that it does.


Let me share one personal essay—an imaginatively treated factual essay— that went through several of the revision moves discussed above, eventually combining authentic personal experience with a fictive form. In writing a personal narrative, Joan, a twenty-year-old first-year student, chose to write about the year after she graduated from high school, when she worked as a waitress at a Dunkin' Donuts coffee shop. Her first draft was lively and in the form of a conventional narrative.

I was a Dunkin' Donuts girl. Just another face behind a pink hat and a grease-stained uniform. The job could have been degrading if I ever let it get under my skin. To get the job I had to be able to count out a dollar's worth of change and read.

While this opening was especially lively, the rest of the piece was not, so Joan decided to play with her format, and revised it as if it were a letter home to her mom:

Dear Mom,

If you could see me now . . . I'm a Dunkin' Donuts girl. I was so tired of job hunting day after day that when I found work here I couldn't say no. I was kind of surprised that I was hired right off the street, without any questions about my work experience or character, but I'm not complaining. It will put food on the table and gas in the car.

Here Joan is trying to imitate a real letter home. However, the form seemed limited unless she fashioned a series of letters to show her involvement over time, and then she figured she'd have to write some from her mother as well, so she continued to ask herself: "What's the story I want to tell?"

Narrative writing usually gains by close focus and concrete detail. Joan wanted to focus close enough to show us her daily life in the donut shop, by showing her behind-the-counter perspective ("Each customer got only one napkin because they cost three and a half cents apiece.") But the real story Joan wanted to tell involved both her feelings in the shop itself, and her progressive disillusionment working there over several months. In fact, this latter was her actual theme, so her problem became one of form: Which form would best contain both the nitty-gritty, everyday detail and yet cover a time span of three months?

Joan kept experimenting with format, voice, time, and tense, until she found one in which she could tell her story—a daily diary. While fictive (Joan had not kept a diary during those months) the diary format solved problems of detail, time, and psychological involvement nicely: Here she could convincingly portray time passing, keep her piece rich in detail, and avoid sweeping generalizations. Her diary starts with this entry:

Oct. 18 I've driven into Augusta everyday looking for work, but no one's hiring. Today for the twenty-fifth time I asked "Who would I talk to about applying for a job here?" And for the twenty-fifth time I was told "I'm sorry, but we're not hiring right now. But if you'd care to fill out an application anyway ..." It takes every bit of strength I've got to walk out the door with my head up.

Joan is taking personal-experience writing an imaginative step further. She's making up a format, inventing dates, recreating dialogue, and re-imagining details to carry the truth she wants to tell, which is essentially what great imaginative writers do. And she's finding room for this in her composition class, where format is wide open. Her diary continues after she finally finds a job at Dunkin' Donuts.

Oct. 29 My work outfit is a khaki dress, garnished with an orange apron and a pink jockey hat. The clothes are old and worn, grease-stained and mended by hand with many colors of thread.

I tried the uniform on, adding a pair of old white nurse's shoes from the depth of my closet, and went to admire myself in the mirror. My reflection took me by sur-prise—I looked just like every Dunkin' Donuts girl I've ever seen! The only part of me left was my face.

Tomorrow is my first day. Already I'm nervous, wondering if I'll do a good job.

Joan's writing solution allows her to describe her experiences with purposeful immediacy, yet keep the reader suspensefully in the present, with Joan herself quite close. We can see her as a Dunkin' Donuts girl because she has real facts and colors there, but had she forgotten the details of the uniform, she could have made a coffee stop at another Dunkin' Donuts to recapture what she'd forgotten. In the following entry, Joan imagines concretely a dimly remembered piece of conversation to add credibility to her narrative:

Nov. 23 I almost quit my job today, and I'm not sure why I didn't. Mr. Stacy brought me face to face with his temper, and it lives up to its reputation. He went wild, yelling and swearing at me because I only had two pots of coffee made and he thought there should be more. He shouted, "Customers equal money, see? And we can't have customers without coffee, can we? You have to watch these things!"

Unlike informational or argumentative essays, narratives seldom start with a strong thesis stated right up front: "Dear Reader, let me tell you about how I became disillusioned with my job as a fast-food worker and how I decided to attend college instead." Joan's implied thesis approach lets the reader see the process of disillusionment as it actually occurred over a period of several months. Here is Joan's last entry:

Dec. 7 I wonder how much longer I'll be at Dunkin' Donuts. There's no room here to move up or get a raise. I can't imagine doing this job for another ten or fifteen years, like some of these people I work with. The turnover is high and the names on the schedule change every week. . . . Starting to look at "Help Wanted" ads again—or did I ever stop?

Joan's final draft diary totaled seven entries which together completed her five-page personal essay. There were many other more conventional ways she might have told the same tale—as a narrative focusing on highlights, as a series of flashbacks from her present college life, as part of a larger essay on work, etc. For Joan, writing the narrative assignment in an alternate form brought it to life in a way both she as writer and I as reader thoroughly enjoyed.


Revision is a good time to experiment with theme, voice, tense, point of view, style, and genre. Such experiments often create texts that recreate your thinking about a subject, and sometimes the changes are more superficial or cosmetic. The problem is, you can't tell unless you do the writing and see what it does to your thinking. The following are some ideas for reseeing and reinventing assignments—instructor willing.

Role Play

Assume the perspective of someone else and attempt to write as consistently as possible from that perspective, seeing the situation as that person is constrained to see it. For example, describing life in the pre-Civil War South from the point of view of slave Frederick Douglass, or from the point of view of his white Christian master or mistress. A good format for such an assignment might be an exchange of letters, a dramatic scenario, or an imaginary interview on a late night talk show; in other words, in addition to recreating each character's voice accurately, I would hold my piece together in a format in which these characters would actually speak their opinion—imagined yet authentic.

Invent Dialogue

Ask in what circumstances would these two characters be likely to meet and talk? If, for example, you were to recreate a conversation between Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman, it might be set in either a bar or an open field—depending on whose turf you wished to dwell.


Write in the style of the work you are studying. For example, you might be explaining or interpreting a passage of James Joyce and you run your sentences together as he does in the style usually called stream of consciousness. Or you might attempt to mimic the prose or poetry of a favorite writer. Or you might recreate the political speech of a president or the patter of a game show hostess. It helps to imitate a stylistic extremist, someone whose writing is clearly distinctive. In any case, to do this effectively, you need a thorough knowledge of the style, which you might gain by practicing it in your journal before you tackle it on the assignment itself.


Invent new endings for classic works, such as a new ending for the Shakespeare play Hamlet. First figure out what thematic difference it made that X now happened rather than Y, then recreate the act/scene/line format of the original play, paying attention to the small details, such as stage directions.

Pose Hypothetical Situations

You are a vice-president in charge of developing new uses for the bricks your company manufactures. Your task is to write a report explaining some of these new options to the company board of directors and recommend a marketing plan. Here you must stick close to the style and format of a real company report: I would be sure to use a formal title page, lots of subheadings, and include graphs and charts. You have fun—and prove you know a hell of a lot about bricks, corporate development, and report writing all at once!


Write a spoof or satire about something serious. Parody is a well respected genre in its own right. Think of Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" or Mad Magazine or National Lampoon. A parody is a possible response to any serious content, especially if the writer wishes to make a point at the expense of some of that content. Before tackling parody, lest people think you are taking an easy way out, know well the object of your parody; be consistent in the voice, theme, and format, and write carefully!


1. Describe your own revision habits. How do they compare with some of the suggestions in this chapter? Which ideas here seem especially useful? Which do not?

2. When you read the passages about imitation, imagination, and parody in this chapter, what author or work came first to mind? What element of this author or work would you choose to imitate, recreate, or parody?


1. Select one assignment for a course you are now taking and revise it according to some of the ideas in this chapter. (If you intend to hand it in for a different course, hand it in to that instructor first, then to your writing instructor.)

2. Select one paper already written for this (or another) course and rewrite it in an alternate form, keeping intact the essential ideas of the original piece.


1. INDIVIDUAL: Research the literature of revision and see if you can discover what well-known writers have to say about the subject. See for example, the several volumes of interviews published by the Paris Review; also search the New York Times Book Review and biographies or autobiographies of your favorite fiction or nonfiction writers.

2. COLLABORATIVE: Each student in the class can interview a selected professor from a group who is known to publish frequently—one who writes textbooks, has books displayed in the bookstore, or shows up in authorial searches in the library. Ask these publishing professors about their revision habits: When and where do they revise? How often? With what specific intentions? Do they have any samples to share? Do they have any advice for student writers? Write up in summary or interview form the results of these investigations, select class editors, and compile the results of these interviews in a class-written guidebook to revision (see Postscript Three).

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