Discovering Ideas Handbook


2.1    Read Your Essay Aloud and Make Notes 

One of the hardest things to do well in writing and revising an essay is to see what you have actually written.  And the closer you are to the act of writing, the harder this is.  This may sound strange, but it appears to be true for almost all writers.  In small things and large, we seem not to be able to see what we have actually written.  When you are reading your own essay you will simply miss many errors in spelling and usage that you would see easily if you were reading someone else's writing.  When these errors are pointed out to you it will come as a shock; it will seem that they have instantly appeared on the page, as if by magic.  Sometimes you will be certain that the error wasn't there the last time you looked at your paper.  This is not only true of details.  It requires a conscious effort and careful attention to tell whether the essay you have written actually develops the thesis statement you have written.  You would think that this would be easy; you wrote the thesis and you wrote the essay.  But it isn't easy.  A majority of essays in every class I have taught (which is, well, a lot) fail to fully develop the thesis statement that the writer claims is the main point of the essay.  How can this be?

A lot goes on when you are writing, most of it not at the conscious level.  You are producing thoughts very fast, sorting them according to some principle that you have adopted--probably without being fully aware of it--, and writing down some of what you are thinking.  But there is much more going on in your head than you can write down.  This is true whether the writing experience is easy or hard, positive or negative for you.  In fact, it may be the case that the better job of writing you are doing--the more you concentrate, the larger the variety of ideas, the more specific your material--the smaller the proportion of your thoughts that actually get down on paper.  In my case, I find that if I write for a long time I am always surprised to see how little I have actually written.  It seems as if there should be more.  It felt like more when I was writing it!  For most of us, when we read what we have just written, what we experience is not simply the words on the paper.  Instead, we remember the process of writing it.  Instead of reading what we wrote, we remember what we meant.  Thus when someone points out that we have not said what we thought we had, we are surprised and mystified.

It requires a very high level of concentration to find out what you have actually written!  Many people never achieve it, so they never fully revise their writing because they never really read it.  But there are several techniques that can help you focus on the words you have written and see where you have strayed from your intention.  I suggest three of them below. 

1.  The most important technique is to read your essay aloud at every stage of revision.  By "aloud" I mean audibly, so that you can hear the words.  This will restrict you somewhat.  You will need to find a place that affords a degree of privacy.  But that's a good idea anyway.  The benefits of reading your essay aloud are substantial.  When you read aloud you force yourself to focus more directly on what you are reading and you bring more of your brain to bear on the task of decoding the words.  When you read aloud, you maximize your concentration on the text in front of you and increase your ability to shut out distractions that will dilute your attention.  When you first begin your revision, read through the whole draft, start to finish, before you start to revise the parts.  

2.  Next, even if you wrote your first draft at the computer, print it out on paper before beginning your revision.  I'm not saying that you should never revise at the computer.  But there are two problems with revising on the screen.  First, you can't see the whole essay at one time.  It is much harder to evaluate, for example, the relative lengths of paragraphs and to see the overall flow of the essay.  Second, you can't write directly on the essay.  One of the most important things you can do in your early revisions is to make a list of things about the essay that need more attention.  What passages sound weak?  Where do you need more evidence?  Where are general passages that need examples to make them specific?  By far the easiest way to do this is to make notes to yourself on the essay.  It is much easier and more efficient to do this on paper than to do it at a computer.

3.  Finally, read your essay aloud with a pencil or pen in hand and make notes about what you think might need to be changed.  While you are reading through the entire essay, don't stop to rewrite the parts, but do underline or circle parts that need to be changed or examined more closely.   Make brief notes in the margin about what changes are needed: "Example here" or "How do I know this?"  When you see what might be a small-scale error, a misspelling or wrong word, circle it so that you can find it later.  You may think--in fact you probably will think--that when you see an error or a problem you will remember it later.  The odds are very good that you will not remember it unless you write something down to remind yourself.  

These are all fairly simple steps, and none of them take any more time than you would spend revising in any case.  What they do is increase your effectiveness so that you are making a difference in the time you do spend, rather than just spinning you wheels.

2.2    Look at the Essay through a Reader's Eyes

Copyright 2000 by John Tagg

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