Working Through Revision: Rethink, Revise, Reflect

Photo Credit: Campus Life by AUM OER is licensed CC BY 2.0

Revision is what happens after you’ve written something; this might mean you have a full draft or a paragraph or two. It’s an opportunity for you to revisit your work, rethink your approach, and make changes to your text so that your work better fits the task you were given or your goals for writing in the first place. In what follows, I lay out some definitions for revision and then offer five steps that can help you revise your work in thoughtful but manageable ways. These steps are most helpful when you have a section or the full piece drafted but can also be helpful at most any step of the writing process.

Revision is your chance to revisit your work and rethink how you’ve approached the writing situation (whether a writing assignment for a class, an article for your school’s student paper, or a brief document, like a memo, for your job or internship). Revising a draft means reviewing what you’ve already written and (often with the help of feedback from a teacher, supervisor, colleague, or peer) making changes, usually significant, to the text you’ve written. 

As Joseph M. Moxley lays out in his “Revision: Questions to Consider,” there are a few key areas where you might make revisions:

  • The purpose, focus, or thesis of your text
  • The evidence or support you use
  • The organization or order of information
  • The formatting, style, or layout of your text

Revision might also involve making smaller changes, though that’s often called “editing,” which focuses on sentence-level changes to grammar, style, word choice, and/or punctuation. Polished texts tend to undergo both revision and editing at various stages of the writing process.

Five Steps for Making Substantive but Manageable Revisions

Now that we know what revision is, let’s talk about how to do it. As an experienced writer and a long-time writing teacher, I’ve found that there are five key steps for successfully revising my work. First, I solicit feedback. In some classes, feedback may be a required part of the writing process (like when your teacher requires you to submit a draft so that they can offer you suggestions). Even if it’s not, though, you can reach out for feedback from your professors, supervisors, or peers; you might also make an appointment at your university’s writing center. Once I have feedback from trusted sources, I need to interpret that feedback (step two) and translate it into concrete plans for revision (step three). Next (step four), I need to make changes to the text itself. Below, I’ll share some strategies for doing this work, including creating a reverse outline, focusing on the thesis or main idea, reading only for evidence, examining introductions and conclusions, and reading aloud for flow, connection, and clarity of ideas. Finally (step 5), I reflect on the changes I’ve made by revisiting the feedback I received and articulating how my revisions respond to that feedback and improve my work.

Step 1: Ask for Feedback

When feedback is already part of your class, you won’t really have to ask for feedback, but it can still be useful to think about the kind of feedback that you most want: are you struggling with making sure your essay makes a specific point and that point is clear to the reader? If so, this may mean that feedback about your main idea (sometimes called a thesis) could be helpful. Or would you like feedback about your evidence (the sources you chose, how you used quotations or paraphrased the work you cited, the details you selected, or whether there’s enough support for the claims you make)? Would you like to know how well the reader (whether your professor or a peer) could follow the organization? Articulating the kind of feedback you want can help your reader focus their attention; it can also help you re-read your own work with a critical eye.

When you want to ask your professor or supervisor for feedback, consider some of the same questions as above, and ask your professor/supervisor directly. The more specific you are about the kind of feedback you want, the easier it will be for your reader to figure out how to help. Be cognizant, though, of the time you’re asking your reader to spend, and give them enough turnaround time to actually give you useful feedback prior to the deadline. For instance, if you want feedback about the organization of a five-page paper, a week may not be enough time, given your professor’s other responsibilities. If, though, you want feedback on a smaller section like your introduction, conclusion, main idea, or a single paragraph in the paper, a week may be enough time. Professors may also have different practices for giving feedback; for example, some may ask you to meet them during office hours to talk through your draft or questions while others may be happy to provide written feedback via email. Always check your syllabus and/or the assignment to see if there’s information about the best way to proceed.

If you decided to reach out for feedback, here’s a template that might be helpful:

Dear Professor [professor’s last name],

My name is [your name], and I’m a student in [name of class]. I was hoping you might have time to give me some feedback on [name of the assignment]. Specifically, I was hoping you would read [part of paper] and give me feedback on my [particular issue; for example, you might ask about use of sources, the organization of the paragraph, or the paragraph’s connection back to the main idea of the text].


Your Name

When you visit the writing center: here, too, you might consider asking some of the same questions above: would feedback about your main idea be helpful? Or would you like feedback about your evidence? Would you like to know how well the reader could follow the organization? Many writing center consultations involve reading your paper aloud with the writing consultant, but for longer papers, you may not have time to review the entire text. What part of the paper do you want to focus on first? One other tip: bring the assignment itself and any feedback you’ve already received with you to your writing center appointment. Your consultant can help you review both the assignment and previous feedback and help you make a plan for revision.

Step 2: Interpret Feedback: Once you’ve asked for feedback, you’ll need to (1) figure out what it means, (2) make a plan about how to incorporate the feedback, and (3) make changes to your text. Feedback might do some or all of the following things: tell you how your text is working well, ask questions meant to lead to revision or point out areas that aren’t working, and give you advice for how to make changes to the text. Let’s look at examples of each of these and think about how we might translate those into a to-do list of sorts.

Look for information about what’s already working: generous readers often want writers to know what their text does well, and instructors might begin their feedback by telling students what’s already working. This positive feedback shouldn’t just make us feel good about our work. (Though, we should; writing is hard work!) This positive feedback can also give us a blueprint for how to revise sections that aren’t working as well. Let’s look at an example

Here, the instructor tells the writer that the first sentences of this paragraph “offer a clear, specific idea of what the paragraph will cover.” These kinds of “topic sentences” help readers more easily follow an idea or argument, and this piece of positive feedback means we have a clear idea of how to do that work well, so we might ask ourselves, “how well do the opening sentences of my other paragraphs prepare the reader for the content of the paragraph?”If the answer is “not that well,” consider using the topic sentence your reviewer commented on as a model for revision.

Look for information about what’s not working: Feedback will often also point to places in your text that are not quite working. This may take the form of questions that ask for additional information (e.g., “What evidence do you have to support that?” or “How do you know that?”), express confusion (e.g., “As a reader, I’m not sure I follow the order of information in this paragraph.”), or point to places that need specific revisions or additions (e.g., “This paragraph feels disconnected to me. It needs a transition that connects it to the paragraph before it.”). Each of these questions or comments could lead to a specific revision. For example, if my reader asks, “How do you know that?,” it likely means that I need to add additional evidence, detail, and/or context to make it clear how I came to a particular conclusion. I’ll want to make sure to note these questions as I’m drafting my revision plan in the step below.

Look for advice about how to make changes or which changes to make: Sometimes, like with the last example above (“This paragraph feels disconnected to me. It needs a transition that connects it to the paragraph before it.”), your reader will also tell you what kind of changes to make. In this case, adding a transitional sentence or idea will help solve the problem the reader identifies (the lack of connection between paragraphs and ideas). 

Step 3: Translate Feedback into a Concrete Revision Plan

List changes in order of importance or impact: Once you have gotten feedback and spent some time thinking about what that feedback means, you’ll need to make a plan for addressing the feedback. In a separate document, make a list of the feedback you’ve gotten; then, put it in order according to which piece of feedback might lead to revisions that will have the most significant impact on the draft. Let’s think about an example: on a recent draft of an article I wrote, the reviewers gave me three pieces of feedback:

  • Add additional evidence to the first section of the text
  • Reorder the paragraphs in the final section so that the sections are better connected to one another
  • Use fewer contractions throughout

Now, it might be tempting to do the final thing (“use fewer contractions throughout”) first; after all, this is the easiest and most straightforward piece of feedback to implement. But, is that the best place to start? Probably not. First of all, adding evidence and changing the organization of a section may mean deleting sentences that contain contractions or adding new sentences with contractions. That is to say, taking on the first two pieces of feedback may change my plan for responding to that third piece of feedback. And secondly, if I have a very limited time to make the requested revisions, spending time on those first two pieces of feedback will likely have the greatest impact on my draft. They require more work on my part, but they also lead to more significant and impactful revisions to my text.

Decide if there’s feedback that you disagree with and/or don’t plan to incorporate. All feedback is useful because it helps us as writers understand how readers interpret our work, but just because all feedback is useful doesn’t mean we have to implement every piece of feedback we get. If there are suggestions for revision with which you disagree, it’s important for you to articulate (both to yourself and, if possible, to your professor or supervisor) why you disagree and/or why you aren’t planning to make the suggested changes. Let’s think through an example: when I was in graduate school, I wrote a final paper about teaching for one of my theory classes. Throughout the paper, I used “I.” During peer review, one of my peers commented that the use of “I” undercut my authority and credibility and that I should change everything to third person. I disagreed: I think using “I” in that paper gave me more credibility because it allowed me to make clear that my claims were based both on the sources I was using as evidence and on my own experiences. I didn’t stop using “I,” and when asked by my professor why, I told her exactly what I just wrote here: using “I” was an important part of my approach to this topic, and I thought it enhanced my credibility. Sometimes, feedback asks us to make changes that go against the goals or purposes we have for our writing, and when that happens, it sometimes makes sense to decide against incorporating that feedback. The key is to know why you’re making such a choice and to be able to articulate that reason to others.

Share your plan with your professor/supervisor: At this point in the process (when you’ve received specific feedback but haven’t started making changes to your text) it might be a good idea to send a brief email or have a brief conversation with the person who gave you the assignment to see if your plan for revisions also make sense to them. If there are changes suggested by your readers that you’re not planning to incorporate, this is also a good time to articulate that to your professor and discuss why you don’t plan to make those particular changes. Your professor or supervisor might also have some additional suggestions for how to make changes that could be helpful as you begin to make revisions.

Step 4: Make Changes

In many of the examples above, there are specific, concrete changes that flow naturally from the feedback I received. But sometimes, feedback is more general or applies to a large section of a text. In those cases, you might need some additional strategies for figuring out which specific changes you want to make and how to make those changes. Here are few strategies that might be helpful at this point in the process: 

Create a reverse outline: Creating a reverse outline allows you to see the main ideas of each of your paragraphs and think about the overall organization of your text. To create a reverse outline, you’ll need a full draft of your text. Next to each paragraph, add a word or phrase that conveys the main topic of the paragraph. (If you find yourself wanting to write multiple words/phrases, that’s often an indication that the paragraph in question should be more than one paragraph.) Once you’ve done this for each paragraph, make a list of these words and phrases in order. Are there similar words or phrases in different sections of your text? Do you need to move paragraphs around to make sure similar ideas are close to one another? Does the order of ideas make sense to you? Is there an important idea missing?

Focus on the thesis or main idea: Focusing on your main idea allows you to ensure that the text serves the purpose you intended or makes the argument you intended. Start by highlighting or underlining your main idea. Does the section you underlined adequately capture what you intended your main idea to be? Are there things missing? 

Next, look at each paragraph. Does each of your paragraphs move your reader closer to understanding that main idea? Are there ideas covered by paragraphs or sections that don’t show up in your main idea? If so, should you revise your main idea to represent these ideas? Or, if there are sections that don’t help to advance your readers’ understanding of the main idea, should you remove these sections?

Review your evidence: Each of your paragraphs needs evidence. Different kinds of text use different kinds of evidence. Sometimes, evidence takes the form of quotes, paraphrases, or ideas from scholarly or expert sources. Other times, evidence takes the form of specific details or narratives. Thinking about your purpose for writing (and, if there’s an assignment involved, the specific requirements of the assignment), what kinds of evidence does your text need? Do each of your paragraphs have adequate evidence to support the main idea or purpose of that paragraph?

Examine introductions and conclusions: Introductions and conclusions give writers a chance to clearly communicate their purposes, so it’s always a great idea to review these two sections as you make revisions. Does your introduction help the reader understand both your topic and your purpose for writing about it? Does your conclusion make clear what you wanted your reader to understand? Making changes to introductions and conclusions can make a big difference to your reader’s overall experience of your text.

Step 5: Reflect on the Changes You’ve Made

So now you’re done, right? You’ve solicited feedback, interpreted the comments you received, and made changes to your work. What’s left? The answer is reflection. Reflection asks us to look back on the process that allowed us to compose and revise our texts and think about how that process and the changes we’ve made might help us compose differently in the future.Taking time to reflect allows you to think through how the feedback you received on this piece of writing might change your writing process moving forward. What have you learned about your strengths as a writer? What have you learned about your challenges? What have you learned about how to address those challenges? Answering these questions will allow you to more easily apply what you’ve learned writing this specific document to other writing contexts.

Revisit feedback: Once you’ve made changes to your text, it’s a good idea to return to the feedback and consider if there’s anything in that feedback you haven’t yet responded to. Did the feedback include a suggested revision you decided not to make? Are there additional changes that the feedback encourages? If you’ve chosen not to implement any of the suggested changes, how would you justify that decision?

Articulate how the changes you made address that feedback: Finally, it can be useful to take a few minutes to articulate how the revisions you made address the feedback you received. What changes did you actually make to your text? And for each of those changes, what piece of feedback were you responding to? These notes might be helpful as you work on future drafts of this project and/or future writing projects.

Reflect on (and write a little about) how this process of writing, feedback, and revision might change your process moving forward. This is your chance to take a few notes about how you might approach another writing situation differently because of what you’ve learned about yourself as a writer. What has this process taught you about your strengths? What has it taught you about your challenges? How will you approach those challenges differently based on what you learned here?