Maybe you have decided that the text you are writing doesn’t work. Or perhaps you have had feedback saying that you need to make some substantial changes to something that you thought was OK. Oh oh. It’s revision time.
Revision is not something that most of us look forward to. The prospect of revision can be very daunting. Tiring. Scary. Frustrating. We wrote the text and now we are being told – or we can see for ourselves – that we have to re-write it. Cue feelings of inadequacy, or feelings of anger, at the thought of doing it all again.
Now, many people take the task of revising pretty minimally. When they get reviewers comments for instance, they say to themselves, what is the least I can get away with? How can I make a few minor tweaks here and there? What tiny modification can I do here, as it’s already my best shot?
Those reluctant-to-revise feelings are not silly, they’re actually pretty rational.
You see, when we write a paper or a book, we have an idea about what the final text might be. We have a view about the argument it will present, the stuff we will bring together to make the case. We might have strong ideas about the literature to be used, We might have imagined the ways in which the headings and subheadings will help the reader. We may already have a killer exemplar, an engaging narrative. This idea might emerge through the writing, or it might be the product of a lot of pre-planning. But we have an idea which is materialised through the writing process.
And then we are asked – or ask ourselves – to do something more to it. Something different than the original plan. We are asked, or ask ourselves, to go back to the beginning and start afresh.
This inevitably equates to more work. That’s because revision is always more than simply editing. Editing is when you tidy up a paper. You attend to transitions, signposting, syntax, grammar, writing tics. But revision means amending fundamental aspects of the original. It’s changing, for instance, any or all of – the structure, the way the evidence is presented, the warrant for the paper and its claim for significance, its explanation of theory or evidence, the literatures used. Gah.
No wonder revision is daunting. None of us likes it much. I don’t like having to do revisions either. But they are part and parcel of the academic writing game. Revisions must be faced.
So it helps, I reckon, to think about revision as being very different from editing. Editing is tinkering with the text. Revision is best understood as re-vision.
Re-vision. Re-think. Re-imagine. It’s mind’s eye work. You hover above the paper and re-visualise its topography. You see it again. You bring a fresh perspective to the task. You re-place your original idea with another. And then re-write.
When you revise, you have an opportunity to re-visit the original idea that you had and think about how else it might be authored. There is never one way to write something. We all make choices about how we organise material, which literatures we use, how we stage the argument. Re-vision means going back over those choices and thinking of another combination. It means re-establishing a view of what the paper or book or chapter might be.
Re-vision generally takes time. Well, you need recovery time first. You need to get over the shock of realising you need to do something more. But then you may have to sit with the text for a while in order to work out what to do with it. And that’s why journals generally give you three months to revise a paper that has been reviewed.
But what do you do with this time?
It’s always worth spending some time contemplating reviewer comments and not rushing to do quick fixes. If this is writing where you have had external feedback (peer review or supervisor) then you may well be in possession of some very good advice to help you re-create your argument. Your reviewers or supervisor may well have put their finger on exactly the thing that you need to focus in on to re-construct your text.
But you probably still need time to work out exactly what to do. To ask yourself – What if I did it this way or that? What would happen if I tried this or that? What about this angle? Why not this example? How about this theoretical point? Maybe this detail would strengthen the case?
Occasionally you may find that reviewers or supervisor give feedback which goes against the grain. It pushes your paper in a direction you don’t want to take. But your critical reviewers may well have seen that there is something awry with your text – it’s just that their suggested changes may not actually be what you need or want to do in order to present your argument. In this case, you need to take time to sort out how the feedback points to a problem that you can re-present in a different way.
Once you have an idea about how to re-work your book, chapter or paper, it’s a very good idea to try to outline your new version. Write a new tiny text. Gather together any new materials. Then, when you have re-conceptualised the paper, you can go back to the reviewer’s feedback. Look at what they suggest to match your newly imagined paper against their comments.
After checking, you can then write one of those tables which list reviewer recommendations against changes, or write the letter explaining why you haven’t done what was suggested but something else instead.
So revision. It’s certainly a challenge. But it can be strangely satisfying. I think of it as a kind of re-mixing.
And re-visioning is a process that you can own and make highly productive. Even if it’s not exactly enjoyable, revision can be satisfying. That’s because it‘s about putting your scholarly imagination to work on a scholarly problem – again.