Writing: Revision

Once you've finished writing a rough draft, the last thing you want to do is go back to the beginning and start over. Yet, especially for student writers, that's almost always what needs to happen. To think your writing is so good it can't be improved on after a single draft is the height of arrogance.

Unfortunately, a lot of students are walking around with exactly that kind of arrogance. They assume whatever they lay down in the first flush of inspiration (or in the tension of procrastination) is just fine. Or they have the opposite problem, and assume they aren't skilled enough to improve on what they know is a poor product.

And maybe it isn't arrogance at all: maybe it's just the ages-old juvenile nonchalance, the lack of caring for anything beyond play time or impressing friends, the devil-may-care frivolity of those who don't yet know why they're learning. Whatever is at the root of the reluctance to revise, it must be removed and replaced with a desire to make one's writing better.

A common misunderstanding is that revision simply means taking words out. While that's certainly a frequent feature of good revision, it isn't the only one or even a necessary one in every situation. At its most basic, revision is simply the art of making your writing better, whether that means adding or subtracting from the existing material.

If the prospect of having to write even more during revision is scary, you aren't alone. Most students scratch out the bare minimum and are scarcely able to do that. Being told they need to add more is, for most students, like being told they've been sentenced to ten years in the salt mines.

This is largely because they have an entirely negative view of writing. Writing for them is an assignment, something they have to get done before they can goof off, something they don't understand and therefore have no confidence doing. Ironically, teaching students to revise will give them the confidence they need to enjoy and succeed at writing.

Because all good writing both entertains readers and explores ideas, the purpose of revision is to make the sentences and paragraphs themselves easier to read, and the ideas within them easier to comprehend. A lot of people assume complicated writing indicates the intelligence of the author, but more often than not it simply points out his muddled thinking or poor grasp of style.

Let's say a student writes the following sentence:

How to help people stop bleeding is something nurses need to know how to do.

While the idea is understandable, some stylistic revision will make this a much better sentence:

All nurses must be able to bandage wounds.

By cleaning up the stylistic problems, the readability and the clear expression of ideas improve. The verbs and nouns are stonger, the sentence is shorter, and the idea is plain. Best of all, readers don't have to strain themselves to figure out what's being said in the second version of the sentence.

Revision sometimes works the other way, too. What if you encountered this sentence:

Nurses are good because they help people get better.

The idea is plain, certainly, but it's neither complete nor at all interesting. This one is a notable improvement:

Because of their work on behalf of the sick and injured, nurses should be more highly valued by individuals and society.

The sentence is longer after revision, but it is more interesting, and it actually gives us a solild idea to reflect on (partly by making a statement of opinion following a statement of fact). Who wouldn't prefer to read the second sentence? If you care anything for your readers, you'll be willing to expand what you've written to make it better.

Does revision take patience and hard work? It does, but if students are taught the value of writing, they'll soon realize the value of revision. They'll also enjoy the task of revision much more, as they see their own writing move from average to good, and as they see their readers become increasingly more interested in their written output.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.

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