David Stephen Calonne, in his chapter “Creative Writers and Revision” (in Horning & Becker, Revision: History, Theory, and Practice), cites the example of James Joyce, the Irish novelist, and the still-existing draft copies of Finnegans Wake:
Anyone who doubts that revision is creative should examine the drafts of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. Joyce’s astonishing manuscript is a maze of crossed-out words, bold scrawls, huge Xs splayed across the page, squiggly lines, scratches, a labyrinth, a massive, splendid, messy, outlandish display … (144)
Calonne sees evidence, in the marks of Joyce’s revision strategies, of genius—but he probably would have seen Joyce as a genius regardless, because in the Anglo-Irish literary canon, that’s how Joyce is seen. But there’s something here for all of us writers, even if we aren’t pretending to masterpieces or genius or even, frankly, artistry: knowing that (more) orderly writing often emerges from a mess is actually, in a way, encouraging. Because that means I, sitting in front of a messy draft, can have some hope: if I’m willing to dive in, look at the connections (or lack thereof), the order (or patent absence of it), the words (imprecise, not quite right), and hack away, I might find myself with a better draft at the end.
This is the faith that writing teachers—and writers everywhere—place in revision. One way to say it is that an act of writing takes place not all at once but in stages. Composition theorists have spent lots of time articulating a theory of this process—you have, no doubt, heard of something often called “The Writing Process”: invention, drafting, revision—but we probably also can acknowledge that there’s not one writing process, there are many. Pretending that there’s one standard may not be particularly helpful. Even so: just about every writer learns, one way or another, that revision is how writing gets better, how sentences take shape, paragraphs take form, transitions finessed, evidence sequenced, and emphasis achieved.
So, beyond going over the draft and cleaning up typos or word omissions, what are some strategies for revision that can help all of this happen? I list the ones below, in no particular order, as strategies that will help you understand what’s already in your draft, identify what might be missing, find a stronger through-line, and refine points of transition.
THE REVERSE OUTLINE
Usually, when writers think outline, they’re thinking of what might be called a predictive outline. A predictive outline is a plan for writing—a structure prepared before actually drafting, meant to help the writer keep on track, proceed logically and in an orderly fashion, and accomplish all the points s/he has decided to include. Predictive outlines can be enormously helpful in plotting out an initial draft; even so, drafts often move in unpredictable ways, deviate from the map, go off road and overland, and end up someplace the writer never planned to go. When this happens, it can be useful to reverse outline.
A reverse outline describes what is actually already happening in a draft. (A reverse outline could, potentially, also be a useful strategy for reading any text—one you’ve written, as suggested here, but also texts by other people. For instance, you could reverse outline a piece you’re responding to from a peer, or a reading assignment in class.) Going section by section, or paragraph by paragraph, the writer notes what is actually there. For instance, “In this paragraph, I’m presenting an anecdote that I want to use to illustrate a point.” The reverse outline can be helpful in diagnosing where there is material that still needs to be written, or material that is currently located somewhere in the draft but needs to be moved elsewhere. It can be helpful in identifying material that might not be needed in the draft at all. A reverse outline can be useful as a first step in figuring out what the next steps to take in revision might be.
Lots of writers use the word flow to indicate writing that seems to move forward with few obstructions—few, if any, places the reader might stop to ask, Hey, what’s going on here? What does the writer mean by that? One thing that flow might refer to is the order and sequence of the writing.
Paying attention to sequencing is paying attention to the logic of the piece—the way that a particular point might need to be made, or a piece of evidence established, before another point can be made; the way that background and context often needs to come first, or early, in the discussion of a complex situation; the way that, often, readers expect to find strongest evidence in a climactic position—i.e., last. Reverse outlining can help you to discover where your sequencing might be off, but once you’ve discovered that you need to realign the sequence of ideas in the piece overall (or even on a smaller scale), sequencing requires you to both move the material around, then adjust the connecting points so they make sense.
FIND OUT WHAT’S MISSING
Sometimes, you know that there’s a chunk missing in your draft. You may have even written something like “[need to explain this more]” or “[add source here].” Or maybe you just know, because there’s a skinny paragraph just waiting to be fleshed out, or an ending that is nowhere in evidence. Spend some time with your draft and make notes where you know there’s missing material—ideas that need more exploration or analysis or explanation; source material that needs to be added or edited; a stronger, more engaging introduction. If you can’t quite figure out what’s missing, you could also ask someone—a peer who is responding to your draft, a Writing Center coach, your instructor. Once you’ve identified the places where there’s something missing, and you have a pretty good idea what the missing part is, let the missing pieces you identify form the basis of your revision agenda.
WRITE TO THE SIDE
Sometimes, you discover that something just isn’t working the way you hoped it would, or it’s not quite what you want. Writers can feel like starting over, or ripping what’s already in the draft to shreds, is the mark of a fearless reviser. But what happens if you take a different, less hasty stance? What if, instead of destroying what’s there, you just started another document, and wrote the revision or the additional material in that document, just to see what happens?
Let’s say, for example, that you have a paragraph where you’ve started developing a sub-point. Perhaps, though, your supporting examples feel disconnected from the overall sub-point, and you’re not sure how to connect them. Start another document. Talk to yourself—“What I’m trying to do with these examples is show …”—or maybe try a different order to your examples. If this writing on the side gives you some insights into what’s going wrong in the “main” document, then you’re ready to go back to that document, freshly aware of how to proceed. Or maybe you write a whole different paragraph—and you think, I could probably just substitute this for the previous version. Either way, you have both the original version (which you had your doubts about but weren’t ready to discard just yet) and any new material you’ve developed—so you have more to work with and more to choose from.
Side-writing is a great strategy for trying on ideas, paths of development, arrangements that you’re not sure will work, but might get you somewhere. It’s a great strategy for giving yourself the freedom, risk-free, to try something different. If it looks promising, you can put your old and new material side by side, and try to weave them together—you won’t have gone too far down a road with the old material to salvage what might still be useful, and you can fit the new material in. If the new material truly surpasses, even replaces, the old, then you can delete with greater confidence.
INTROS & OUTROS TO SOURCE MATERIAL
Academic writing asks you to work with source material, so it’s worth learning how to use that material in a graceful and ethical way. This alone can be a specific focus of your revisions. In the article “Annoying Ways People Use Sources,” Kyle Stedman discusses some ways to massage quoted material into a text—that is, to make sure that you as the writer ease the path by which the reader will encounter source material. He talks about guiding the reader into quoted material by providing context for the source and the writer’s reasoning for using that source material, then leading the reader out, by doing a little interpretive work. He says, “Readers get a sense of pleasure from the safe flow of hearing how to read an upcoming quotation, reading it, and then being told one way to interpret it. Prepare, quote, analyze.” Lots of writing teachers ask their students to read Stedman’s essay, largely because figuring out how to weave source material into a text requires thought and practice, and Stedman’s guidelines are very helpful. So as you revise, pay careful attention to your use of source material—can you be a more effective guide for your reader? Can you better “prepare, quote, analyze”?
RETURN TO READING MATERIAL
Sometimes if you find yourself with a revision problem—How do I make a better beginning or a more resounding conclusion? How do I move from specifics to larger points?—you can find the answer, or some answers, by looking at how other texts have resolved the same questions. We often think of reading as something we do at the very beginning of a writing process, but in reality, we often read to solve specific revision or drafting problems, and throughout the course of producing a piece of writing. Don’t we, for instance, return to a source to choose exactly the most appropriate quotations? The same can happen when we’re revising a piece—we can look at how another writer begins her piece, or concludes it.
Find a piece that moves from specific details to larger points. What, exactly, does the writer do in each case? Can you see a way to use that same strategy? Or, if what the writer did doesn’t seem effective to you, can you think of a better strategy, and do that? Returning to things you’ve already read—or finding other readings to consult—can be a valuable revision strategy.
STEP AWAY, GET FEEDBACK
The process of producing a draft can feel like an act of investment: your intellectual energy, your curiosity, your time, your words, all going into the construction of a piece of writing. It’s no wonder, at the end of such a process, that many writers feel both exhausted by, and protective of, the piece. This is why it’s useful to do two things: first, take a break from the active writing of the piece, and even from looking at it; and second, seek feedback on the draft.
The break you take from your draft could last for a day or two if you got the time, a few hours if you’re more pressured for time. The idea here is to loosen your attachment to specific choices you made, so that you can see them afresh, so that you can make—ideally—better judgments about how well those choices actually work, or even whether you have fully executed your own intentions.
The feedback you seek can serve something like the same purpose as the break: to see the draft afresh, and to make better judgments about it. When you seek feedback, the key word should be listen. Getting feedback isn’t—at least not ideally—a debate about the merits of your draft, in which the reader says negative things about the draft, and the writer defends the draft. No matter what a reader says about your draft, it’s still yours to make decisions about and to finish as you see fit. But if you, as the writer, act defensively, as if your draft were a vulnerable, fragile creature whose very survival is in jeopardy in light of the onslaught of critique, you won’t get the invaluable gift of a reader’s feedback: the response of a reader to your writing. So listen. And take notes. Remember: the most valuable gift a reader gives you might not be the specific suggestions—it might actually be the insight that what you intended isn’t coming across. Take note!
FINESSE WHAT YOU’VE GOT
Look at transitions, sentence patterns/style, word choice—the grit and detail of your writing. The feedback you’ve received should help you with this, but any writer generally has a short list of areas to which s/he knows s/he wants to pay attention. For some, it might be a tendency to overlong, chatty introductions. For another, it might be the integration of source material. What are the areas in your writing that you know you typically need to look at again when you revise? It’s useful to be self-aware, and to realize that revision, for you, will usually involve looking again (and again!) at these matters. A capable, powerful writer develops this kind of self-awareness—the good news being that any writer can become more self aware, and thus more capable and more powerful.
Revision isn’t a mystery or a black door. It IS exacting and creative work—it requires just as much thinking as the original draft, if not more. But a great discovery for any writer is learning that you can get better at writing through becoming a more deliberate and self-aware reviser. You might find that one or more of the above strategies will help you do just that.
Works Cited & Other Resources
Calonne, David Stephen, in his chapter “Creative Writers and Revision.” In Alice Horning & Anne Becker, Revision: History, Theory, and Practice, pp. 142–176. West Lafayette, Indiana: Parlor Press/The WAC Clearinghouse, 2006.
Harris, Joe. Rewriting: How To Do Things With Texts. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2006.
Murray, Donald. “Making Meaning Clear: The Logic of Revision.” In Learning By Teaching. Montclair: New Jersey, 1982.
Stedman, Kyle. “Annoying Ways People Use Sources.” In Charles Lowe & Pavel Zemliansky, Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, Volume 2. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2011.