Revising to increase coherence

Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.

- Joseph Pulitzer

Almost every writer needs to correct and improve his first drafts. Those who can write a finished document and first draft at the same time are few, and might be compared to the rare musical prodigy who can play symphonies without ever taking a music lesson. Revision most often is the step in scientific writing that separates the beginner from the master craftsman. It's the reason why professional writers have such big wastebaskets! They keep working on a piece until it is right.

Two processes are involved in written communication. The first, in your mind, is the selection of words to express your thoughts. The second, in the mind of the reader, is the conversion of the written words into thoughts. The essential difficulty is in trying to ensure that the thoughts created in the mind of the reader are the same thoughts that were in your mind. Revisions are just a way to fine-tune this transfer. Coherence - the quality of being logically and aesthetically consistent - is the desired result.


Do you remember the Process Approach that was presented in Chapter 1? It counseled breaking the writing task into discrete stages, each to be approached by the most systematic, efficient, and effective means that could be determined. You have already undertaken the initial steps in the process -planning, gathering, and organizing information, then writing a first draft and setting it aside long enough to view it with a fresh eye. Now comes revision, another essential part of the process. That step is the focus of this chapter and the two that follow.

Start with organization and logic

During the process of writing a first draft, most of us include things in one place that should be in another location. This is not a failing, but simply a reflection of the way that human beings process information. Thinking, planning, writing, and revision are interwoven processes. Even after careful planning, we think of additional things as we write. We use words as they come to mind, but our first thoughts are not necessarily the best and they may not be arranged in the most effective order. However, because thinking and writing interact, when the writing task is complete, our understanding of the subject will have been improved.

Revising by the Process Approach entails a series of nested steps, each concentrating on successively finer points. The first and broadest step concentrates on the document's structure and basic style. It includes matters such as organization, logic, accuracy, brevity, and clarity.

As you read the first draft, examine the order of presentation. Check whether all of your lines of reasoning hold up. Correct any misquotations. Evaluate your inclusion of literature citations. Watch for padding - a common temptation is to include references that merely relate to the same complex of ideas rather than having a true bearing on the argument. Combine or simplify tables where necessary. In short, do any and all of your major cut-and-paste work.

Use the power at your command

Less than a generation ago, major revisions required literal cutting and pasting of paper copy, then tedious retyping. Today, thanks to computers and word processing software, major revisions in organization and logic are more easily accomplished than they have ever been.

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