Ten Steps to Revising Your Article or Chapter
Trying to write perfectly the first time around has three central problems. 1) It takes a long time; 2) It can be a waste of time, as you often can only see at the end of a paper what needs to be cut; and 3) Your writing will not be as good in the end because the best writing comes out of revising.
Writing a spew draft of a chapter or an article allows you to work quickly, and lets you improve your writing through revising. Although you may be able to type very quickly – as quickly as a whole chapter in one week, revising it will take much longer. In their book, Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation Sonja Foss and William Waters offer a multi-step approach to revising an article or chapter. I present a slightly modified version of it below, that explains, in ten steps, how to revise an article or chapter.
Step One: Remove all unnecessary information. Take a first pass at your chapter to cut out any sentences or paragraphs that do not contribute to your main argument. To feel better about cutting liberally, save the rough draft of the paper as a separate document so that you don’t lose any writing that you may want to use later.
Step Two: Reorganize. Rearrange your paper to make sure you have presented it in the best order possible. Find the thesis sentence in each paragraph, take it out, and create a separate document with just the thesis sentences. Rearrange the thesis sentences to ensure they are in the best order.
Step Three: Check for missing information. Look at your re-arranged list of thesis statements and make sure that you do not need to add any more information. Pay attention especially to missing examples or underdeveloped arguments.
Step Four: Check paragraph construction. As you put your paragraphs back into your paper, make sure that each paragraph follows from the thesis sentence. Sometimes you may need to add new information. Other times you will have to split the paragraph into two, as you see that you have two main ideas in the paragraph.
Step Five: Check transitions between paragraphs. Make sure that your paper flows together. In places it does not, move paragraphs around or add transition sentences to ensure that the flow is evident to the reader.
Step Six: Review each of your sentences. Make sure the sentences are not too long and that you have some variety in your length. A rule of thumb is that no sentence should go on for more than two lines. Some sentences should be much shorter.
Step Seven: Check your word choices. Look out for using the same word repeatedly in a paragraph, on the same page, or in the document. If you use strong words such as “appalling,” use them sparingly, changing for words such as striking or unfortunate and save “appalling” to make a more forceful point.
Step Eight: Check for spelling and punctuation. Use, but do not fully rely on, your computer’s spelling and grammar check. Check for comma placement, semi-colon and colon usage, and quotation-mark placement.
Step Nine: Review a hard copy. Print out your document and read it over again, checking for style and grammar. Watch out for split verbs and infinitives, word usage (e.g. loose vs. lose), passive voice, dangling modifiers, and any other mistakes that you commonly make. If you are not sure what mistakes you are most likely to make, look back at your work that has been edited or proof-read by your advisor, an editor, or a colleague to see what your most common mistakes are.
Step Ten: Read your document aloud. Reading aloud forces you to slow down and ensures that you find errors that you might not otherwise see. Reading aloud also takes a long time. Once I have read my document aloud to myself, I know I am done with it, and ready to send it off. This final ritual signals that you are done revising and ready to submit your article or move on to the next chapter.
The best thing about having these ten steps is that you can move from rough draft to finished copy in just two weeks. If you spend between 30 minutes and two hours each day on each of these steps, in just ten workdays, you can be done!
At some point in the process of writing your dissertation, it will be time to revise your work. For many dissertation writers, this part of the process is easier than writing the first draft. It can even be fun or exciting as you develop your ideas further, explore new territory, and polish your work. Bolker (1989) noted that one of the best kept writing secrets is that the more you revise, the clearer, more fluid and more natural your writing will be. It is not inspiration but hard work that produces simple, elegant writing (p. 116). Yet making revisions can be overwhelming and anxiety provoking.
Here a few key recommendations to help you make revisions. First, it is often better to print a hard copy of your work and make revisions directly on the printed copy. Many students try to revise their dissertation while scrolling up and down a computer screen. This approach may work well if you are revising individual sentences or paragraphs. If you are trying to reorganize a section or a chapter or make fairly substantial revisions, it is usually better to have a printed copy so you can lay pages out side by side and see larger parts of your dissertation instead of just one page at a time.
Second, if your revisions are substantial or based on someone else’s feedback, it is a good idea to first make an inventory of the changes you will need to make before launching into the revisions. Usually feedback consists of editing and substantive suggestions. Based on this feedback you can make an itemized list of the changes you need to make. I refer to this list as a “revision inventory.” Your first inventory item is to make all of the recommended line edits (spelling, grammar, rephrasing, or cutting of sentences). You do not need to list an inventory item for each line edit. Next, list out each suggested substantive change as an item on the list. If the person reviewing your dissertation commented on page 2 of your draft that you need to add more literature to a particular paragraph or strengthen a certain aspect of your argument, you would note that task as your second inventory item. Then if the reviewer states that your description of a particular study is confusing and needs clarification, you would note this needed change as your third inventory item.
Read through the entire document until you have catalogued all of the feedback, noting any questions you have for the person reviewing your dissertation regarding the feedback. You can also read your dissertation yourself and create a revision inventory based on your own instincts about what substantive changes you think you need to make. Either type of inventory is something you can readily use when you make your action plan for a given week. You can assign specific inventory items to specific days so that the revision process is more systematic and feels more doable. I have found that my clients, who consistently make these kinds of inventories, make their revisions in a timelier manner and are better able to handle feedback that seems harsh or unfair. Usually when you face the feedback directly, you will see that it is not as harsh or as impossible to address as it may have seemed at first glance.
A third strategy is to read your work and deconstruct it in some way. Graduate students often tell me that revising their work feels overwhelming. What I suggest to students is that they do a “deconstruction” of their most recent draft. This deconstruction consists of reading the draft to determine what has been written, what seems out of place, what seems to be missing, what is worth keeping as is, and what needs substantial revision or reorganization. Many of my clients create a reverse outline where they outline what has already been written. This outline does not need to be formal. It could simply be a list of subject headings, points being made under each subject heading and notes about what is missing, confusing, disorganized and so forth. Part of this deconstruction can also involve making notes to yourself about further reading you need to do and questions or dilemmas you would like to discuss with others. Creating a reverse outline can be a very helpful strategy to help you develop a new outline of how you want to revise your existing work. In addition, Bolker (1998) made a couple of other good suggestions about making revisions. One, she recommended reading your work out loud to hear how it sounds. Two, the author suggested deliberately reading your work with the aim of simplifying sentences, being more direct and reducing your use of jargon. However you go about making revisions, keep strategizing to find the approach or approaches that work best for you.
This article was written by Alison Miller, PhD, owner of The Dissertation Coach, a business dedicated to helping doctoral and master’s students successfully earn their graduate degrees.
Please visit www.thedissertationcoach.com for more information.
Copyright August 2007 by Alison Miller, Ph.D., The Dissertation Coach