Revising Writing by Integrating Feedback
Writers are often warned not to mistake revision (making substantial adjustments to a piece of writing) with editing (making surface-level adjustments like correcting errors in punctuation). While this distinction is important, it doesn’t explain how to make those substantial changes.
This guide, written primarily for graduate students but useful to all writers, will help you approach revision as a process of “re-envisioning” your writing by setting and prioritizing goals, selecting appropriate strategies, and integrating critical feedback. Writing Center consultants can provide support at any stage of the revision process.
Approach Revision with a Plan
Although revision can feel daunting, once you develop a plan you’ll have a clear, achievable path forward. If you’re revising on your own, you may have no idea where to begin. If you’ve already received comments from readers, it can be tempting to jump right in. In either case, the first step is to create what scholar Alison Miller calls a “revision inventory:”
Re-read the piece of writing. Miller recommends printing the document so that you can more easily visualize the way the writing is organized. In addition, it’s often easier for some writers to spot errors on hard copy than on a screen.
While you re-read, make a list of the substantial changes you need to implement, whether based on your own evaluation or feedback from others. Look for patterns: for instance, you might notice that you need clearer transitions between sections—this can be a single list item. Likewise, note that you should make “line edits” its own list item rather than listing every spelling/grammatical error individually (some writers prefer to fix these errors first, while others prefer to save this step for later).
Once you’ve finished your list, rank the items in order of importance. Start with higher order concerns (more time-consuming, complex tasks such as clarifying the thesis, expanding analysis, strengthening evidence, structuring paragraphs logically, etc.) before listing lower order concerns (such as transitions, sentence structure/variety, formatting, etc.). For more information, check out this resource on higher and lower order concerns.
Now that you have a plan to tackle step by step, make a schedule. You might focus on one list item per day or give yourself a longer period. Set reasonable deadlines for each item and add them to your calendar, knowing you may have to adjust as you go. You may want to share this schedule with your advisor, writing group, or accountability partner.
While creating your revision inventory, write down any questions you have so that you can go over them with your advisor or a consultant in the Writing Center, or another trusted reader.
Stock Your Revision Toolbox
Revision, like writing, is not “one size fits all.” Writing of different genres and lengths calls for different revision strategies. Writing a memory draft (defined below) might be more feasible for a shorter piece (like an abstract), whereas a reverse outline could be more helpful for a long paper or book-length work.
During your graduate study, try out many revision strategies. Doing so will help you learn to choose the best strategy for a given assignment and has the added benefit of allowing you to stock your revision toolbox. In other words, the more revision strategies you’ve tried, the more you’ll learn which methods match your preferences as a writer.
Here are some revision strategies to try:
- Memory Draft: After completing a draft, we’re able to explain our argument more concisely because we’ve been sitting with the material for a long time. To make a memory draft, rewrite your piece without looking at what you originally wrote. Reviewing the original and the memory draft side by side helps you identify places where you can express yourself more clearly. This strategy is especially helpful for revising small sections of a larger text, such as introductions and conclusions, or for revising short texts.
- Reverse Outline: Many writers create outlines before they begin drafting, but creating a reverse outline after completing a draft can be just as useful. To make a reverse outline, draw a T-chart. In the left column, write down the paragraph number. In the right column, jot down the purpose of each paragraph (Ask yourself: What does this paragraph do? How does this paragraph help readers follow along?). You can also simply jot notes in the margins of your draft. Reviewing your completed reverse outline will help you ensure that each paragraph connects to your argument and allow you to identify areas of repetition where you can condense or cut.
- Talk It Out: If you’re stuck on a particular idea or struggling to figure out which ideas are relevant to your argument, explain your thinking verbally to a friend, classmate, or Writing Center consultant. Ask your listener to compare your writing with what they heard and point out areas of confusion or places you can develop. You can also try this exercise on your own: record yourself talking out your thoughts, play back the recording to untangle your reasoning, and transcribe key details or language.
- Check out additional revision strategies.
Manage Feedback from Others
Getting feedback from readers is a crucial part of the writing process and can help us grow as writers and thinkers. However, when writing has taken lots of time, effort, and heart, it can be difficult to receive criticism—even if that criticism is constructive!
Many graduate students spend years working intensively with an advisor or multiple advisors, and they sometimes receive feedback that is conflicting or that doesn’t align with their own visions. This resource provides specific tips on how to communicate with your advisor about feedback.
When reviewing feedback, consider following these steps to honor your emotional response/needs and process the comments you received:
Read to understand: Read all the feedback to ensure you have a clear grasp of your advisor’s recommendations; don’t make a revision inventory just yet.
Try on multiple perspectives: If you’re struggling to understand a comment, try thinking about it from your audience’s perspective. Where might a reader get lost? Jot down questions you can ask your advisor later. If you have the time, you may also ask a trusted reader for their opinion on a particular section.
Attend to your emotions: If the feedback is upsetting, spend time talking through your feelings with trusted friends, or journal about what you’re feeling and why.
Take a break: If possible, don’t look at the feedback for a day or more. Give it time to marinate and give yourself the time you need to be able to approach your writing with confidence and fresh eyes.
Get clarification: This is the time to check in with your advisor to clear up confusion about their feedback.
The writing belongs to you: You are the expert on your own writing. While you should carefully consider the feedback you receive, you don’t necessarily need to take it if you can thoroughly articulate to yourself why you disagree.
Now you’re ready to follow the steps in the sections above to create your revision inventory.
This content was adapted from:
“Common Revision Topics: Higher Order Concerns (HOC) & Lower Order Concerns (LOC).” University Writing Center, University of California, Merced, https://writingcenter.ucmerced.edu/node/231. Accessed 3 January 2023.
“Dealing with Critical Feedback.” Writers Workshop, University of Illinois, https://writersworkshop.illinois.edu/resources-2/writer-resources/long-term-writing-projects/dealing-with-negative-feedback/. Accessed 3 January 2023.
“Incorporating Peer and Instructor Feedback.” Writers Workshop, University of Illinois, https://writersworkshop.web.illinois.edu/resources-2/writer-resources/writing-processes/incorporating-feedback/. Accessed 3 January 2023.
Miller, Alison. “Revise With A Strategy.” The Dissertation Coach, 2007, https://www.thedissertationcoach.com/learn/read/revise-with-a-strategy/. Accessed 3 January 2023.
“Revision.” Writing Studio, Vanderbilt University, 2021, https://www.vanderbilt.edu/writing/resources/handouts/revision/. Accessed 3 January 2023.