Revision

What is Revision? What does research and scholarship say about the best ways to revise my communications? How do I determine when revision is necessary or when it's time to revise?  Learn how to systematize revision processes. Use our revision guidelines to improve your work.

What is Revision?

Revision is sustained thinking about how to best communicate a message.

Revision is an intellectual process that is fueled by critical thinking, the doubting game, explicit knowledge of Writing Studies, and a desire to craft a text that best represents the writer’s intention and the user’s needs and experiences. Writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . engage in revision when they re-envision a text they have composed or anticipate composing.

Revision and editing are inter-related concepts, yet there are important differences. When revising, writers are engaged in substantive, global matters. They’re still trying to figure out what to say and how to say it. They are continually reconsidering what they know about their audience and reassessing the rhetorical context. At the end of the day, if they’re truly revising as opposed to editing, they may even discard all drafts.

Synonyms: Drafting, Rethinking, Rhetorical Reasoning, Rewriting, Reconsidering, Updating


In workplace and school settings, people use a variety of terms to describe revision, including

  • a high-level review
  • a global review
  • a substantive rewrite
  • a major rewrite
  • a re-read based on new information.

Writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . engage in revision

Studies of Writers @ Work across disciplines and professions have found that writers spend much of their time revising during composing. When professional writers are asked to describe their writing process, many emphasize the importance of revision. For many writers, writing is revision. We know from countless studies of writers at work that professional writers may revise a document twenty, thirty, even fifty times before submitting it for publication. Many writers rely on revision to generate their most creative ideas, to find the best form for a document.

Revision involves making global changes—that is, substantive changes in the content and organization of a document. Rather than viewing revision as a form of punishment or merely as an act of polishing ideas, good writers consider revision to be an opportunity to develop their thinking–as an opportunity to be creative, to re-envision, to find the jewels within all the tangled, half-formed sentences.

“Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what one is saying.” -John Updike

Revision involves making global changes—that is, substantive changes in the content and organization of a document. Revision is not a simple matter of correcting the spelling of a few words. Revision can be a passionate, chaotic, and dynamic activity that is driven as much by feeling as by intellect. Writers measure what they have written against their intellect and an internal feeling, a felt sense, about how the ideas should be formed. Instead of holding on to the old, they risk playing with new possibilities, new forms, and new ideas.

Unlike editing, which can be presented as a series of steps that one can follow to improve each sentence and passage, revising cannot be reduced to a set of guidelines that apply across genres. Until some kids in a garage somewhere develop some whiz-bang heretofore impossible-to-imagine tool that revises documents, we need to rely on our reflective and critical abilities. We can also exchange drafts with others, seeking and giving feedback. To develop and refine their thinking, writers reshuffle their pages and reread their work with the hopes of finding flawed reasoning, underdeveloped thinking, and better word choices. They may discard the first five pages of a six-page essay.

Revision & Invention

Revision and invention are interrelated, recursive processes: writers engage in acts of invention and revision simultaneously. Successful writers look and look again at their text because they know that this constant reworking is one of the most effective ways to discover what they want to say:

Every act of creation is first an act of destruction. — Pablo Picasso

Think before you speak, is criticism’s motto; speak before you think is creation’s. — E.M. Forster

I’m working on something. I don’t know exactly what. — Eudora Welty

Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what one is saying. — John Updike

We write out what we don’t know about what we know. — Grace Paley

I write out of ignorance. I write about the things I don’t have any resolutions for, and when I’m finished, I think I know a little bit more about it. I don’t write out of what I know. It’s what I don’t know that stimulates me. — Toni Morrison

Revision, Composing & Inexperienced Writers

Inexperienced writers may be unaware of the importance of revision to successful communication. For instance, Kelli Sorrentino, an undergraduate student at a university in the U.S., writes:

When I first learned about revision in class, it was like some great revelation to me, for some reason. I think I had some sort of mistaken notion about leaving pieces of work “just as they came to me.” I believed that there was something magical about inspiration. But now that I’ve learned to look at my work more critically, I realize that I can improve on all of my so-called “inspired ideas.” Revising pieces constantly has taught me to improve on inspiration and when l really got into it, it proved to be a godsend. Now I really enjoy picking my writing apart because I’ve learned that this allows me to produce better writing than I’ve ever done before.

Students whose works are receiving low grades or befuddled looks from readers may have unreasonable expectations. They many not have taken the time to reflect on their composing processes. Unlike professionals, they may assume they should write a text in just two or three drafts.

For some writers, for some rhetorical situations–particularly occasions where original research, substantive prose, is the goal–revision is crucial to successful communication.

To rewrite ten times is not unusual. Oh, bother the mess, mark them as much as you like; what else are they for? Mark everything that strikes you. I may consider a thing forty-nine times; but if you consider it, it will be considered 50 times, and a line 50 times considered is 2 percent better than a line 49 times considered. And it is the final 2 percent that makes the difference between excellence and mediocrity. — George Bernard Shaw

“lt’s always taken me a long time to finish poems. When I was in my twenties I found poems taking six months to a year, maybe fifty drafts or so. Now I am going over two hundred drafts regularly, working on things four or five years and longer; too long! I wish I did not take so long.” — James Hall

Getting words on paper is difficult. Nothing I write is good enough in the first draft, not even personal letters. Important work must he written over and over—up to six or seven times. — James Michener

Perhaps the most pernicious assumption that inexperienced writers make is that polished, A-level essays are the products of an inspired mind, of a born writer. As Lafcadio Hearn argued in his lectures at Tokyo University between 1896 and 1902, many novice writers wrongly assume that they should wait to be inspired before writing:

Nothing has been more productive of injury to young literary students than those stories, or legends, about great writers having written great books in a very short time. They suggest what must be in a million cases impossible, as a common possibility. It is much more valuable to remember that Gray passed fourteen years in correcting and improving a single poem, and that no great poem or book, as we now have the text, represents the first form [of] the text.

Almost everything composed by Tennyson was changed and changed and changed again, to such an extent that in almost every edition the text differed. Above all things do not imagine that any good work can be done without immense pains.

Lafcadio Hearn

Revision & Mindset

Revision can be a time-consuming, challenging process. After investing time composing a text, it can be difficult to delete it altogether or significantly revise it.

Revision is fueled by Mindset: grit, resilience, self-regulation & metacognition, professionalism & a strong work ethic. Revision is built on the foundation of a growth mindset and openness to critique, literacy, and critical literacy.

Revision & Composing Processes

Revision is not the act of polishing ideas. That’s editing or proofreading.

No, revision is the process of using composing as an act of invention. Revision is the process of thinking on the page, of learning by doing. Revision is a foundational element of composing, a stage in the writing process, as conceptualized by composition studies.

Revision is your opportunity to develop your thinking. It is an opportunity to think through the topic, thesis/research question, information in a substantive way. When facing tough writing assignments, they rarely expect to produce a final copy after writing just one or two drafts. Comforted by the knowledge that few people express their ideas perfectly without practice, they expect to revise. They understand that

Revision plays a dominant role in the composing styles of most writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . an inevitable step in the process of making meaning.

Revise for Brevity; Clarity; Code Switching; Diction; Elements of Style; Flow, Coherence, Unity; Grammar; Mechanics; Register; Simplicity; Styles of Writing.

Related Concepts

Collaboration
Does the co-authored text or team-produced text suggest a lack of trust, negotiation, coordination, and conflict resolution among the authors and team members? Are some sections well researched and others lacking evidence or logical reasoning? Are some sections edited well while others aren’t?

Has the writer responded to critiques and peer reviews?
Genre
Has the most appropriate genre or remixing of genres been chosen given the exigency of the situation? Does the text account for the prevailing genre conventions? As currently written, does the text reflect the epistemological assumptions of practitioners regarding what constitutes a knowledge claim and how knowledge claims can be tested?
Information Literacy
Does the text reflect deep research? Are foundational authors and texts identified? Does the text need to better illustrate the evolution of research on a topic? Have the authors clarified how cited work was produced and evaluated by others? Have intellectual property laws and conventions been honored? Does the text reflect both visual and quantitative literacy?
Will readers be able to discern when sources are being cited?
Invention
Does the text convey new information to readers/listeners? Is it potentially disruptive? Could the writer employ invention strategies to create a more interesting text?
Mindset
Does the ethos of the writer suggest intellectual openness? Does the text reflect the standards of professionalism and work ethic appropriate for its rhetorical situation? Is the writing and design of the document, the style of prose,
Organization
Does the writer follow the most effective organizational plan? Would a deductive approach be more effective? Is the thesis/hypothesis clear throughout? Is transitional language provided, as necessary? Do the writers move from given information to new information?
Research
Do the author(s) employ the research methodologies expected by the Community of Practitioners they are addressing?
Rhetoric
Does the text respond to the rhetorical situation?