Productivity blog, Lifehack.org, has a post on Nine Tips to Productive Revision. The tips themselves are useful, I suppose, but only if you think of revision mostly in terms of editing or proofreading. Take the first tip, for instance:
Try to get what you’ve written on paper. Scanning a piece on a makes revision extremely difficult, even though it may seem like the more sensible process. By printing out your computer work, you’re able to get more hands-on with your writing process. For most people, it’s also much easier to look at what you’ve written on paper rather than on a screen. Things you might not be able to see on your computer can show up when you’re marking your piece up with paper and pencil.
What, exactly, are these “things you might not be able to see”? Since the author doesn’t really say, I’m guessing he has in mind grammatical and spelling errors, or stylistic infelicities. I (sort of) agree that printing things out makes it easier to catch mechanical problems along those lines, although I find that reading drafts aloud is even more effective.
The conflation of revision and proofreading is, of course, not unique to this one blog post. It’s a deeply held cultural belief. But revision isn’t just about cleaning up after yourself. The word itself means “re-seeing,” looking at your own work again, or in a different way. Good revision isn’t just fixing verb tense agreement, but actually re-thinking the purpose or scope of your writing.
With that in mind, I offer my own revision tips, framed instead as questions:
- “Why did I write this? What’s its purpose?” Having a sense of purpose is essential, even if your primary motivation is really that you just needed to write something for a school assignment. Once you’ve got a draft in front of you, don’t assume that your purpose is the same as when you started. Expect to discover, upon re-reading what you’ve written, that you ended up somewhere very different than where you began.
- “How does what I’ve written fit into that purpose?” If you’ve got stuff that doesn’t fit, chuck it. Ruthlessly. Or, rather, put it somewhere else for safe keeping, in case it eventually does make sense to include it, or you decide to write something where it would fit.
- “What else do I need?” The more refined your sense of purpose, the easier it is to answer this question. Figure out what you could be doing in your draft to contribute to its overall purpose, and then do it.
Questions like these are where I prefer to start a revision (and where I prefer my students start). Nancy Sommers made the point ages ago that it doesn’t make any sense to proofread text that you might end up rewriting or trashing. Do the radical revision first, then clean up.