Revision

By Hownote, via Wikimedia Commons

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who revise, and those who don’t. The former are writers, the latter are not.

This implies that the way to become a writer, is to revise. A lot. And that’s absolutely true.

Yet, many novice writers, especially college students who are writing a lot of papers under tight deadlines, persistently believe the myth that by “writing process” one means: start typing, continue until you hit the word limit, proof-read or spell-check, and hit “print.”

This is a recipe for papers that—even if full of brilliant ideas—probably can never make it out of the B-range, and very often are much worse.

Almost any experienced scholarly writer can tell you that revision IS the writing process. How you get a first draft on paper matters very little, and every writer will have her own habits (and superstitions) about how to do it. But taking the usually mushy, half-formed, inarticulate ideas from your own head, where they are warm and happy and seem clear, and translating them into a form that an unknown reader can quickly and easily understand is a complicated craft that involves many steps.

Moreover, almost anyone who’s ever written something truly original or exciting will tell you that most if not all of these ideas come out only in the process of writing (that is, revising). What seemed brilliant when you sat down at the computer becomes “belaboring the obvious” after a few hours of working the sources and your own thoughts into organized structures. It is this process that usually reveals the connections and inconsistencies that lead to brilliant new ideas.

Most students turn in papers with a thesis at the end of the essay (regardless of whatever it was they wrote at the end of the introduction, way back at a different stage in their thinking and now forgotten). Often, this thesis-at-the-bottom is very interesting, because it was developed out of a detailed discussion of the evidence. But, unfortunately, most students stop and print at this point because they run out of time. These essays are never more than half-baked, and serve only as a record of the student’s thought process.

To make it a solid essay, the student must recognize that when that thesis finally “articulates itself” at the end (that’s often what it feels like when it happens), they have merely reached the half-way point in the writing process. Now, it is time to translate the “writer’s draft” into a “reader’s draft.” The new, richer thesis must be put at the end of a new introduction that tells the reader what the paper is, now, really going to be about. The discussion of the evidence must be re-worked for the convenience of the reader, not the writer. And finally, the student must reflect a bit on what has been accomplished, and put this new perspective into a new, real conclusion. Only then have you reached the point of polishing the prose and proof-reading for errors. But having got here, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that your essay is finely crafted and original, and that you have expressed yourself effectively.

Even when students do recognize what the revision process is really about, they often claim they still can’t do it, because they believe that revising takes more time than they have, or is not worth the time put into it, because after all the great ideas are on paper somewhere and that’s all that matters.

Think about it: do you want to bank your grade on the idea that your TA or professor will do all that work I’ve just described to untangle your paper for you, so they can have the privilege of receiving your great ideas?

They read many, many papers and some of them will be just as interesting as yours, but better organized and clearer. They can only put the same amount of time into each. They have seen (and probably tried themselves, at some point) every trick there is involving fancy fonts and margins, high-flown language, and “filler,” and recognize all such silliness for exactly what it is (which doesn’t stop them from being annoyed by it).

More importantly, though, in the long term learning to write a solid paper is easier than trying to get by with unrevised schlock. In fact, in purely practical terms, the single easiest thing you can do to improve your grades on essays is to spend more time revising (as long as you do it mindfully). Putting your exciting thesis exactly where the prof expects to find it and following it with a series of points of support that in every case is accompanied by at least a couple paragraphs of thorough discussion complete with specific examples, caveats, counter-arguments and elaboration and interpretation of all quotes, can hardly help but result in a good grade with any professor or TA (assuming of course that you’ve correctly understood and followed the assignment, and read and understood the sources).

You don’t usually have to guess what the professor wants—the standards are usually quite predictable for a short college-level essay. And if you’re reading the sources and understanding the material, there’s really nothing stopping you from doing well but time. Start your next paper with twice as much time to work as you usually give yourself. The beauty of getting really good at revising is that it gets faster and faster with practice, so that eventually you can expect to need little more time than you probably take now, but will produce much higher quality work.

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