16 Concepts and Strategies for Revision

Shane Abrams; Liz Delf; Rob Drummond; and Kristy Kelly

Shane Abrams
Adapted by Liz Delf, Rob Drummond, and Kristy Kelly

Concepts and Strategies for Revision

Let’s start with a few definitions. What is an essay? It’s likely that your teachers have been asking you to write essays for years now; you’ve probably formed some idea of the genre. But when I ask my students to define this kind of writing, their answers vary widely and only get at part of the meaning of “essay.”

Although we typically talk of an essay (noun), I find it instructive to think about essay (verb): to try, to test, to explore, to attempt to understand. An essay (noun), then, is an attempt and an exploration. Popularized shortly before the Enlightenment era by Michel de Montaigne, the essay form was invested in the notion that writing invites discovery: the idea was that he, as a layperson without formal education in a specific discipline, would learn more about a subject through the act of writing itself.

What difference does this new definition make for us as writers?

Writing invites discovery.
Throughout the act of writing, you will learn more about your topic. Even though some people think of writing as a way to capture a fully formed idea, writing can also be a way to process ideas—in other words, writing can be an act of thinking. It forces you to look closer and see more. Your revisions should reflect the knowledge you gain through the act of writing.
An essay is an attempt, but not all attempts are successful on the first try.
You should give yourself license to fail, to an extent. If to essay is to try, then it’s OK to fall short. Writing is also an iterative process, which means your first draft isn’t the final product.

Now, what is revision? You may have been taught that revision means fixing commas, using a thesaurus to brighten up word choice, and maybe tweaking a sentence or two. However, I prefer to think of revision as “re | vision.”

Revision isn’t just about polishing—it’s about seeing your piece from a new angle, with “fresh eyes.” Often, we get so close to our own writing that we need to be able to see it from a different perspective in order to improve it. Revision happens on many levels. What you may have been trained to think of as revision—grammatical and mechanical fixes—is just one tier. Here’s how I like to imagine it:

Venn diagram showing relationship between global revision, local revision, and proofreading
Fig 16.1 Global revision, local revision, and proofreading

Even though all kinds of revision are valuable, your global issues are first-order concerns, and proofreading is a last-order concern. If your entire topic, approach, or structure needs revision, it doesn’t matter if you have a comma splice or two. It’s likely that you’ll end up rewriting that sentence anyway.

There are a handful of techniques you can experiment with in order to practice true revision. First, if you can, take some time away from your writing. When you return, you will have a clearer head. You will even, in some ways, be a different person when you come back—since we as humans are constantly changing from moment to moment, day to day, you will have a different perspective with some time away. This might be one way for you to make procrastination work in your favor: if you know you struggle with procrastination, try to bust out a quick first draft the day an essay is assigned. Then you can come back to it a few hours or a few days later with fresh eyes and a clearer idea of your goals.

Second, you can challenge yourself to reimagine your writing using global and local revision techniques, like those included later in this chapter.

Third, you can (and should) read your paper aloud, if only to yourself. This technique distances you from your writing; by forcing yourself to read aloud, you may catch sticky spots, mechanical errors, abrupt transitions, and other mistakes you would miss if you were immersed in your writing. (Recently, a student shared with me that she uses an online text-to-speech voice reader to create this same separation. By listening along and taking notes, she can identify opportunities for local- and proofreading-level revision.)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you should rely on your learning community. Because you most likely work on tight deadlines and don’t always have the opportunity to take time away from our projects, you should solicit feedback from your classmates, the writing center, your instructor, your peer workshop group, or your friends and family. As readers, they have valuable insight into the rhetorical efficacy of your writing: their feedback can be useful in developing a piece that is conscious of audience. To begin setting expectations and procedures for your peer workshop, turn to the first activity in this section.

Throughout this text, I have emphasized that good writing cannot exist in a vacuum; similarly, good rewriting often requires a supportive learning community. Even if you have had negative experiences with peer workshops before, I encourage you to give them another chance. Not only do professional writers consistently work with other writers, but my students are nearly always surprised by just how helpful it is to work alongside their classmates.

The previous diagram (of global, local, and proofreading levels of revision) reminds us that everyone has something valuable to offer in a learning community: because there are so many different elements on which to articulate feedback, you can provide meaningful feedback to your workshop, even if you don’t feel like an expert writer.

During the many iterations of revising, remember to be flexible and to listen. Seeing your writing with fresh eyes requires you to step outside of yourself, figuratively.

Listen actively and seek to truly understand feedback by asking clarifying questions and asking for examples. The reactions of your audience are a part of writing that you cannot overlook, so revision ought to be driven by the responses of your colleagues.

On the other hand, remember that the ultimate choice to use or disregard feedback is at the author’s discretion: provide all the suggestions you want as a group member, but use your best judgment as an author. If members of your group disagree—great! Contradictory feedback reminds us that writing is a dynamic, transactional action that is dependent on the specific rhetorical audience.

Chapter Vocabulary
Table 16.1 Definitions of terms used in the following chapter
Vocabulary Definition
Essay A medium, typically nonfiction, by which an author can achieve a variety of purposes. Popularized by Michel de Montaigne as a method of discovery of knowledge: in the original French, essay is a verb that means “to try, to test, to explore, to attempt to understand.”
Fluff Uneconomical writing: filler language or unnecessarily wordy phrasing. Although fluff occurs in a variety of ways, it can be generally defined as words, phrases, sentences, or paragraphs that do not work hard to help you achieve your rhetorical purpose.
Iterative Literally a repetition within a process. The writing process is iterative because it is nonlinear and because an author often has to repeat, revisit, or reapproach different steps along the way.
Learning community A network of learners and teachers, each equipped and empowered to provide support through horizontal power relations. Values diversity insofar as it encourages growth and perspective but also inclusivity. Also, a community that learns by adapting to its unique needs and advantages.
Revision The iterative process of changing a piece of writing. Literally revision: seeing your writing with “fresh eyes” in order to improve it. Includes changes on global, local, and proofreading levels. Changes might include the following:

  • Rewriting (trying again, perhaps from a different angle or with a different focus)
  • Adding (new information, new ideas, new evidence)
  • Subtracting (unrelated ideas, redundant information, fluff)
  • Rearranging (finding more effective vectors or sequences of organization)
  • Switching out (changing words or phrases, substituting different evidence)
  • Mechanical cleanup (standardizing punctuation, grammar, or formatting)

Revision Activities

Establishing Your Peer Workshop

Before you begin working with a group, it’s important for you to establish a set of shared goals, expectations, and processes. You might spend a few minutes talking through the following questions:

  • Have you ever participated in a peer workshop before? What worked? What didn’t?
  • What do you hate about group projects? How might you mitigate these issues?
  • What opportunities do group projects offer that working independently doesn’t? What are you excited about?
  • What requests do you have for your peer workshop group members?

In addition to thinking through the culture you want to create for your workshop group, you should also consider the kind of feedback you want to exchange, practically speaking. In order to arrive at a shared definition for “good feedback,” I often ask my students to complete the following sentence as many times as possible with their groupmates: “Good feedback is…”

The list could go on forever, but here are a few that I emphasize:

Table 16.2 A set of qualities that describe good feedback
“Good feedback is…”
Kind Actionable Not prescriptive (offers suggestions, not demands)
Cognizant of process (i.e., recognizes that a first draft isn’t a final draft) Respectful Honest
Specific Comprehensive (i.e., global, local, and proofreading) Attentive

Once you’ve discussed the parameters for the learning community you’re building, you can begin workshopping your drafts, asking, “What does the author do well and what could they do better?” Personally, I prefer a workshop that’s conversational, allowing the author and the audience to discuss the work both generally and specifically; however, your group should use whatever format will be most valuable for you. Before starting your workshop, try to get everyone on the same page logistically by using the following flowcharts.

To set the tone and expectations for your unique workshop group, talk through the following prompts. Record your answers. The first activity will establish a climate or culture for your group; the second will help you talk through logistics.

Choose the 3-5 descriptors of good feedback that are most important to the members of your group. Discuss for 3-5 minutes: What do each of you need for this Peer Workshop to be effective? From each other? From the instructor? From yourselves? From your environment? Record responses on a separate sheet of paper.

Flowchart of peer workshop
Fig 16.2 Establishing your peer workshop
Flowchart of group feedback
Fig 16.3 How will your group develop feedback?

Global Revision Activity for a Narrative Essay

This assignment challenges you to try new approaches to a draft you’ve already written. Although you will be “rewriting” in this exercise, you are not abandoning your earlier draft: this exercise is generative, meaning it is designed to help you produce new details, ideas, or surprising bits of language that you might integrate into your project.

First, choose a part of your draft that (1) you really like but think could be better or (2) just isn’t working for you. This excerpt should be no fewer than one hundred words and can include your entire essay, if you want.

Then complete your choice of one prompt from the list below: apply the instruction to the excerpt to create new content. Read over your original once, but do not refer back to it after you start writing. Your goal here is to deviate from the first version, not reproduce it. The idea here is to produce something new about your topic through constraint; you are reimagining your excerpt on a global scale.

After completing one prompt, go back to the original and try at least one more or apply a different prompt to your new work.

  1. Change genres. For example, if your excerpt is written in typical essay form, try writing it as poetry, or dialogue from a play/movie, or a radio advertisement.
  2. Zoom in. Focus on one image, color, idea, or word from your excerpt and zoom way in. Meditate on this one thing with as much detail as possible.
  3. Zoom out. Step back from the excerpt and contextualize it with background information, concurrent events, or information about relationships or feelings.
  4. Change point of view. Try a new vantage point for your story by changing pronouns and perspective. For instance, if your excerpt is in first person (I/me), switch to second (you) or third person (he/she/they).
  5. Change setting. Resituate your excerpt in a different place or time.
  6. Change your audience. Rewrite the excerpt anticipating the expectations of a different reader than you first intended. For example, if the original excerpt is in the same speaking voice you would use with your friends, write as if your strictest teacher or the president or your grandmother is reading it. If you’ve written in an “academic” voice, try writing for your closest friend—use slang, swear words, casual language, whatever.
  7. Add another voice. Instead of just the speaker of the essay narrating, add a listener. This listener can agree, disagree, question, heckle, sympathize, apologize, or respond in any other way you can imagine.
  8. Change timeline (narrative sequence). Instead of moving chronologically forward, rearrange the events to bounce around.
  9. Change tense. Narrate from a different vantage point by changing the grammar. For example, instead of writing in past tense, write in present or future tense.
  10. Change tone. Reimagine your writing in a different emotional register. For instance, if your writing is predominantly nostalgic, try a bitter tone. If you seem regretful, try to write as if you were proud.

Reverse Outlining

Have you ever written an outline before writing a draft? It can be a useful prewriting strategy, but it doesn’t work for all writers. If you’re like me, you prefer to brain-dump a bunch of ideas on the paper, then come back to organize and refocus during the revision process. One strategy that can help you here is reverse outlining.

Divide a blank piece of paper into three columns, as demonstrated below. Number each paragraph of your draft, and write an equal numbered list down the left column of your blank piece of paper. Write “Idea” at the top of the middle column and “Purpose” at the top of the right column.

Table 16.3 A worksheet example for reverse formatting
Paragraph Number (¶#) Idea
(What is the ¶ saying?)
(What is the ¶ doing?)
Paragraph 1 Notes: Notes:
Paragraph 2 Notes: Notes:
Paragraph 3 Notes: Notes:
Paragraph 4 Notes: Notes:
Paragraph 5 Notes: Notes:
Paragraph 6 Notes: Notes:
Paragraph 7 Notes: Notes:

Now wade back through your essay, identifying what each paragraph is saying and what each paragraph is doing. Choose a few key words or phrases for each column to record on your sheet of paper.

  • Try to use consistent language throughout the reverse outline so you can see where your paragraphs are saying or doing similar things.
  • A paragraph might have too many different ideas or too many different functions for you to concisely identify. This could be a sign that you need to divide that paragraph up.

Here’s a student’s model reverse outline:

Table 16.4 A model of a reverse outline
Paragraph Number (¶) Idea
(What is the ¶ saying?)
(What is the ¶ doing?)
Paragraph 1 Theater is an important part of education and childhood development. Setting up and providing thesis statement
Paragraph 2 There have been many changes in recent history to public education in the United States. Providing context for thesis
Paragraph 3 Theater programs in public schools have been on the decline over the past two decades. Providing context and giving urgency to the topic
Paragraph 4 a.     Theater has social/emotional benefits.
b.     Theater has academic benefits.
Supporting and explaining thesis
Paragraph 5 a.     Acknowledge argument in favor of standardized testing.
b.     STEAM curriculum incorporates arts education into other academic subjects.
Disarming audience, proposing a solution to underfunded arts programs
Paragraph 6 Socioeconomic inequality is also an obstacle to theater education. Acknowledging broader scope of topic
Paragraph 7 Looking forward at public education reform, we should incorporate theater into public education. Call to action, backing up and restating thesis

But wait—there’s more!

Once you have identified the idea(s) and purpose(s) of each paragraph, you can start revising according to your observations. From the completed reverse outline, create a new outline with a different sequence, organization, focus, or balance. You can reorganize by

  • combining or dividing paragraphs,
  • rearranging ideas, and
  • adding or subtracting content.

Reverse outlining can also be helpful in identifying gaps and redundancies: Now that you have a new outline, do any of your ideas seem too brief? Do you need more evidence for a certain argument? Do you see ideas repeated more than necessary?

After completing the reverse outline above, the student proposed this new organization:

16.5 Student proposed changes based on previous table
Proposed changes based on reverse outline:
Combine 2 and 5a
Combine 3 and 6
Write new paragraph on other solutions

You might note that this strategy can also be applied on the sentence and section level. Additionally, if you are a kinesthetic or visual learner, you might cut your paper into smaller pieces that you can physically manipulate.

Be sure to read aloud after reverse outlining to look for abrupt transitions.

You can see a simplified version of this technique demonstrated in this video.

Local Revision Activity: Cutting Fluff

When it’s late at night, the deadline is approaching, and we’ve simply run out of things to say…we turn to fluff. Fluff refers to language that doesn’t do work for you—language that simply takes up space or sits flat on the page rather than working economically and impactfully. Whether or not you’ve used it deliberately, all authors have been guilty of fluffy writing at one time or another.

Example of fluff on social media [“Presidents don’t have to be smart” from funnyjunk.com].

Fluff happens for a lot of reasons.

  • Of course, reaching a word or page count is the most common motivation.
  • Introductions and conclusions are often fluffy because the author can’t find a way into or out of the subject or because the author doesn’t know what their exact subject will be.
  • Sometimes, the presence of fluff is an indication that the author doesn’t know enough about the subject or that their scope is too broad.
  • Other times, fluffy language is deployed in an effort to sound “smarter” or “fancier” or “more academic”—which is an understandable pitfall for developing writers.

These circumstances, plus others, encourage us to use language that’s not as effective, authentic, or economical. Fluff happens in a lot of ways; here are a few I’ve noticed:

Table 16.6 A list of common fluff origin stories
Fluff’s Supervillainous Alter-Ego Supervillain Origin Story
Thesaurus syndrome A writer uses inappropriately complex language (often because of the right-click “Synonyms” function) to achieve a different tone. The more complex language might be used inaccurately or sound inauthentic because the author isn’t as familiar with it.
Roundabout phrasing Rather than making a direct statement (“That man is a fool.”), the author uses couching language or beats around the bush (“If one takes into account each event, each decision, it would not be unwise for one to suggest that that man’s behaviors are what some would call foolish.”)
Abstraction or generalities If the author hasn’t quite figured out what they want to say or has too broad of a scope, they might discuss an issue very generally without committing to specific, engaging details.
Digression An author might get off topic, accidentally or deliberately, creating extraneous, irrelevant, or unconnected language.
Ornamentation or flowery language Similarly to thesaurus syndrome, often referred to as “purple prose,” an author might choose words that sound pretty or smart but aren’t necessarily the right words for their ideas.
Wordy sentences Even if the sentences an author creates are grammatically correct, they might be wordier than necessary.

Of course, there’s a very fine line between detail and fluff. Avoiding fluff doesn’t mean always using the fewest words possible. Instead, you should occasionally ask yourself in the revision process, How is this part contributing to the whole? Is this somehow building toward a bigger purpose? If the answer is no, then you need to revise.

The goal should not necessarily be “Don’t write fluff” but rather “Learn to get rid of fluff in revision.” In light of our focus on process, you are allowed to write fluff in the drafting period, so long as you learn to “prune” during revisions. (I use the word prune as an analogy for caring for a plant: just as you must cut the dead leaves off for the plant’s health and growth, you will need to cut fluff so your writing can thrive.)

Here are a few strategies:

  • Read out loud.
  • Ask yourself what a sentence is doing, rhetorically.
  • Combine like sentences, phrases, or ideas.
  • Use signposts, like topic-transition sentences (for yourself during revision and for your reader in the final draft).
  • Be specific—stay cognizant of your scope (globally) and the detail of your writing (locally).

To practice revising for fluff, workshop the following excerpt by yourself or with a partner. Your goal is not to cut back to the smallest number of words but rather to prune out what you consider to be fluff and leave what you consider to be detail. You should be able to explain the choices you make.

There was a time long before today when an event occurred involving a young woman who was known to the world as Goldilocks. On the particular day at hand, Goldilocks made a spontaneous decision to wander through the forest, the trees growing up high above her flowing blonde pigtails. Some time after she commenced her voyage, but not after too long, she saw sitting on the horizon a small residency. Goldilocks rapped her knuckles on the door, but alas, no one answered the door. Therefore, Goldilocks decided that it would be a good idea to enter the unattended house, so she entered it. Atop the average-sized table in the kitchen of the house, there were three bowls of porridge, which is similar to oatmeal. Porridge is a very common dish in Europe; in fact, the Queen of England is well known for enjoying at least one daily bowl of porridge per day. Goldilocks, not unlike the Queen of England, enjoys eating porridge for its nutritional value. On this day, she was feeling quite hungry and wanted to eat. She decided that she should taste one of the three bowls of porridge, from which steam was rising indicating its temperature. But because she apparently couldn’t tell, she imbibed a spoonful of the porridge and vocalized the fact that the porridge was of too high a temperature for her to masticate and consume: “This porridge is too hot!”


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Concepts and Strategies for Revision Copyright © 2022 by Shane Abrams; Liz Delf; Rob Drummond; and Kristy Kelly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.