Instructions for Revising

"Few of my novels contain a single sentence that closely resembles the sentence I first set down. I just find that I have to keep zapping and zapping the English language until it starts to behave in some way that vaguely matches my intentions." —Michael Cunningham


Who is the best judge of your work and therefore the best reviser? The answer is—or should be moving toward—you. Therefore, even if you get comments from your professor or others, don’t look at them yet. For the best way to “re-see” your work freshly is to give it time. That is why you should plan ahead and not be writing your draft the night before the paper is due.

Thus when you finish the first draft,

  1. Let it sit, preferably at least 24 hours, but certainly several hours.
  2. Print out a clean copy.
  3. Read it all the way through with no pen in your hand. You will see things you want to change and will get a good look at the “forest” this way without getting caught up in changing individual tress.
  4. Then write down some notes at the end of the clean copy: what do YOU notice and believe needs to be done to the paper globally?
  5. Then go read or others’ comments. Do you agree?  Of course, if it’s your professor’s comments, you may not have much choice but to make the changes. But if you disagree with your professor’s comments or don’t understand, be sure to ask her about it! If the comments are from a classmate, however, and they suggest a change you disagree with them about, don't make it. (If two of your classmates say the same thing, it would probably be wise to listen to them!)
  6. If you see a small error such as a misspelled word or an incorrect verb tense, of course, go ahead and change it, but generally focus on global changes for now—i.e., add, rewrite, and delete sentences or paragraphs, reorder the paper, and so on.
  7. Be sure to SAVE EACH DRAFT WITH A NEW NUMBER, such as "Alien Invation_1," "Alien Invasion_2," and so on, BEFORE you start making changes! You may cut something that you find you want to add back later.
  8. After you have put in a set of revisions, let the paper sit for another day and then repeat the revision process as many times as possible.
  9. Only then, when you feel the paper is structurally complete, move on to Step 5, Editing.