WRITING SKILLS IMPROVEMENT PROGRAM. The Art of Revision by Wendy Burk

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1 WRITING SKILLS IMPROVEMENT PROGRAM The Art of Revision by Wendy Burk This constant struggle between wanting to be finished and wanting to finish well : this is how poet Juan Ramón Jiménez describes the revision process. Jiménez s words ring true for many of us as writers. On the one hand, we would like to produce the best essay possible. On the other hand, we may be tempted to rush through revision so that we can move on to the next project or challenge. This is especially true for college writers, who face intense time pressure. In fact, the most difficult part of the revision process can be the simple act of securing the time and space necessary to do what needs to be done. Many of us have been taught to describe our writing in terms of its strengths and, perhaps more often, its weaknesses. We may say, for example, I have terrible grammar or I can t organize my work. However, these so-called weaknesses are merely areas of our writing that we need to revise carefully. Nobody produces a perfect draft the first time. So, if your instructor comments that your grammar or organization needs work, don t think of these as your weak areas. If you label them in this way, you will feel even more reluctant to revise them. Rather, remember that needs work means just that. By working hard on these areas in revision, you will improve them, and you will have confidence in your writing ability. Optimal Working Conditions for Revision Take a few minutes to think about your optimal working conditions for writing. Under what circumstances do you produce your best writing? You may be surprised to learn that this question includes all of the little details: do you work best in your room, the library, your parents house, or outside? Do you like to sit at a desk, on your bed, or on the floor? Do you write best at night, in the morning, or in the afternoon? Do you listen to music? What kind of music do you prefer? Do you need complete silence when you write? Do you drink coffee, juice, or water? Describe your optimal working conditions as a writer: With each essay that you write, estimate the amount of time that you will need to revise effectively. Then, schedule double that amount of time during your optimal working conditions. Write the dates and times into your calendar, and stick to them even if you don t want to. You will be pleased with the results.

2 Revision Hierarchy In high school, revision often means proofreading for spelling and grammar errors, fixing typographical errors, and making specific changes based on a n instructor s corrections. In college, the word revision will start to mean many more things. Your First-Year Composition instructors will expect you to revise all areas of your essay: content, organization, expression, and mechanics. They will also expect you to revise independently, rather than relying solely on their comments for guidance. You may find it necessary to revise each essay several times to make sure that you cover all the bases. With so many aspects of writing to revise, the concept of a revision hierarchy, or ordering of tasks, becomes important. The most effective revision hierarchy looks at the big picture first and then moves downward, dealing with the sentence-level errors of spelling, grammar, and punctuaton last. Why start by looking at the big picture? Well, imagine that you have worked hard to revise your spelling, grammar, and punctuation only. Then your instructor says to you, I would recommend completely changing pages 1 through 3. You now have three pages of perfect spelling, grammar, and punctuation that you cannot use. Here is a rough revision hierarchy. For more specific information on the steps to take, see the revision checklist on p. 4: Revise first Content: purpose, audience, thesis statement, focus, research,? coherence and relevance of argument, textual evidence, development? Organization: outline, PIE paragraph structure, paragraph order,? transitions between paragraphs and ideas? Expression: voice, tone, appropriateness to audience, attention-? getters or other unusual style devices, flow of sentences and? paragraphs? Mechanics: grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, usage,? typographical errors, omitted words Revise last Formatting: correct format as required by instructor, neat printing Interesting Revision Exercises to Try The revision process can be tedious and time-consuming until we develop a sense of our own best revision practices. To aid you on your search, here are some tried-and-true (and actually pretty interesting) methods to use: Letting the essay rest: After handing in your rough draft to your instructor, or after going through the first round of revision, put the essay aside for a couple of days. During this time, ensure that the essay is still getting feedback by scheduling an appointment to meet with your instructor, giving your draft to your peer reviewers, and asking other friends or tutors to read your essay. When you come back to the essay, you will see it in a fresh light almost as if it had been written by someone else.

3 Reading aloud: It s amazing what reading an essay aloud can do. By reading each word aloud, you will not only begin to notice grammar issues, but you will also hear how your sentences, paragraphs, and your argument as a whole flow and make sense. Ask a trusted friend to sit and listen as you read your essay out loud. You will be amazed at the concentration and clarity you feel. Fun with highlighters (part one): Use four different colored highlighters to check your essay for PIE paragraph structure. In your first color, highlight your thesis statement and the topic sentence (point) for each paragraph. In your second color, highlight your illustrating material. In your third color, highlight your explanations. In your fourth color, highlight your transitional words, phrases, or sentences. As you highlight, think about the appropriateness of the material you are reading and be aware of any omissions. When you finish, you will be able to visualize your balance between point, illustration, and explanation. Fun with highlighters (part two): Use two different colored highlighters to check the balance of a research paper. In your first color, highlight all of your facts, statistics, quotes, and evidence from research. In your second color, highlight your own ideas or claims. After highlighting, check the visual balance of each paragraph and of the essay as a whole. Do you have too many facts and too few claims, too many ideas and not enough support? No peeking method: Without looking at your essay, write a one-paragraph statement of purpose and audience for your essay: what do you really want to get across to your readers, and who are you hoping to reach in this essay? Then, re-read your essay with your written statement in mind. Are your stated purpose and audience evident in the essay? Cut-ups: Print out your paper and cut it into strips (by paragraph, by section, or even by sentence). Put the strips on the floor and try arranging them in different orders. Besides being a useful method for visual learners, this exercise can be a fun break from staring at the computer screen. Connections and explanations: It s quite common that we are unaware of what needs to be clarified, amplified, or spelled out in our own writing. What seems clear to us may be difficult for others to grasp. In this exercise, you will work with a partner to find those aspects of your essay. Ask your partner to read your essay and underline every concept, sentence, phrase, and word that he or she does not understand, that seems unclear, or that needs a fuller explanation. The objective is to be completely honest with each other and to underline every aspect no matter how minor it might appear which needs clarification. Then, talk out those aspects of the essay with your partner; he or she can take notes for you.

4 Revision Checklist Steps to take after handing in your first draft: Estimate and schedule the approximate time you will need to revise your essay. (Hint: schedule twice as much time as you think you will need.) Schedule a conference with your instructor. Write a list of questions to ask during the conference. Take a break from the essay for a day or two. During this time, let others read and comment on your essay: instructor, peer reviewers, tutors, and friends. Attend conference with your instructor. Seek specific feedback. Read your essay out loud to a trusted friend. Take notes and ask questions. Experiment with the revision exercises described on pp. 2 and 3. Take notes on what works best for you. Now it s time to ask and answer specific questions about the essay: Is the essay focused? Is your reason for writing the essay (your purpose) clear in both the thesis and the body? Are you writing to a specific, identifiable audience? Does the body of the essay follow up on both your purpose and your thesis statement? Is the essay unified? Does it waver from its focus? If so, where? Do you need to find more research or textual evidence to support your points? Does your essay adhere to a standard pattern of development, with an identifiable introduction, body, and conclusion? Are your introduction and conclusion complete? Does each body paragraph adhere to the PIE structure (point illustration explanation)? Is each body paragraph sufficiently developed and clearly related to your thesis and purpose? Are the body paragraphs ordered in a logical sequence? Should paragraphs be rearranged? Have you included logical, smooth transitions between paragraphs and ideas? Are the voice and tone of your essay appropriate to the audience you wish to reach? Are you using language in a way that is familiar and acceptable to your audience? Does your essay sound like you? Does it sound like there is a real person (you) writing? Have you used any attention-getters or unusual features of style? If so, are they working to spark your readers curiosity? Do any of them feel too gimmicky? How do you feel about the flow of your sentences and paragraphs? (Read out loud to assess.) Do you have an interesting, creative title for your essay? Revise individual sentences for clarity and grace. Underline awkward passages and reword them. Avoid passive voice, repetition, and tense and mood switches; eliminate fragments and run-ons. Revise and correct mechanics, punctuation, spelling and usage: Use spell-check and grammar-check with caution. Although they are useful tools, they are not capable of interpreting context; errors will arise unless you monitor them closely. Check for frequent grammatical, usage, and punctuation errors (see A Grammar Refresher and A Punctuation Refresher for examples of such errors). Check capitalization, use of quotation marks, and use of citations (consult MLA style guide). Check bibliography for correctness and completeness. Have you omitted any sources? Read closely to catch typographical errors and omitted words. Check the formatting of the essay: Heading: name, instructor s name, course and number, date in upper left- or right-hand corner (or as specified by instructor) Font: plain, simple, and readable; font size as specified by instructor Title: centered, correctly capitalized (first, last, and all important words capitalized do not capitalize a, an, the, for, and, nor, but, yet, so, the word to in front of a verb, and prepositions, unless they are the first or last word of the title) Spacing, pagination, margins, paragraph indentation: as specified by instructor Print the essay out (make sure that it prints legibly) and check it one or two more times. Ask another good proofreader to look it over, too. Yes, it s a lot of work. But the quality of your essay will certainly reflect the time, care, and attention you have given it. Remember to keep a sense of humor and to take breaks when you need it. Also, remember that you can ask for help from your instructors, tutors, and peers at any point during the process of revision. Some of these checklist items were adapted from E.B. Buchanan s The Writer s Palette.

5 Revising and Proofreading Symbols Many English Composition instructors use the following symbols to mark the first and final drafts of student essays. For some errors, your instructor may use alternate symbols; be sure to mark these symbols in the blank column. When in doubt, ask your instructor for clarification. Standard Instructor s Meaning Symbol Symbol adj Incorrect adjective form adv Incorrect adverb form agr Incorrect agreement (subject-verb or pronoun-antecedent) apos or Missing or incorrect apostrophe awk Awkward expression please reword cap Missing or incorrect capital letter = Missing capital letter B Incorrect capital letter, Missing or incorrect comma : Missing or incorrect colon cs Comma splice (incorrectly joining two sentences with a comma) -- Missing or incorrect dash dev Incomplete paragraph/essay development dm Dangling or misplaced modifier -ed Missing ed, past tense, or past participle frag Sentence fragment Missing indentation for new paragraph ( ) Missing or incorrect parentheses Faulty parallelism pl Missing or incorrect plural form pp Incorrect past participle.!? Missing or incorrect end punctuation Missing or incorrect quotation marks rep Unnecessary repetition ro Run-on sentence ; Missing or incorrect semi-colon sp Spelling error title Title needed trans Transition needed ( ) Too much space thus Words or letters to be deleted? Unclear meaning ^ Omitted words (instructor will often indicate words to be added) ~ Words or letters in reverse order This page adapted from Susan Fawcett s Evergreen: A Guide to Writing With Readings.

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