There’s so much to say about revising. Even though I’ve just published a book on revising – shameless plug – I still have things I want to say about it.
The key message in the book is that revising effectively requires you to need to read through your text with purpose, have something in mind. A focus. Rather than just pick up the text and read, waiting to see what jumps out at you, it’s very helpful to approach your draft with a question in mind. In fact, I suggest that it can be pretty useful to read your text through several times, looking for different things each time. Looking for one thing at a time means you caconcentrate on that thing alone and not get distracted by other issues.
One of the very first things to look for – and you’ll see I have written a little chapter about it in the book – is to check for the relevance of the content. You’ve written a lot of stuff and you need to see if it all counts. And if it’s all there. This means you need to know what your main point is, and your argument. I’ve got some strategies for that in the book so I’m not going to repeat them here.
Oh alright, I’ll sum up. You have to ask yourself what you are writing about – what’s the topic. Then you have to ask what you want the reader to know at the end – what’s the point you are trying to make. And you want to make sure that the steps you take to get from the topic – generally a problem or puzzle- to the point, are relevant and sufficiently clear.
So the first reading task is simply to see what you’ve written about, and how much it is focused on your topic, your point and your argument moves. Have you got in all of the stuff that you need to? IS there stuff that shouldn’t be there?
Now you can do this in several ways. One of the less efficient strategies is to have the doc open on your screen and start correcting as you go. The alternative? Most people find it easier to either print out a copy, or have the text in a digital form you can annotate by hand. As you read, you can then decide what material in the text is OK, what is superfluous and what really needs to go because its off point. You’ll also find some stuff that needs more work or stuff that you need to think about more.
And the trick. You might like to annotate the text using the kind of symbols that editors use. These are made at the level of the paragraph. So you read though your text, looking at each paragraph asking yourself about the topic, point and moves. And you mark each paragraph with one of the following:
- A tick for things you want to keep. These are paragraphs where the material seems relevant and focused on your topic.
- A cross for things that are clearly off piste. Irrelevant. Who knows what you were thinking about when you wrote them, but you can see now that they don’t fit here.
- A descending arrow for paragraphs where there is content to be removed. If it is clear to you what sentences have to go, underline them.
- An ascending arrow for paragraphs where there is material left out. If you can see where the material is to go, put an insertion mark ^ – yes, one of those, the ^ – in the next to show where. But don’t worry too much, the arrow will alert you to the fact that you need to read this paragraph through again to work out what’s missing and where it goes.
- A question mark against paragraphs you just aren’t sure about. You can leave these in while you are working on the exclusions, expansions and reductions and then come back to them to reconsider.
Of course you may find as you’re reading through that you want to go back and change some of your marks. That’s fine. And it’s also OK once you have finished the text to go back and just recheck your markings. But of course you will revisit them all again when you rewrite.
Once you have your text marked up, go back and open up a new version of your draft and start to rewrite. Use your mark up as a guide.
And. Before I go. My book is available in online bookshops but often has a discount on the publisher’s website, as it does this week.
I definitely agree with Pat that it’s safer to work with a print out of the text rather than to read it online. If I do the latter, I end up revising as I go with a DETAILS focus, which is premature if I haven’t re-read it for all the WHOLE TEXT issues that Pat suggests paying attention to.