Revision vs. Editing

My first semester as a freshman writing instructor, I jotted the word “redundant” several different places in the margins of a student’s paper, and gave her the opportunity to revise. She returned the paper, having faithfully inserted the word “redundant” wherever I had written it. I should have first taught this student about the purpose of revising a paper.

The Purpose of a Revision Assignment

If you are expected to revise your own document, but all you do is a quick edit job, that means you have made specific surface changes to correct obvious mistakes.  Editing can be difficult and valuable work, but typically editing involves local rearrangement of what is already on the page. By contrast, revision calls for big-picture, global changes — that is, you actually change what you say, rather than rearrange it.

“Revision” means “the act of seeing again.”

Editing, when done by professionals, is a painstaking and thorough job of helping a writer improve his or her final product. When done as a quick way to add points to an assignment by making corrections your instructor has marked on a draft, it’s a shortcut that prevents you from actually learning how to be a better writer.

What are students doing, then, when they revise a multiple-draft paper? They are not correcting unauthorized deviations from a single “perfect” paper that is in the back of the instructor’s manual; instead, they are building on what they did well in their draft, and taking their learning to the next level.

Examples of surface-level editing:

  • deleting needless words
  • correcting spelling or awkward phrasing
  • changing, standardizing punctuation
  • moving sentences or paragraphs
  • adding or improving a transition
  • converting a paragraph to a bulleted list (and vice-versa)

Examples of thorough, big-picture self-revision:

  • changing a whole paragraph from passive to active voice
  • reorganizing to provide a single, clear, over-arching structure to your paper
  • refining a thesis statement and supplying new evidence to support it
  • improving the argument
    • introducing opposing evidence (by citing authors who make points that challenge yours)
    • …and by refuting that evidence (by citing additional evidence that answers the challenges)
  • moving your writing up the cognitive ladder — deleting paragraphs that do nothing to advance your argument, and replacing them with additional paragraphs (supported with evidence) to fill the space
  • in a technical writing document, offering a troubleshooting guide, or writing a new “experts” and/or “beginners” section to address the needs of that specific group.

See also:

by Dennis G. Jerz
29 Aug 2000 — first posted
01 Oct 2011 — modest updates

See Also
Dennis G. Jerz
Show, Don’t (Just) Tell
When writing a short story, an academic essay, or a technical report, show, don’t justtell your readers what you want them to know. There.  I’ve just told you something.  Pretty lame, huh? Now, let me show you…
Dennis G. Jerz
Writing That Demonstrates Thinking Ability
If you learn to recognize the kinds of thinking you are expected to demonstrate on a particular assignment, you can focus your efforts more efficiently. Don’t spend hours on a “summary” when your instructor wants a “synthesis”.