Keep in mind that your first draft is preliminary, meaning that you should feel free to experiment with many different ways of generating ideas, from brainstorming to mind-mapping to more traditional outlining to literally just beginning to write. If you think that you’re going to use a certain piece of evidence you found in your preliminary close reading of the text, you can start by simply writing a paragraph in which you use that evidence to make a tentative claim. This is a great way to conquer the fear of the blank page, and another benefit of using close reading to develop your argument!
In other words, you shouldn’t assume that you can’t start writing until you know exactly what you’re going to argue or what sequence in which you’ll present your claims and evidence. Likewise, you shouldn’t believe that just because you’ve written something, you can’t change it later, perhaps dramatically. Much like close reading and making an argument, drafting is an iterative and recursive process, which means that it proceeds in a looping way through multiple phases of repetition—your first draft is just a beginning, an early form of your essay that is open to change and subject to revision. You can narrow or refine your focus as you move through multiple drafts, and your essay is likely to evolve, both in argument and structure, as your drafting progresses. And that’s a good thing!
Some writers like to make a provisional outline before they begin drafting, while others begin to write with only a rough plan in mind. Whether you prefer to outline first or not here are some strategies for keeping your argument in focus before, during, and after drafting.
Sometimes “revision” and “editing” are used interchangeably, but each has a distinct role in the writing process–and each can help you to develop and refine your work in important ways. Revision is the process of contemplating and making changes to the conceptual or argument-driven work of an essay. In revision, you might refine your argument, examine the close readings and other forms of analysis that move your argument forward, or reconsider the structure that knits your ideas together.
Editing, on the other hand, means contemplating and making changes to the language with which we express our ideas. Editing helps us to “speak” more clearly: to correct our mechanical errors (grammar, typos, etc.), clarify our language, more smoothly integrate quotations or other citations, and so forth. Editing doesn’t ask, what am I trying to say? Instead, it asks: am I saying it well?
While both revising and editing are important parts of the writing process, it tends to be counterproductive to do both at the same time. Why spend time polishing sentences or paragraphs that you may end up cutting? And once you’ve spent time polishing your prose, it’s much harder to cut or rework that part of your essay!
When you first return to a draft for the purpose of revision, you should focus on larger questions of substance and structure. What is your argument? What evidence do you provide? Is your analysis convincing? Is your essay clearly organized? Revision often requires you to make “big” changes: you may need to re-focus your argument or refine your ideas; cut, move, or rewrite whole paragraphs; add additional sources or evidence; rework your introduction and/or conclusion to bring them in line with the argument you have made. Remember that rewriting is the key to good writing.
Here are some strategies you can use to revise an essay:
- As you tackle the revision process, consider your priorities for revision. What is the most important thing to work on? What next?
- Remember to approach revision as a multi-step process. You can make this process manageable by focusing on two or three areas during each revision session. Conclude the revision process by checking balance, assessing your organization, and asking if you’ve kept your promises to your readers.
- Generate a reverse outline, which is one of the most useful tools in the essay reviser’s toolbox. Whether you make your reverse outline in the margins of your draft or on a separate sheet of paper, this strategy will help you to see the overall structure of your argument as it stands in your draft, the first step in determining whether (and how) reorganizing the sequence of paragraphs might strengthen your argument. It can also help you determine whether all paragraphs are working to support your main claim; whether there are any redundant paragraphs (i.e., paragraphs that make the same point as other paragraphs without moving your argument forward); or whether there is any missing or unclear evidence.
- Consider whether your essay uses transitional words and phrases between paragraphs to clarify the arc of your argument.
- Consider whether your paragraphs themselves are clearly structured, with topic sentences and transitional sentences that signpost the development of your argument and don’t rely solely on the chronology of a text. (This will help you to avoid doing a plot summary or merely describing a text rather than doing an analysis!)
- All of these steps may help you to take the most important step of all: determining whether you have a sufficiently focused and compelling thesis that you have supported persuasively with textual evidence. (For more on developing a strong thesis, see What Are Some Critical Moves in an Argument?.)
- If you’ve already received feedback on your paper from your instructor, think about how you might incorporate their suggestions in your next draft or your next essay. Don’t be shy about arranging to meet with them to discuss their feedback and how you can best use it in revision and future essays.
Once you have reworked the structure of your argument in the revising phase, you’ll be ready to start editing. Editing means honing the language of your essay in order to make your argument clear, engaging, and persuasive to your reader. It can include editing to improve the style of your writing as well as to fix mechanical errors (a kind of editing often called proofreading). Mechanical details such as correct punctuation and grammar are fundamental to conveying your meaning to your reader. While unintentional errors like typos might seem trivial to you, prose that is typo-free will immediately help you gain your reader’s confidence.
Re-reading your paper carefully can help you find a variety of errors that a computer spell-checker might miss. In order to focus on the language of your own writing, try some of these editing strategies:
- Reading your paper aloud—or, even better, having a friend or your computer’s text-to-speech function read your paper aloud to you—is a great way to catch things your eye might miss on the page. As you hear your paper, listen for sentences that sound awkward. Trust your ear!
- Reading your sentences individually and out of context—editing each of the first sentences in each of your paragraphs, then the second sentences, etc.—is another way to focus on the form of your sentences rather than their content.
- Sometimes printing out your paper, especially if you’ve only looked at an electronic copy up to this point, can also help.
- Perhaps the best way to notice things you’ve missed is by setting your writing aside and coming back to it later. Take a break—you earned it!
Here’s a list of some additional editing strategies; you might also consider the Paramedic Method, a streamlined approach to achieving persuasive and clear prose. And here are some resources to help with common grammatical errors:
Even if your writing is grammatically correct, you still need to edit it for style. Style—the way you put together a sentence or a group of sentences—is subjective; different people have different ideas about what sounds good. But the following guidelines can help you write lucidly, engagingly and, yes, stylishly.
- Use a voice or tone appropriate to the academic discipline in which you are working. New writers are often surprised, for example, that humanities essay writers sometimes use first person pronouns. When in doubt, ask your instructor for guidance and even for examples of the style of writing you are expected to do for their class.
- Avoid jargon and other kinds of over-inflated language. Use theoretical terms if they are critical to your argument, but make sure to define them for the reader. And always make sure that the word you’re using means what you think it means! Having a sure command of the language you are using not only assures the clarity of your writing, but it also helps to make your writing expressive and polished, contributing to the authority of your voice as a writer.
- Watch out for wordiness. When you streamline your prose, your reader will understand your idea more easily. Vary your diction to avoid sounding robotic, but don’t go overboard—sometimes you need to repeat words or phrases to help your reader follow the main thread of your argument. Likewise, vary sentence structure (including sentence length) to create a feeling of flow, but never at the expense of clarity.
- In order to grasp what’s happening in a sentence, a reader needs to understand who or what is doing something and what it is they are doing. One way to make the subject and the verb of your sentence clear to your reader is by making sure the passive voice is avoided; for an example of unclear and “baggy” use of the passive voice, see the first half of this sentence! (Here’s one fix: “By avoiding the passive voice, you can help your reader to recognize your sentence’s subject and verb.” Here’s another: “To help your reader, avoid the passive voice!”) You should also avoid clunky nominalizations, also known as “zombie nouns,” which means using the noun form of a verb (such as “nominalization” instead of “nominalize”) or the noun form of an adjective (“implacability” instead of “implacable”). Of course, you may have a good reasons to use these grammatical forms in specific contexts; you might use the passive voice to describe the writing of an anonymous poem, for example, or employ a nominalization if it is a commonly used technical term such as “enjambment.” But otherwise, search for and replace passive verb constructions and nominalizations to make your sentences concrete, clear and lively.
For more general hints on improving your prose style, you can check out this overview or—as always—talk to your instructor!.