Think of a story or a personal experience that you have told many times. How has it changed each time you’ve told it? Have you found yourself adding details to make it more vivid? How do you change which points you emphasize depending on your listener?
If you can answer these questions, you already know what it means to revise. You know what it means to reshape the stories you tell to suit your audiences and to polish your presentations with repetition. You know how new meanings emerge each time you recount something that happened to you or talk about a subject you’re knowledgeable about.
What It Means to Revise an Essay
Revising a paper or project simply means to “re-see” it—to take another look at it and write another draft. When you re-experience a favorite book or movie, you find something new each time. Similarly, each time you revise a piece of writing, you find new ideas to develop and new areas to improve. Writing multiple drafts leads to stronger papers.
A notes draft consists of your brainstorming and notes. It may take the form of a list, an idea-cluster, or a ten-minute freewrite. (See Using Invention Methods for brainstorming methods.) This is your first attempt at seeing—and writing or typing—what you want to say.
From the notes draft, you move to your rough draft. As you revise from notes to the rough draft, concentrate on the overall meaning of the essay. Look through your notes draft to see whether there are any points that look like a thesis. Now, what points in that draft could be used to support the thesis—or what points might you need to add?
Once you organize the thesis with supporting points in a logical order, consider any further details each supporting point may need. Add detail, and add logical transitions from one point to the next.
Once you've written your rough draft, give yourself a break. Ideally, set the draft aside for a day. When you come back, read through your rough draft slowly, pretending it’s someone else’s work. Make notes in the margins of a hard copy, or embed comments in the text on a computer file.
For the revised draft, focus most intently on your ideas. See the list below (What to Focus on in Revision) for specific guidelines. When you're finished looking at the bigger ideas, you can begin to correct wordy or unclear sentences and grammatical errors. For tips on correcting such errors, see Top 10 Writing Concerns.
When your revised draft is finished, you’re ready to get readers’ responses. Bring or send the revised draft to your instructor and/or to your class peer-review group.
For this draft, review the comments from readers to consider what they say about the “big” issues: the paper’s thesis, the supporting points, and the examples. As you review readers’ comments, ask yourself the following questions:
- What reasons do the readers give for their suggestions?
- What does a given reader seem to expect your paper to do?
- What do you expect to change based on a reader’s response?
- What common concerns come up more than once in your readers’ comments?
The answers should reveal how to use readers’ comments to further revise. The draft could still change substantially at this stage, and comments can get you thinking about your topic in a new way.
When you have made all the changes from your own thinking and from readers’ comments, you have arrived at the presentation draft—the one ready to submit.
What to Focus on in Revision
- Revise to fulfill the assignment: What has your assignment asked you to do? A classification essay is different from a persuasive essay, which is different from a rhetorical analysis or a literature review, etc. What changes must you make to better fulfill the assignment? For more guidance, see Analyzing the Prompt.
- Revise to clarify your purpose: Why are you writing the paper (other than the mere fact that you were assigned to do so)? For example, if you’re writing a persuasive essay, why did you chose your topic? Do you have an angle on your topic that few other writers express? In any kind of paper, what could you do to show your reader how you have made the topic your own?
- Revise to address your audience: How does your paper make clear who its intended readers are? What moves does it make to reach those readers? What changes might you need to make to come across to your readers as a trustworthy voice on the topic? Refer to Analyzing Your Audience and Audience Types for more information on audience.
- Revise to clarify your thesis: Which sentence(s) state(s) your thesis? If you can't find it, then clarifying your thesis is your first task. (Hint: The thesis might be at the end of the first draft; sometimes you have to develop an idea before you can realize what you really want to say!)
- Revise to make your thesis more specific and debatable: If your thesis is saying something so self-evident that no one could argue with it, how could you revise it to be more specific and forceful? Additional insight on the thesis can be found in Developing a Thesis.
- Revise to connect your main points more closely to your thesis: Write out the sentences that express the main points, or highlight your topic sentences in each paragraph. How does each one support your thesis? For more tips, see Clear Topic Sentences.
- Revise to add more support for your main points: What evidence do you have for each supporting point? Evidence includes your own detailed examples as well as findings from other researchers. Refer to Completing the Research Process to consider research strategies.
- Revise for more coherence: Since relationships between your ideas should be clear and logical, consider whether the reader can easily see how you get from one point to the next. Which transitions or signposts should be clearer, both within and between your paragraphs? For more on writing strong paragraphs, see Powerful Body Paragraphs.
- Revise for a more effective opening and closing: How does your introduction engage the reader? How does it establish a) your topic and b) your purpose in writing about that topic? In addition, how does your conclusion summarize your main points? What “food for thought” does it offer the reader? Check out Effective Introductions and Strong Conclusions for more revision ideas.
- Revise for tone and diction: What attitude does the paper convey? What image of the writer do you get from it—serious or playful? To what extent does the tone you have chosen sound right for your audience? What about diction (word choice)? Have you chosen words at the right level of formality for your paper’s occasion—not too casual in a research paper and not too formal in a personal essay? See more in Consistent Tone and Voice.
Revising Versus Proofreading
Think About It
The kind of work discussed above is called revising, which means to engage in depth with the essay’s content. For additional insight, see Revising Content.
Revising should not be confused with editing or proofreading, which means checking each sentence for grammar and spelling errors. You should do that only at the very end of the multi-draft process. See Editing and Proofreading for more details on accurate proofreading.
- What are ways that revision can improve your paper even when the first draft is strong?
- What changes need to be made between the notes draft to the rough draft?
- What should you revise after considering readers’ comments?
Writing an essay (or story, or poem, or blog post, or . . . ) is most rewarding when you allow the piece to grow over the course of more than one draft. As you develop your own multi-draft process, you’ll see for yourself how revision, rather than being a separate stage in the writing process, is really an integral part of that process from start to finish.