Writing Project Workshop: Revising and Editing for Rhetorical Effect

Rhetoric in an essay, we have seen, is not simply a matter of the product. Rather, writers build and develop the rhetoric–the ways that the essay organizes and focuses the attention of the reader–in the process of drafting, revising, editing their work. If authentic and lively essay writing is about thought thinking, then the rhetorical work of the essay needs to go through a process of continual rethinking.

Here are some approaches to rethinking to use going forward whenever you revise and edit your writing.

  1. Thesis check: What’s the Argument? Identify the critical problem and response to the problem that the essay is setting up. Suggest where that might need to be made clearer, more specific. It can often happen that the conclusion or a later paragraph in the essay has a stronger, clearer statement of the argument. Look for that and consider moving that into the introduction.

    1. Recall from last project: a good way to clarify the argument is to counter it–identify what you are not arguing, or rather, who or what argues against your claim. This is a counterargument that you can return to in the essay.
  2. Arrangement/Organization of the argument: Turn the draft back into an outline.
    1. Map out the keywords of the argument (circle or highlight)–and trace them through the essay.
    2. Show where the keywords extend from the passages quoted (interpreting not just summarizing the texts).
    3. Topic sentences and transitions: do the keywords appear and move the reader along?
  3. Editing:
    1. Specificity of language (good for ethos, logos, and pathos)–remember strong active verbs key–Writer’s Diet test. Watch out for “Zombie Nouns.” [think of Dillard and her use of verbs]. Also avoid over-using adverbs–watch out for Tom Swifties.
    2. Sentence Variety.
    3. Consider two basic sentence types to generate variety (and to think more rhetorically about your sentences): Hypotaxis and Parataxis.

Strategies for Revising your Essay

In Chapter Five of Rewriting: How to Do Things With Texts, Joseph Harris suggests several ways to think about revising based on the concepts he develops in earlier chapters. I have adapted from him the 4 questions we are using to guide peer response. You can use them to guide your own revision as well.

What’s Your Project?

Create an abstract of your draft: An abstract is a brief summary (usually around 150 words) that sometimes appears at the beginning of an academic article. Once you’ve finished an initial draft, try summing up the entire piece in just a few sentences, making sure to include all the most essential points. Doing this will help you identify key words that might help you focus your draft, and it will help you clarify the real purpose of your paper.

Create a sentence outline of your draft: In the margins of your draft, try to sum up each individual paragraph in one sentence (or two at most). The result will be a kind of outline that shows how you move from one point to another in your paper. Reading back through the summary sentences by themselves will give you a quick version of the draft you’ve written, and it should also point out moments where ideas aren’t connected or logical moves need to be strengthened.

What Works?

Highlight the strengths of your draft: Look for the moments that you consider to be the strongest in your paper and consider ways that you might bring those moments forward and give them greater emphasis. Also, think about how you might replicate those strong moments in other weaker spots in your draft.

What Else Might Be Said?

Identify questions that a reader might have: As you look back through your draft, think about moments where a reader might question you. This strategy might simply make you aware of spots where you need to go into further detail, or it might open up a whole new line of thought for you. As Harris describes it, this process is more than just playing “devil’s advocate.” Instead, it’s an opportunity to look for alternate lines of thinking your draft might open up. You can think of counterargument as a revision strategy–as well as a rhetorical strategy to use within the essay itself. For more on the basics of counterargument, I recommend this discussion from Harvard University.

Revising as Looking Ahead: What’s Next?

Look at your final paragraphs to see how you’ve expressed your main idea: When we’re drafting, it often takes several paragraphs (or pages …) for us to “warm up” and begin doing our best writing. Often, the clearest, most articulate statements of purpose occur at the end of a rough draft rather than at the beginning. Take advantage of that by looking at your final paragraphs to see if some of the language there can help you to shape and refocus the earlier parts of your draft.

Look ahead to see the implications of your draft: Once you’ve reached the end of an initial draft, you might think about what the implications of your ideas are. Your conclusion should suggest why your ideas matter and what they suggest for further study. Harris suggests the questions “What’s next?” and “So what?” That last question is particularly powerful. Why should your reader care about what you’ve said, and why does it matter? Those are tough questions, of course, but they’re an essential part of making an interesting point.