Writing is an essential part of working out your ideas. I don't think you
really understand something until you are able to convey it to someone else.
Moreover, you shouldn't expect to work out your ideas in one attempt --
everyone needs to revise! And this means not just after your teachers have
slogged their way through the version you submit and identified the problems in
your exposition, but beforehand.
In the first draft of a piece or in your preparatory notes you are inventing
the problem; delineating the main points. You're getting your thoughts out to
arrive at a working set of words.
Once you have this much of a paper you can (re)organize those points, and after
(re)writing the paper you can better identify the weaknesses in it. Cosmetic
changes in wording do not constitute revision; there are two levels of revision
which should precede fine-tuning your vocabulary:
First, you should RE-ENVISION the paper. Does it need major restructuring? How
does each paragraph connect with the previous one, and to the paper as a whole?
Try shifting sections around; incorporate new insights as they arise. Also ask
yourself: Is what I have written true? Have I written about what I set out to
write? If not, why not? Have I changed my mind?
Re-envisioning requires some distance from your draft. Spend some hours or a
day away from it, nominally doing something else but remaining pre-occupied
with your paper, letting it digest. Jot down notes wherever you are when the
ideas come to you so you can try them out when you return to your writing
Next, FILL THE HOLES. What transitions and links are weak or missing? (Words
such as "surely," "it seems," "logically," and so on are sure signs of
connections unmade.) What are your blind spots? Are you avoiding admitting to
yourself that you need to do more research? Think about the holes in your
information and your argument; can you fill them? Have you provided examples?
Have you anticipated counter-arguments? Long sentences with many loosely linked
ideas are cues that you need to divide the sentence and develop each idea
Perhaps you feel that you know the meaning of what you've written, so there's
nothing to change. If so, then read it to someone else. Do they follow what you
mean? Frustratingly, they may not. You may even feel they are being thick or
difficult in not understanding you. Perhaps they are. Nevertheless, if you
clarify your writing so that bothersome readers can follow, you will probably
improve it for other readers who were (more or less) understanding you.
On the other hand, you should be prepared to DELETE as well as to add. It is
often harder to delete than to add because it is difficult to overcome your
investment in what you've already written. Nevertheless, deletion is an
important part of revision.
The aim of writing is not to explain everything for all time, but to achieve
some temporary closure. If you can't fill a hole, make clear those places where
you or the field in general need to do further work. In a few weeks you may
know more, but the appropriate question is whether you have finished with the
paper for the moment.
After such self-scrutiny and revision you should know exactly what it is you
want to say, and the third level of revision, the FINE-TUNING of vocabulary to
achieve the desired connotations, should be much easier. However, even when
typing the final draft you should be thinking and not merely transcribing,
remaining open to opportunities to rewrite and restructure your paper so you
are saying what you want to as well as you can.
-Take responsibility for what you're saying. The passive voice may be useful
for variety, but do not use it to avoid thinking through an issue. Instead,
identify the group or person hidden behind a passive construction.
Peter Taylor, with help from Ann Blum and Greg Tewksbury.
-Before every sentence, paragraph and section ask yourself: What am I trying to
say? What words or phrases express that idea best? After writing a paragraph
check to make sure it is about what you said it would be about.
-Watch out for gobbledegook and jargon. Clean this out and use English.
(Version 4, September 1993)