The Necessity of Revising

keep-calm-and-revise-11I had a student a couple of years ago who described herself as a “one-sit wonder.” That is, in all of her previous schooling, she was quite adept at pounding out a more than serviceable paper in one sitting. Once she arrived in law school, she realized that style of writing was probably not going to work. (And, to be fair, it probably shouldn’t work in any other setting, either, but I do realize that it’s the way most students do write.)

There’s rarely anyone who can pound out what should be considered “final copy” in one sitting. Really good writers realize that writing is a process; the point of that first draft is to give you something to revise. In the writing process, you should be leaving behind a trail of drafts, some of them quite rough, before you finally arrive at the polished final copy.

Why is it important—no, necessary—to revise? Because most of the time writing and thinking go hand in hand; your writing in the early phases is often just a way for you to work out your thinking on a topic. And our early thinking on an issue often results in us fumbling for the best words and the clearest way to say what we want to say. If we stopped after that first attempt, we’re likely to end up with imprecise and convoluted writing that will more than likely frustrate a reader.

A reader will be frustrated by the little missteps that make her reading more difficult—the typos, grammar and punctuation errors, formatting issues, all of which cause her mind to work on processing the writing, but for which she receives no benefit, no useful information. A reader will also be frustrated by writing that rambles. When writing rambles, there’s often too much information thrown together with too little organization or connection. Revising can reduce or eliminate both of those kinds of frustrations.

How do you revise? There are as many ways as there are writers, but here are six steps to get you started.

  1. Have something written. Again, the idea here is to produce a first draft that gets your thoughts down on paper. Try to keep your ideas moving, even if they feel like they’re coming out inelegantly. Consider your writing fluid; nothing you write now is set in stone. You can, and will, change it.
  2. Save each draft. As you revise, save each draft, dated and numbered sequentially, either in hard or electronic copy. Why? Because at some point in the revising process, you might discover that the phrasing or the word you really want was something you cut out two drafts ago. If you have each draft, you can easily retrieve those words. As well, by saving drafts you have a record of where you started and how your thinking evolved. This “record” may come in handy if at some point someone challenges you on a part of your final copy. You can go back to those previous drafts to explain (and show) how and why the language changed. (Especially useful if you are co-authoring a document with someone else.)
  3. Develop a revision checklist. Generally when you revise, you’ll want to begin with large-scale concerns, such as making sure you’re meeting page or word limits and formatting rules (if any) and checking to make sure that every part of the document you need is there. You’ll want to review the overall large-scale organization, the headings and the subheadings (again, if any). Eventually, you’ll turn your attention to sentences and words, looking for ways to make each sentence more concise and each word precisely chosen. The last step includes proofreading for typos and checking citations. You find my short article on revisions, including a sample revision checklist, here. For ways to be more concise, see my short article here.
  4. Change your view. It’s always easier to revise someone else’s work. You’re not personally invested in it the way you are with your own work. But to make your own work the best it can be, you need to turn that objective and critical eye you use on someone else’s work to your own. As you read your work, try to put yourself in the reader’s place. For example, your “logical” progression makes sense to you, the writer, but imagine yourself as a reader. The reader doesn’t have the benefit of your thoughts, so his understanding of your message is based solely on what he reads. Would he find your organization logical?
  5. Let it “bake.” Time is always of the essence, but it’s oh-so-important to let your writing “bake.” That is, write your draft and set it aside before you revise it. And after you make those revisions, set it aside again before you revise a second (or third or fourth) time. Giving yourself some time in between writing and revisions allows you to better approach the revision with objective eyes you need.
  6. Let it go. How many times you should revise usually depends on how much time you have before your deadline. Most often, we are working up to the last minute and can afford only a single revision. Try, though, to get in a second before releasing your work. But after you do release it, take a cue from Frozen’s Elsa and “let it go.” Once you’ve turned in a memo or brief, or emailed or mailed a letter, it’s gone. While it’s possible you’ll have an “I should have . . .” moment, there’s no point in letting that moment overwhelm you. There will always be another piece to write, giving you another chance to revise.


What are your best tips on revising?

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Lisa A. Mazzie

    I mention time to let the writing “bake,” before you do revisions (and more revisions). But time is important for another two reasons: First, if you’re having someone else compile any exhibits or attachments to what you’ve written, those people need to know what you’re going to need, and time to compile those documents. Second, you want to make sure you have time to file the brief. Don’t be caught like the lawyers in Toshiba America Information Systems, Inc. v. New England Technology, Inc., Case No. SACV 05-00955-CJC(MGLx), Order filed Oct. 11, 2007, who gave their brief to a courier at 3:14 p.m. on the day the brief was due. The courier was stuck waiting at a train crossing for a train to pass and didn’t arrive at the clerk’s office until 4:01 p.m. The brief couldn’t be filed until the following day, and it was deemed late.

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