"Look," a client said, motioning toward a document on her computer. "This is how I started. Then I tried a different order. I went back and tightened the grabber, and that gave me a better ending…" A rapid-fire flash of documents lit up the screen, all with cross-outs and changes, some in blue and others in orange or yellow or red. She smiled. "This is what I ended up with." With a final jab at the keyboard, she brought up her latest draft. "Now it's right," she said. "It's what I meant."
It really was.
Most kinds of writing require multiple drafts, each iteration a revision intended to align the text more closely with its intended purpose, message, and audience. For many writers, the real work comes in making changes that accomplish this alignment, and for most writers this is the hardest part of writing.
One of the reasons it's so hard is that sometimes our original purpose needs revision, and doing that involves rethinking. Other times our messages don't align with purpose or audience; both situations call for a reassessment and redo.
These two global concerns should be the first focus of revision efforts; aligning them will help you smooth the smaller bits of the whole. So as you read a draft, be aware of the purpose you're constructing; highlight portions of the text that demonstrate it. In the margins, note the messages that advance your purpose and address the characteristics of your audience.
If you can't find them, they aren't there. So before moving on, work on establishing your purpose, making it visible in messages and your presentation of them.
Most of the time, it's something about the ways we've created structures or units of thought that demands most revision attention on the global level. Every writer develops strategies and techniques for revision, often using different ones for different types of writing.
One successful approach, however, is to begin by examining each paragraph, those building blocks of text and thus of its meaning. We suggest three questions to test your paragraphing:
- Does each help accomplish your purpose?
- Taken together, do they provide convincing support for your purpose?
- Does the arrangement or structure carry the reader toward accepting your message?
When you map your paragraphs, you're able to see the flow of your message and purpose, able to see at what point ideas are introduced and the amount and kind of support they receive. You are able to spot where a thread gets lost and find a way to pull it back in or choose to yank it out entirely.
Readers need help as they move from idea to idea, so the next focus for revision is use of transitions, the guides and signposts that direct the reader through the relationship among the ideas you are presenting. Smooth transitions provide coherence and reinforce organization. Go through your draft and highlight transitional phrases, paragraph by paragraph. Determine what the phrases do and whether they are doing what you need them to do.
Next examine the connections between sentences in each paragraph. Highlight these connections in another color and note how they emphasize and reflect the thinking and logic of your argument. And while your topic, purpose, message, or audience may require you to use more of one kind of transition than others, in general they will be distributed among eight categories: addition, contrast, emphasis, exemplification, chronological, spatial, causal, summary.
As our client who revised her way to success was happy to discover, revising is a process that can be undertaken in small steps, each affecting the next, each leading writer and thus audience to what is meant.