WriteCast Episode 14: The 5 Rs of Revision
© Walden University Writing Center 2014
[TEASER:] BRITTANY: Revision is something that’s really misunderstood.
NIK: Welcome to WriteCast, a casual conversation for serious writers. I'm Nikolas Nadeau.
BRITTANY: And I'm Brittany Kallman Arneson.
NIK: This week we’ll be talking about the 5 R’s of revision and how they can make you a better and more efficient academic writer.
So, Brittany, today we’re talking about revision, which makes me think back to my middle school days.
BRITTANY: Oh, did you revise your papers in middle school? That’s pretty advanced. I don’t think that I was doing that when I was in seventh grade.
NIK: Well, I mean, I guess we had something called “sloppy copies.” Did you do that – sloppy copies?
BRITTANY: Oh yeah, yeah. That sounds familiar.
NIK: So you write one rough draft, or a sloppy copy, and then, you know, maybe you fixed a couple of typos, moved a few commas, and that was your final draft.
BRITTANY: Right, yep, we did that too. And I think we started talking about real revision once we got to high school. But it was really a long time before I understood what revising my writing really meant or looked like—that it wasn’t just going through and fixing some errors, but that it was really more of a process than that.
NIK: Exactly. It’s a process, and it’s a process that takes a lot of time and itself lot of practice.
BRITTANY: Yes. That’s exactly why we wanted to talk about this topic today, because revision is really something that’s misunderstood quite often, and we want to get into the nitty gritty of what it really is and what it means to revise your writing.
NIK: So for the first R we’re talking about revision as re-seeing. Or re-vision. Vision, as in sight. Of course, the prefix re- means again or repeat. Think of words like redo.
BRITTANY: Redecorate or rebirth.
NIK: Or reiterate. So, vision, of course, requires us to see, so we can think of revision as meaning literally re-seeing or to see again. So taking that metaphorical step back from your writing and looking at it with new eyes, with a new pair of eyes, allows you to identify places that might need work or that you could strengthen.
BRITTANY: Our second R is that revision is reflective. So this means it involves really digging deep into the ideas, the arguments, the organization, and the coherence of your piece of writing. It’s really about making some big picture changes rather than that nitty gritty proofreading making those superficial changes like fixing spelling mistakes, inserting maybe a missing comma or two, adjusting your citation formatting. It’s bigger than that. It’s a reflective process where you might ask yourself certain key questions about your writing. For instance, you might ask, do I follow through on my argument? Is my evidence strong and convincing? Will my organization make sense to an outside reader? So really thinking about the perspective of the other person reading your writing, as they are approaching it. And finally, what are my paper’s strengths and what are my paper’s weaknesses? So revision is really about having a willingness to rethink and rewrite big portions of your paper, and sometimes you might even rework and rewrite the entire paper.
NIK: That’s right, and the third R of revision is that it’s relative, meaning relative to whatever it is you are writing. So, depending on the situation, revision might involve changing around the order of paragraphs, scraping your conclusion completely maybe, and writing something new, or doing a major rehaul of your argument. Brittany, have you ever found that after writing your paper, you actually need to change your main argument or your thesis statement?
BRITTANY: Yes. In fact I’m working on a writing project with our colleague, Beth, right now, and that’s something that we found as we continue to write -- that we realize we’re kind of arguing something different than we set out to argue. And that’s not a bad thing; it’s just means that your paper has sort of organically flowed in a different direction. And then you need to go back and create a set-up that helps the reader prepare for that new flow, rather than having a disconnect between the thesis statement and the argument. So, yeah, that’s something that’s really common. I think a lot of writers maybe feel apprehensive about making a lot of those big changes, but that’s something that’s going to make your writing stronger.
NIK: Yeah, I think it was Hemingway that once said that the first draft is spaghetti sauce. Of course, he didn’t say “spaghetti sauce”; he said something else. But you know you should be open to making sure that that first draft is not the draft that you are married to; you’re not so in love with it that you can’t completely let go of it later on. And remember that if you are writing a longer paper, particularly a research paper, a thesis, or a dissertation, you should expect that paper to go through multiple revisions.
BRITTANY: Right, exactly, but there are some situations where, again because revision is relative, you might not need to go through those extensive revisions. For instance, maybe the first draft of a discussion post that you write might turn out to be pretty good and it doesn’t need rewriting. So being really careful to assess whether or not revision is necessary depending on the situation, depending on the length of your assignment, depending on the weight of whatever it is that you are writing. So you want to think about your own time management, too, of course, and decide if something like a discussion post merits multiple revisions. It maybe isn’t worth your time to go through those revisions for something so small. But for something bigger and longer you might want to spend more time doing those revisions.
NIK: We also want to talk about revision as happening as many times as may be required. It may need to happen more than once.
BRITTANY: This brings us to our fourth R, which is that revision is recurring. It doesn’t just happen once. Instead it might happen throughout the writing process, again depending on the scope of what you are writing. But it’s really important to keep in mind and to sort of normalize this idea that you’re going to be doing this multiple times over, and that that’s okay, and that this is normal. So setting yourself up to expect to build that time into your writing process is really important. The last thing you want to do is feel really overwhelmed, feel pressed for time, not have that time set aside to do the revision that is necessary to make your writing really solid and strong. So, ideally, this means being able to set aside, I would say, at least a day. Do you think, Nik? Sometimes a lot more than that before you finish a draft?
NIK: Oh yeah. 24 to 48 hours.
BRITTANY: 24 to 48 hours. Yeah, I would say that’s probably safe as a minimum. And then you can go from there depending on what sort of time you have. But you really do need that time to let things sink in and process for yourself, maybe to take some time away from your writing, and then come back. And that comes back to our first R, right, where you can see with new eyes some of the things that you’ve written and spend some time reworking your writing.
NIK: And lastly the one thing we want to emphasize more than anything else is that even though you might be thinking that revising sounds like a lot of work, it’s actually rewarding, and that’s the fifth R -- revision is rewarding. You know, revising your work not only results in a stronger paper, but, honestly, Brittany, it helps me feel better about my writing. I know my writing is stronger, but I also feel like I’ve dedicated some time to this. You know, let’s say I’m about to send a very important email to my boss, or a very important letter to a friend—you know the more drafts you have, the more time you have to refine your ideas. You know, it’s like gasoline, right? You know, the premium gasoline that’s 20 cents more expensive than the regular unleaded, which is infinitely more refined than the crude oil. You know, you don’t want to give the crude oil to your instructor, and, if you’re at the dissertation stage, you certainly don’t want to give crude oil to the database. Don’t give a lump of coal; give them a shining princess-cut diamond.
BRITTANY: [Laughs] Yes. I totally agree, Nik, and I think it’s important to emphasize, too, that we’re not just saying how important revising is because we in the Writing Center want you to be just writing, writing, writing all the time. Research actually shows that rewriting helps you learn to write. So you are learning to identify patterns within your own writing, you’re learning to identify your own writing strengths and weaknesses, and you are building those organizational and analytical skills. So you are really thinking through and challenging your own ideas, and this is a huge part of critical thinking, as well as writing. So these revision skills really incorporate well into the skill set that you are aiming to develop as a student here at Walden, anyway.
NIK: So, how do we actually go about doing revision? Here are a few quick tips. Number one, adjust your expectations, and actually by this, we simply mean lower your expectations. Don’t expect to write something perfectly the first time around. Your paper might need to go through several drafts.
BRITTANY: Number two is to plan for revision time in your writing schedule or process. So if you’re writing a paper the same day it is due, you are not going to have time for revision. Think ahead.
NIK: Number three: think big picture. That is, about your ideas, your paper’s organization, whether your ideas are coherent and logical.
BRITTANY: Number four: think critically about the revisions you make. So, for instance, let’s say over time you notice that you always need to revise your introduction to include more background information. You might be aware of that over time and be able to apply that learning to future papers you write so that you can actually incorporate that background information as you write the first time and save yourself some revising time down the line.
NIK: At number five—and this is more of a technical tip—save each draft as a separate document. Number it draft one, draft two. Whatever you do, make sure that you are not writing over the same draft, because you might need some of those drafts later. Maybe something that you wrote in draft two you want to resurrect and put it back in draft six. So be sure to have your own system.
BRITTANY: [Mm hmm]
NIK: So Brittany, how is that article going that you are writing? How are you doing in your revising?
BRITTANY: You know, it’s going well. I have to say it’s taking longer than we expected, so that kind of fits with some other things we’ve been talking about in this episode. We’ve gone through many more revisions than we expected to have to do. We’ve gone back and kind of reversed outlined a lot of what we wrote the first time to try and figure out if our argument flows and makes sense. We’ve talked about how much evidence we need to incorporate, and whether or not we need to be incorporating more. So it’s really been an interesting process. And this, of course, is a unique process in that it’s a co-writer situation, so both Beth and I have been working together to access the piece of writing, which has been really rich and rewarding in a lot of ways. But it’s really supported a lot of the things we’ve been talking about today -- that revision is really a process. It’s really something that happens over time and that deals with big picture ideas and argument. So we’re getting there; we’re getting close. But, yeah, we’ve definitely gone through many, many revisions over the course of the time we’ve been writing it.
NIK: So, here at the Writing Center we definitely want you to be successful, and I think Brittany’s account just shows that we’re all committed here at the Writing Center to helping you succeed because we, too, are putting things out into the academic conversation. We, too, are working through a lot of different ideas and research, and we’re not always sure what we think, what we’re going to argue. We just want to share the joy of revision because it can be a very wonderful and even a therapeutic process.
So next time we’ll be joined by special guest, Melanie Brown, the associate director of the Writing Center, who will be talking about how to respond to critical or unclear feedback. And that’s going to be a great episode. We hope you will join us.
BRITTANY: Thanks everyone. We’ll see you next time.
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NIK: This podcast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center.
BRITTANY: This episode was produced by me, Brittany Kallman Arneson, my co-host, Nikolas Nadeau, and Anne Shiell.