Discovering Ideas Handbook

 2    Developing and Revising an Essay

The distinction between writing and revision is an artificial one that doesn't reflect very well what happens when we write. We are usually revising as we write, and we are obviously writing when we revise. So if you aren't sure at any given point in the process of producing an essay whether you're "writing" or "revising," don't worry about it. But it is worth making the distinction in order to  emphasize that the process of producing an essay isn't finished when you have a draft of an essay. That's a good beginning, but only a beginning. The most common reason why people hand over to readers writing that doesn't achieve their goals is that they didn't finish the job they started. 

The first draft of an essay is usually organized in the order that the thoughts came to you when you were writing.  Usually, that isn't the best order in which to present your ideas to the reader.  Very often, we leave out important things when writing a first draft.  A first draft usually has a pattern of some kind, but it is often an unconscious design.  In writing a first draft, we are usually thinking experientially.  In revision, we need to think reflectively.  One of the major goals of revision is to impose a conscious design on the material you have developed, so that you can keep your readers with you all the way.

Revision is a learning process. As Donald Norman points out in Things That Make Us Smart, there are three kinds of learning: accretion, tuning, and restructuring. Accretion is acquiring new information. Tuning is practicing with what we know in order to improve it or improve our ability to use it. Restructuring involves reflecting on and reconceptualizing what we know. The first two involve largely experiential thinking. Restructuring requires reflection. In revising your writing, we can see parallels to these three modes of learning. At the level of accretion is the simplest form of revision, simply adding to what you have already written. At the level of tuning, you can go over what you have written to smooth it out, make it more effective, and remove errors. The tendency of many writers is to stop there, at the easiest kinds of revision. But that is putting things backwards. Restructuring should come first: reflecting on what you have written and reconceptualizing the whole is the only way of making major improvements in the way the parts fit together. But you can do restructuring only by getting some distance on what you have written and truly seeing it with new eyes.

In the rest of this section, I suggest some ways of thinking reflectively in the revision process and techniques for testing the results.  The tactics below are mainly techniques to follow after you have produced a first draft of an essay or piece of writing. But obviously several of them could be applied when writing the first draft. The more you write, the more the line between writing and revision will blur for you. That's fine. But one of the greatest challenges in writing well is being able to tell when you've finished, when you've said enough, but not too much, and can let go of your work with confidence that it will tell your readers what you want to tell them. These tactics are ways of determining when you should still be revising, and how you should do so. 


2.1    Read Your Essay Aloud and Make Notes 

2.2    Look at the Essay through a Reader's Eyes

2.3    Structure the Essay

2.4    Support Your Claims

2.5    Use Specifics and Examples

Copyright 2000 by John Tagg

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