Guide to Structured Revision

Use structured revision practices to revise your work in a strategic, professional manner.  Learn about why structured revision is so useful to teams & collaborative writing.
You cannot climb a mountain without a plan / John Read You cannot climb a mountain without a plan / John Read

What is Structured Revision?

Structured Revision is

Derived from Dr. Patricia Sullivan’s model of top-down editing, structured revision requires critics to cut a document into four parts – (1) Document Level; (2) Section Level; (3) Paragraph Level; (4) Sentence Level – and then critique the document from pre-established evaluative criteria (Porter, Sullivan, and Johnson-Eilola (2009)).

The goal of structured revision is to guide the work of writers and teams who are working to identify and overcome problems likely to interfere with the reader’s comprehension.

Related Concepts: Editing; Proofreading; Revision

How Can Structured Revision Help Me?

In situations where the work product really matters, you are wise to engage in serious revision, rather than just a little quick editing. Structured Revision is a professional-level approach to document revision, editing, and critique.

Structured revision is especially helpful when you are writing documents that are going out to clients or to the public, longer documents, formal documents, and documents written by multiple authors.

Structured Revision, Coauthorship and Team Projects

Revising a document you wrote yourself can be hard work. Revising a document written by a group can be even more difficult:

  • Once any text exists, it’s hard to get rid of either because writers don’t want to “lose” their hard work or are afraid of cutting important information by mistake.
  • Documents – and especially formal reports – address multiple types of readers, whose needs and ways of interacting with the document differ.
  • Documents that have been written by a team will have more problems with consistency than documents written by individuals.
  • Writers may disagree about what changes to make.

Structured revision helps a team prioritize its revision efforts. It also allows the team to make strategic decisions about what work can be done and should be done given the time available and the relative importance of the project. 

Ideally, when conducted for a team project, individuals will independently conduct structured revisions before sharing insights with one another. This approach can help you answer the following questions:

  1. What are the most significant problems in the document – and where are they located?
  2. How much time do we have for revisions and editing?
  3. Should we spend on our time on the top-level design of the document, the content of a particular section, or sentence-level problems?

What are the Stages of Structured Revision?

Step 1: Separate Document into Parts

Your first step, as imagined by Porter, Sullivan, and Johnson-Eilola (2009), is to evaluate the document at four levels:

  1. Document Level
  2. Section Level
  3. Paragraph Level
  4. Sentence Level.

Step 2: Evaluate the Context of the Document

In order to revise your own work or to provide meaningful work for others, you need to understand the occasion, exigency, & kairos that informs the document.

Composing, interpretation, document critique — and other acts of literacy — are dynamic, rhetorical processes that occurs in a context, a setting, a place, at a certain time between people — writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . and readers, listeners, users . . . who are members of discourse communities/community:

Thus, the evaluative criteria you should use to conduct a structured revision are determined by your rhetorical situation, especially your audience and purpose.

At a minimum, you need to assess the register of the document in order to asses the level of formality invovled. Is the document grounded in

  1. In personal situations, the evaluative criteria might be tonal and semantic issues, focusing on assessing sincerity, honesty, candor, authenticity, trustworthiness
  2. In workplace settings, educated readers expect you to employ a Professional Writing Prose Style
  3. In school contexts and academic scholarship and research, readers expect an Academic Writing Prose Style

Step 3: Inspect the Document at Global & Local Level

Third, focus on reading the document at the global and local level where the global level concerns rhetorical matters and the local level concerns more about paragraph development and ordering and sentences.

1. Inspect the Document at Global & Local Level

Global Level

After you have reflected on the exigency, the call to write, you are ready to analyze a document at a high-level of abstraction — the Global Level.

Begin your inspection by focusing only on the top-level design elements:  

  1. the title
  2. the introduction
  3. the headings
  4. the table of contents (for longer documents, if a table of contents exists)

At this point, you’re looking for problems in the document’s organizational structure.

At a glance, does the title, introduction, and headings (along with the table of contents if one exists) answer these questions for the intended reader, listener, user . . . of the document: 

  • What is this report about?
  • What organizational problem or need is being address?
  • What is the occasion for this report?
  • What type of report is this?
  • What will the report accomplish?
  • Where in the report can I find answers to the questions I might logically have?

If you cannot answer these questions based on a quick skim, make notes about the problems you see.

At the global level, you’re likely to encounter

  1. Rhetorical Problems
  2. Structural Problems
  3. Language Problems
  4. Critical & Analytical Thinking Problems
  5. Problem Solving Problems.
Rhetorical Problems @ the Global Level

For rhetorical problems, check to see if….

the “problem”is clearly stated
can be solved with this plan/document
meets the organization’s real needs
the argument
is aimed at the primary audience
is convincing
is clear
is well-marked
respectis shown to all people addressed or referred to
is shown to competitors (if applicable)
Structural Problems @ the Global Level

For structural problems, check to see if the…

introductionprovides context (e.g. makes the occasion clear) states the problem clearly and conciselyforecasts content
has a clear and consistent plan
uses headings consistently and effectively
provides a clear conclusion. Here, we mean conclusion in the sense of a “judgment or decision supported by reasoning” and not “the final section.”
is in the proper section
has balanced development
is complete
visual/verbal marking
is clear and consistent for headings, topic sentences, lists (bulleted, numbered, or outline)
is used consistently throughout the document
visualsare coordinated to sections in which they appear (more generic visuals go with summaries or overviews, more specific visuals help support data and detailed discussions)

are marked consistently and clearly

are relevant to the section or point they are supporting
Language-Level Problems @ the Global Level

For language-level problems, check to see if….

headingsuse language that is appropriate for the reader
key termsare  consistent across sections
Critical & Analytical Thinking Problems @ the Global Level

For critical & analytical thinking problems, check to see if


is contextualized for readers.

When introducing evidence to support claims, is the evidence introduced in such a way that the documents intended reader will understand its Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose?

the types of evidence
is employed appropriately.

reflects the level of sophisticated required by its readers, listeners, users

evidence and types of evidence the report’s audience expects?
Anecdote, Anecdotal Evidence
Customer Discovery Evidence
Hypothetical EvidenceOpinion
Qualitative Evidence
Textual Evidence
Problem Solving Problems @ the Global Level

For problem-solving problems, check to see if

The Problem Definitionis lucid with evidence of all relevant contextual factors.

is robust, addressing historical roots, causes and effects, stakeholders and disruptors
Research Methods
are appropriate to investigate the problem given time constraints
Recommendationsare based not on claims made by the writers burt r=
  1. Do the proposed solutions make sense given the problem statement?
  2. Is the recommendation a realistic solution?
  3. Does the Gantt chart and other planning documents seem reasonable?

Section Level

After completing your top-level critique, you are ready to evaluate the document at the section level.

Continue your inspection by examining each section of the document. Compare sections (And while you’re doing that keep an eye out for parallelism problems). Look at headings, opening paragraphs, subheadings, topic sentences, transitions, and visuals.

The intended readers for the document should be able to skim a section and answer these questions for that section

  • What is this section about?
  • What is the function of this section?
  • What topics does this section address?
  • How does this section connect to the sections before/after it?

If you cannot answer these questions, make notes about the problems you see. You’ll want to compare notes with other members of your team so you can decide where to focus your time and energy during revision.

At the section level, you’re likely to encounter

  1. rhetorical problems
  2. structural problems
  3. language problems

Rhetorical Problems @ the Section Level

To find rhetorical problems, ask these questions:

  • Does the opening mislead readers?
  • Do the headings mislead readers?
  • Are the visuals and data appropriate for the target audience?
  • Does color or design mislead readers by focusing their attention on less important information?

Structural Problems @ the Section Level

To find structural problems, ask these questions:

  • Is this section one that conventional report structure would place in this location? (Is this where a reader would expect to find this section?)
  • Does the heading adequately and accurately reflect the section’s contents (e.g. does the heading say the section is going to address a topic that the section does not actually address?)
  • Is space evenly allocated to each topic? (e.g. are topics unbalanced, do key topics need to be addressed in more depth because readers will find them challenging?)
  • Is color used consistently?

Language Problems @ the Section Level

To find language problems, ask these questions:

  • Is the language appropriate for the target audience(s)?
  • Are key terms used consistently across sections?

2. Target the Biggest Problems @ the Global & Section Level

Okay, so after engaging in the heavy lifting of analyzing a document at the global and sectional level, it’s strategic to take a moment to jot down what you believe are the three most important revisions that need to happen at the global and section level.

If you’re reviewing a document with your co-authors or members of an editing or document review team, you’ll need to compare notes and agree on a plan for revising the document once your teammates or peer reviewers have completed their critiques of your work.

You may need to balance your priorities for revision against time constraints. The less time you have for revision, the fewer options you have for making substantial changes at the top- and section-level design of the document.

3. Inspect and Edit Paragraphs and Sentences

The 3rd step in Porter, Sullivan, and Johnson-Eilola’s model of structured revision is to begin critiquing the document from

  1. a paragraph-level perspective
  2. a sentence-level perspective.

Frankly, in our opinion, you are wise to resolve the global and section problems before worrying much about paragraph and sentence-level matters.

Paragraph-level perspective

Read the document paragraph-by-paragraph, placing check marks as you go.

Your goal is to analyze whether the paragraphs in the document are well formed and structured.

  1. Do the paragraphs conform to the reader’s expectations for the genre and media of the document?
  2. Is there a logical progression across paragraphs, informed by the given to new contract?
  3. Does the document use the rhetorical moves you believe it needs to help readers better understand paragraph unity and paragraph transitions?
  4. Are the paragraphs unified?
  5. Do the paragraphs flow? Is there a sense of coherence?
    1. Are the paragraphs following a coordinate order, deductive order, or Inductive order? Would you recommend a different order to improve flow?
    2. What recommendations, if any, would you make regarding paragraph transitions?

Sentence-level Perspective

Place check marks next to:

  • Sentences you find tedious
  • Sentences you have to read more than once
  • Sentences you don’t quite feel right about

To revise your own work or to suggest revisions to others, focus your efforts on the sections where you have the most checks first (the bigger problems are there). 

What recommendations can you make for revising the sentences?

Are there any problems in the document with brevity; clarity; flow, coherence, unity; and simplicity?

What about grammar and mechanics?

GrammarModification Errors

Parallelism Errors
MechanicsComma Splice

Run-on Sentences

Sentence Fragment
  1. David McMurray’s Online Technical Writing textbook includes an excellent chapter on Power Revision Techniques.  (

Works Cited

Porter,  J. E., Sullivan, P. , and Johnson-Eilola, J.  (2009).  Professional Writing Online 3.0, 3rd ed. New York: Pearson.