Updated: Sep 19, 2020
No matter what genre you write in, if you want your writing to be the best it can be, you will eventually need to revise. Revise means literally “to see again” or “to look at again.” I like to think of it as “seeing anew,” a slight variation on these definitions, because really being able to see your writing with new eyes — a new perspective, new ideas, etc. — is the key to effective revision.
I’ve covered revision in some of my other articles, but for your convenience, here are my Top 4 tips for revision:
1. Read Aloud
The human brain is an amazing thing, but if we aren’t aware of how the brain works, we may not be making the most of it. Simply put, your brain is wired to make intelligent guesses about visual input, even when there are parts missing. This makes us function quickly and efficiently when scanning our environment and interpreting our surroundings, and helps us to rapidly intake and comprehend new information. However, when you are both the writer and the reader (like when proofreading your own work), your brain’s skill for interpreting can work against you. When you read your work silently “in your head,” your brain knows what you intended to say, and it may gloss over incorrect spellings or even missing words without them ever coming to your attention. But when you read out loud, you engage additional parts of your brain, which must then agree with the visual in order for the message to be received and understood. When you read out loud, you may stumble over a missing word, a misspelling, or an awkward phrase that you didn’t notice when reading silently. Reading aloud is a very useful technique for catching small errors that might be otherwise overlooked.
2. Let It Get Cold
When you’ve just finished writing, all of your thoughts and emotions are in a heightened state. If you begin to revise right away while still in the same frame of mind, you simply may not notice areas that need improvement, because you are in the same mental space you were in while writing it, and everything still feels “right” and good to you. However, if you set your writing aside for a while (“let it get cold,” like a hot meal left out on the counter), when you re-approach it, you will bring a fresh perspective and have an easier time objectively evaluating what you have written. Ideally, the writing should be set aside for at least 4-5 days, so that you have somewhat forgotten about the exact thoughts, feelings, and impressions you had while writing it, and you can re-examine it from a reader’s perspective, outside the mood in which you wrote it, to see if it really conveys what you intended it to. This requires patience, but it is definitely worth it. In the event that you simply can’t afford to wait a few days (like when a deadline is fast approaching), then at least step away for 30 minutes and get a complete change of environment. Go for a walk, get a coffee or tea, take a nap, watch an episode of a TV show… whatever you need to do to completely break out of the mental space you were in while writing. Then return with fresh eyes and read over it again.
This is one of my favorite techniques to use with student writers during peer reviews. Simply put, you read back through your writing, noting the main point (or in the case of fiction, plot points) of each paragraph or section in the margins as you read. When you’ve gone through the entire piece of writing, go back and look only at your margin notes. Compile these into an outline, doing your best to organize them into headings and sub-points, but without changing what you wrote in the margins. The point is to make a true outline of what is actually there, rather than what you may have intended to put in when you wrote it. If you created an outline prior to writing, then you can compare your Re-Outline to your original outline, and get a very clear idea of whether you achieved your goals with your writing or not. Even if you didn’t create an outline ahead of time, this technique can still help you spot places that you veered off-topic or whether you included everything you intended to include. If you see any weak spots or places that don’t seem to fit, it’s a cue that you should re-write that section.
4. Peer Reviews/Beta Readers
Whether you are writing a novel or an academic essay, objective feedback from someone other than yourself can be extremely valuable. No matter how effectively you employ the other 3 techniques I’ve listed, you can never fully escape the subjectivity of your own mind. When you have someone else read your work, however, they come with none of your preconceptions. They will be able to tell you where your writing clicks and where it doesn’t, if and where anything seems confusing, and whether they understood or felt your intended impact. You can provide your reviewers/readers with a list of questions, if you like, or you can simply have them read it and give you their feedback. If you choose readers/reviewers who are avid readers or writers themselves, you are likely to get quality feedback that will be immensely valuable for revision.
Revision isn’t always the most enjoyable part of the writing process, but it can be the part where your writing transforms from good to great. Even if you are a writer who produces a high-quality first draft, the process of “seeing anew” what you have written can unlock deeper meaning, more effective structure, clearer wording, and so much more. If you give your best effort in the revision process, you may be surprised at how much your writing can improve.