Revision issues

Revision is most usefully a process that goes from global to local (or big to small). To use my writing-an-essay-is-like-building-a-bookcase analogy, you want to make sure the bookcase will stand up and that its shelves are far apart enough to hold your books before you start filling nail holes and sanding and staining.

So start by considering purpose and focus. (In an argumentative essay, this will be your thesis statement; in a personal essay, it may not be so clear.) What is the one main thing you are trying to communicate? Just because something really happened to you does not make it a fit subject for a personal essay. You chose this slice of experience because it allows you to explore something more general, some lesson you’ve learned, something about the way the world works or how one should behave, what one should value. Clarify for yourself what is this more general point that will be of interest to people who do not share your particular experience. (This decision will help you decide what belongs and doesn’t belong in your essay.)

Next, turn to development: do you have enough details to make your scenes vivid and your characters come to life on the page? Look for places in your draft where you tell what you could show (you might want to look back at this page).

Now look at structure, how the main pieces of the essay fit together. Consider the balance of scene and summary. Have you inserted any necessary background info at an appropriate place? Consider the time sequence of your essay. If you’ve used flashbacks, is there positioning effective?

Paragraphing might come next. As you move through an essay, each main idea gets its own paragraph. This is a little easier to see in expository writing (like textbooks) rather than personal essays, which are often narrative. So think about paragraphs too as a device to give your reader a pause. Paragraph length is to some degree a matter of style, and there is no magical number of sentences that constitute a proper paragraph (despite what you may have learned about that monstrous invention, the 5-by-5 essay!), but I’d suggest using one-sentence paragraphs sparingly (saving them for when you want to make a dramatic statement) and thinking about breaking any paragraph that gets to be a page or longer. To break a narrative, look for shifts: jumps in time, moves from one space to another, switches from scene to background or other summary. (Remember, also, if you’re including dialogue, that it’s conventional to start a new paragraph when speakers change.)

Pay special attention to those two important paragraphs, your lead and conclusion.

Consider your sentences. We’ll consider some aspects of sentnece structure later in the course, but for now read your work out loud to listen to rhythm. Too many short sentences make you sound like a 3rd grader; too many long sentences make you breathless.

Finally, consider your word choice. Are there places where you could make your nouns more specific to give a sharper image (poodle rather than dog)? Have you used too many evaluating adjectives (good, bad, beautiful, interesting) rather than concrete ones that tie to the senses and thus “give” your reader the experience? Remember, though, that good writing is not about piling on adjectives (“cottage” is better than “little house” because it is both clearer and more concise). Finally, look over your verbs. Verbs are made to deliver action, so look out for too many “to be” or “to have” verbs that just lie there; making these “wimpy” verbs more active will invigorate your prose.


Above this line are matters of style (= writer’s choice, shades of gray), but at this point things become black and white (for the most part) as you turn off your creative brain and turn on the critical side. It’s time for proofreading, where the focus is on mechanical correctness, grammar, punctuation, spelling.  Here’s a link to a page on editing and revising (and the grammar checklist at the bottom has links to more info on common grammatical mistakes). (And by all means use spell check but do not rely on it, or you will end up with sentences like these from previous students of mine: “There were two burros against the wall in my bedroom” or “My favorite desert is chocolate mouse.”)

Supplementary reading on revision:

Revising drafts (from UNC-Chapel Hill)

“The Maker’s Eye” (a classic essay on revision by Donald Murray)

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