Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Bernard Malamud claimed that "First drafts are learning what your novel or story is about. Revision is working with that knowledge to enlarge or enhance an idea, or reform it." The same goes for news stories, marketing proposals, letters to congressmen and women, and yes, college essays. No matter what the writing assignment in college--whether a personal narrative, an explanation of a concept or historical event, an analysis of a painting or poem, or a thesis-driven argument--students who intend to succeed must learn how to "enlarge," "enhance," and "reform" their first drafts. That means budgeting enough time to raise new questions, to explore new angles on the subject, and to perform additional research if necessary. It means taking seriously the project of "re-visioning" one's initial efforts of putting ideas to paper.
Students often understand revision to mean a simple process of editing an essay according to their professor's marginal comments about mechanics and grammar. Rather, effective revision entails literally "re-seeing" the first draft and the original assignment. As teachers, we can encourage students to think of revision as an opportunity to explore new and surprising facets of the topic, to deepen and complicate the paper's central claims, to consider alternative ways of organizing material, and to move towards more subtle, mature expressions of thought. With intellectual curiosity, a positive attitude, and trust that there's much to be gained from revision, students can experience the pleasure of watching an early draft transform into an essay that expresses its ideas in clear, coherent, and thought-provoking prose.
First Steps of Revision
A good way to start the revision process is to locate strong ideas in the first draft and to work on "mining" them. The metaphor prompts students to dig deeper into those good ideas, to tap their as-yet-undiscovered resources, and to explore new veins of inquiry and response. This mining activity may take the form of additional brainstorming and journal writing. It may include a conversation or two with a fellow student or tutor in the Writers' Workshop. And it may involve asking journalistic questions that begin with Who? What? Where? When? How? and Why? Provocative questions force all writers--seasoned vets and upstarts alike--to test and rethink their earlier positions. For the revision process to work, writers must become almost possessed with curiosity and the will to modify and enlarge their thinking. Questions such as the following may trigger revisionary impulses:
Who is my audience and what expectations do they have about my essay?
Who else has written on this topic and what can I learn from them?
What does my topic compare to and/or contrast with?
What parts of my topic need more emphasis?
What fresh, new directions might the essay take?
Where can I find more information on my topic?
When did I first become interested in this topic and why?
How can I bring my essay to new plateaus of clarity and maturity?
Why does this topic interest me?
Why should anyone care to read about my topic ?
Two Kinds of Revision
Global revision focuses on thesis, organization, and evidence--the fundamental aspects of content and structure that, if not handled with intelligence and care, can derail a college paper. Here, students should try to enlarge the vision of the essay, to develop their ideas, to include more specific, concrete details and researched, well-documented proof. They should also try to re-organize and seek focus; earlier versions of essays often lack central organizing principles, although strong, supportable theses are frequently buried somewhere in an early version. Students must allow themselves to slow down and linger over the details of the topic at hand, asking two fundamental questions about global matters: what works? and what needs work? Students often need to be reminded to locate evidence. Direct quotes from the text being analyzed and secondary material can either enlarge a point, lending authoritative support to the paper's central claims, or, conversely, stand as voices against which the paper can assert its claims. Good writers often try to consider the consequences and implications of their topics from a dialectical approach: what might an opponent to this idea raise as an objection or blind spot or less persuasive point? Can the paper respond persuasively to such counter-arguments?
Local revision means sentence-level work. It involves more than merely sprucing up stylistic and mechanical problems--correcting misplaced commas and clunky transitions, selecting more accurate language, tidying up spelling. But good local revision also asks that a writer consider such questions as these:
Will my sentences clearly communicate meaning to my readers?
Are my style, diction, and tone appropriate for my subject and my audience?
Can I revitalize sentences by making them more active and direct?
Can I eliminate ineffective cliches--those stale, hackneyed phrases that have lost their ability to convey meaning with specificity and originality?
Have I avoided inflated or overly simplistic language?
Is my prose direct, concise, engaging?
Can I eliminate "gridlock," places where the essay repeats itself ineffectively?
Can I locate the strongest, most direct sentences and try to write up to their level throughout the paper?
"The piece written at midnight on the eve of the deadline date will be bad. It is scarcely looked over in that desperate hour of fatigue and self-reproach; it is no piece of prose, but the possible embryo of one. Without time to reread and some calm thought to effect repairs, you defeat your purpose: the hastily cobbled thing you produce cannot succeed, whether its aim is to persuade, prove, enthrall, or merely show such powers of writing as you possess. Any of these ends can be achieved only after a series of revisions."
--Jacques Barzun, Simple and Direct
The very word "revision" seems to provoke dread in many writers, perhaps because we find it so difficult to re-enter the "space" of writing and call up our original energy or excitement about a topic. But the further students can move away from thinking of revision as a necessary evil suffered for a (potentially) higher grade, and toward the idea that revision allows time to clarify, focus, and enhance the writing, the less fearful revision may seem.
Encouraging revision thus requires enormous sensitivity. As teachers, we ask our students to face their own self-doubt: "I'm no good at this," they might want to confess. We must reflect on our personal experiences of revising written work, and remind our students that rewriting allows for positive transformation and development. Young writers need to be self-reflective about the psychological dimensions of rewriting and re-visioning, but they also need to know that all writers experience struggles and self-doubt. Writers are those who persist, and who find ways of making their writing projects matter to them, and to others. Revision means persisting in the face of inevitable setbacks (all writers experience them). It also means searching for those windows of opportunity that can be opened onto new intellectual landscapes.