Revising as a Search for Ideas. Editing as a Pursuite of Style by Roy Johnson

posted Dec 4, 2017, 1:33 PM by Writing Center
I don’t know, maybe you have heard this before? The rough draft is that thing that happens after your research where you sit down and spill your guts in a caffeine-driven frenzy of blood, sweat, and tears. Possibly there will be some real spilling of guts. My brother used to throw up before every undergrad exam. But anyway, like the spilling of real guts, the rough draft, in light of the morning after, clearly needs some cleanup.

I don’t know if it’s even possible in this day and age to make it through the first year of college without hearing some variation of the following regarding writing papers. “When you finish your rough draft, set it aside for a couple of days before you start your revision process.” We all know that some college papers get written on the due date with a looming deadline. Possibly this is the only way to learn how not to crack under pressure. Since this method of scholarship tops out (in my humble experience) at around the ten pages and three sources mark, it is desirable to have a back-up plan for when you must write a substantial, deep, and documented paper.

So I’m just going to say it. The above advice of leaving your rough draft for a minimum of forty-eight hours is good advice. Leave that paper alone. Get some rest. Exercise. Don’t, under any circumstances, touch or look at your rough draft. If possible, don’t think about it. I recommend binge watching something on Netflix instead. The (I am not sure what to call it) “percolation” process, where you allow your unconscious mind (or whatever) to sift and sort through the welter of ideas you just spewed forth, is crucial. Give time time.

After the recommended forty-eight hours, you can start your revision process. Two sound pieces of practical advice that were given to me regarding revision are these. First, your introductions, conclusions, and thesis statements are almost always going to be revised in light of the research you actually did and the writing you actually wrote in the body of your paper. The introduction and thesis of your rough draft should be sufficient only to get you writing. Once the substance of your essay has been written, you are going to have to go back and revise it. Writing a rough conclusion is fine, as the material you generate will usually end up being the substance of any extra opinions you personally might have about the subject matter of your essay (nine out of ten times a rough draft’s conclusion is a fake conclusion, but a real, usually solid, new argument).

Second, the actual content of your essay is probably a mystery, even to you the writer. It does not always match up to the thesis statement, hardly ever proceeds according to the clearly set forth order in the introduction, and generally meanders around establishing crucial and useful relationships between ideas at the expense of the essay’s clarity and brevity. This is because when drafting, we are usually writing down everything that comes into our heads about our subject and connecting ideas in paragraphs where they do not necessarily belong, or do belong, but detract from cohesion and readability because Hello Your Ideas Are Snarled.

 An easy way to separate out these ideas is to write a summary outline of your rough draft as it is. Try summarizing each paragraph of your rough draft in a single sentence that answers the questions “What am I saying in this paragraph” and “How does it support my paper (thesis)?” Making this outline should be a fundamental reason to leave at least A WEEK between the writing of the rough draft and the due date of the paper. If you add the day you write the rough draft to a forty-eight hour “percolation,” a week leaves you about four days to get your paper finished.

Making a summary outline of your paper will do two other things for you. Well, three other things, actually. In the absolute first place, a summary outline will prevent you from leaping into the editing process. This is a good thing because there is no point in editing a sentence for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and style, when you end up throwing that sentence out later because it entirely doesn’t work with the paragraph (or worse, you leave it in there because you spent time and effort on it, and it detracts from the overall substance and clarity of your final paper).

In the second place, a summary outline will identify for you whether or not each one of your paragraphs contains a single idea, or multiple ideas. It is generally a good idea to separate ideas by paragraph. If it is a very large idea which needs proof and explanation through subordinate ideas, it is still usually better to acknowledge the greatness of the idea by putting it’s subordinate ideas into consecutive and individual supporting paragraphs.

In the third place, a summary outline will give you all the material you could possibly need to flesh out your introductions and conclusions. The summary outline is essentially a roadmap of how you are organizing your paper. Once you’ve separated out the ideas you want to use into a cohesive and logical order, that summary outline can now serve to tell your reader where you are going by welding it into your introduction. It can also be revisited in your conclusion, where you can expand on your summary in light of the evidence that you presented. No more worrying about word count. (Or, you know, most of the time.)

Since editing and style are something that are best left up to the writer, I’m not going to touch on those aspects of writing a paper here. I will say, however, that if you actually do the above drafting and revision a week before your paper is due, you should have a leisurely two to three days over that usually crabbed and cramped, paper freak-out weekend to embellish, plume, preen, and otherwise virtue signal to your heart’s content, confident that your paper is at least going to do the dirty work of making a sensible argument or exposition. Style and grammar are, in my final opinion, a matter of reading and taste.

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