The Essay: revising and editing

Revision focuses on getting a handle on what your writing is about, where you want it to go. Generally speaking, revision is when you are still dealing with changes that could be as large as entire paragraphs, how your argument is organized, developed. It means asking questions such as: What else? What’s next? One of the ways you can pursue the question of ‘what else might or should I consider?’ that accords with the larger tradition of the essay as an experiment in doubt: deliberately seek ways of countering and contending with the very argument you are building. Who disagrees with me, or with this view? Who might object and why? What, in other words, is an other way that I (on behalf of another reader out there with different experiences) might view this? That ‘other way’ could lead you to a better argument; it could also lead you back to yours, more sure of what you are trying to say.

As Joseph Harris puts it in his book Rewriting, you revise arguments, ideas, paragraphs, essays; you edit sentences. Revision is rethinking, rereading, expanding, developing; editing is tweaking. Revision and editing can sometimes blend. But for the sake of our efforts in this course, I suggest that editing is what you do toward the end of a project. Editing concerns how your essay communicates to a different set of eyes and ears than the ones which wrote it. How it reads to a reader who is not in your head. This is what you will be focusing on Friday.

Therefore, a good strategy for editing is to become more self-conscious about the sound and shape of your writing–something we take for granted. In order not to take it for granted (since you have been working on this essay and it probably makes sense to you), we need to defamiliarize it.

  • Read it aloud–hear the writing. Have a peer read it aloud or read it aloud yourself. Read it backwards, paragraph by paragraph or sentence by sentence: listening for places where the expression/communication (the how of the writing, the mechanics, the style) is not matching up with the idea. Usage errors would be one way expression and ideas get crossed.
    • Workshop: in your writing group, select a paragraph you want to focus on for editing–want to improve. Have someone else read your paragraph aloud. Then discuss for a few minutes what you hear and see–suggestions for what you might need to do or want to do with the paragraph.
  • More active than passive. Richard Lanham’s Paramedic Method (from Revising Prose, 5th edition, Pearson 2007): one strategy to pay better attention to the way your “voice” is informed by the machinery of sentence length, verb (active vs passive), prepositions. These are not ‘errors’ but choices you make in presentation.

1]Circle the prepositions

2]Circle the “is” forms.

3]Find the action

4]Put this action in a simple (not compound) active verb.

5]Start fast–no slow windups. [the passive construction is often connected with too-conversational kinds of beginnings: ‘One of the things that I think about reading is that reading is engaging for the mind.’  in contrast: “Reading engages the mind.”

  • Some formal/presentational features to consider and not neglect at the end:
    • Title? I will be crushed to see an essay titled ‘paper #1’
    • introduction/conclusion: how do you bring the reader into your story? where do you leave the reader? A strategy to consider: start in with the narrative, or in the middle of an experience, before pulling back to more general set-up. And conclude by circling back to your beginning. [these are tricky–will continue to work on this in later workshops]
    • Transitions: are there effective signals through the essay, toward the beginning of each paragraph (usually first sentence), to lead the reader and identify the focus at each point?
    • Go back through the draft to recall/find sections you might have left unfinished, intending to get back to. [for example: a section that has something like “add quotation here”]
    • Have in mind a few of the mechanical/surface errorsyou tend to make and will need to clean up–punctuation, spelling, wrong words.
      • You can use this list of the 20 most common formal errors that can be edited–list provided by the Writing Center.
      • Become active in getting a better handle on the grammar/mechanics/sentence-level issues you need to work on. I will focus on a few in workshops; but the point is for you to get used to using a resource like the Guide to Grammar and Writing to practice and correct on your own.
    • Try the Writer’s Diet: a tool to help you see and think about the type of sentences you have in your essay.
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One thought on “The Essay: revising and editing

  1. Pingback: 5 Ways to Self-Edit Your Writing - Inspired to Write

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