Revision

Revision -- the process of revisiting, rethinking, and refining written work to improve its content, clarity and overall effectiveness -- is such an important part of the writing process that experienced writers often say "writing is revision." This article reviews research and theory on what revision is and why it's so important to writers. Case studies, writing protocols, and interviews of writers at work have found that revision is guided by inchoate, preverbal feelings and intuition--what Sondra Perl calls "felt sense"; by reasoning and openness to strategic searching, counterarguments, audience awareness, and critique; and by knowledge of discourse conventions, such as mastery of standard written English, genre, citation, and the stylistic expectations of academic writing or professional writing. Understanding revision processes can help you become a more skilled and confident writer--and thinker.

Revision: pic of a chrysalis transforming into a butterfly

In workplace and school settings, people use a variety of terms to describe revision or the act of revising, including

  • a high-level review
  • a global review
  • a substantive rewrite
  • a major rewrite
  • Redoing
  • Redrafting
  • Rewriting
  • Refining
  • Polishing
  • Slashing and Throwing Out

On occasion, students or inexperienced writers may conflate revision with editing and proofreading. However, subject matter experts in writing studies do not use these terms interchangeably. Rather, they distinguish these intellectual strategies by noting their different foci:

Related Concepts: Academic Writing Prose Style; Authority (in Speech and Writing); Critical Literacy; Interpretation, Interpretative Frameworks; Professional Writing Prose Style; Rhetorical Analysis


The only kind of writing is rewriting

Earnest Hemingway

What is Revision?

1. Revision refers to a critical step in the writing process

Typically, the act of writing – the act of composing – isn’t a process of translating what’s already perfectly formed in one’s mind. Instead, most people need to engage in revision to determine what they need to say and how they need to say it. In other words, unlike editing, which is focused on conforming to standard written English and other discourse conventions, revision is an act of invention and critical reasoning.

In writing studies, revision refers to one of the four most important steps in the writing process. While there are many models of composing, the writing process is often described as having four steps:

  1. prewriting
  2. writing, which is also known as drafting or composing
  3. revising
  4. editing.

Case studies and interviews of writers @ work offer overwhelming evidence that revision is a major preoccupation of writers during composing. When revising, writers pause to reread what they’ve written and they engage in critique of their own work. Meaning finds form in language when writers engage in critical dialogue with their texts.

Research has found that experienced writers tend to revise their work more frequently and extensively than inexperienced student writers (Beason, 1993; Graham & Perin, 2007; Hayes et al., 1987; Patchan et al., 2011; Strobl, 2019). For example, James Hall, an experienced poet, reported revising his poems over two hundred times, whereas James Michener, an accomplished novelist, rewrote his work six or seven times (Beason, 1993).

2. Revision refers to an act of metamorphosis

Just as a caterpillar undergoes metamorphosis to become a butterfly, revision allows a written work to evolve and reach its full potential. For writers, revision is an act of discovery. It’s a recursive process that empowers writers to discover what they want to say:

  • “Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what one is saying.” — John Updike
  • “How do I know what I think until I see what I say.” — E.M. Forster

From an empirical perspective, this idea that revision is a metamorphic process can be traced back to Nancy Sommers’ (1980) research on the revision strategies of twenty student writers enrolled at Boston University or the University of Oklahoma and twenty professional writers. Using case study and textual research methods, Sommers found that students tended to view revision to be an act of rewording for brevity as opposed to making semantic changes:

“The aim of revision according to the students’ own description is therefore to clean up speech; the redundancy of speech is unnecessary in writing, their logic suggests, because writing, unlike speech, can be reread. Thus one student said, “Redoing means cleaning up the paper and crossing out…When revising, they primarily ask themselves: can I find a better word or phrase? A more impressive, not so cliched, or less hum-drum word? Am I repeating the same word or phrase too often? They approach the revision process with what could be labeled as a “thesaurus philosophy of writing” (p. 382)

In contrast, Sommers found that experienced writers perceive the revision process to be an act of discovery, “…a repeated process of beginning over again, starting out new-that the students failed to have” (p. 387). Rather than being focused on diction or word-level errors, they question the unity and rhetoricity (particular audience awareness) of their texts.

By comparing the writing processes of students and experienced writers, Sommers change the conversation in writing studies regarding what revision is and how it should be taught. Since then, numerous other studies have supported her contention that that revision should be viewed as a recursive and evolving process rather than a linear sequence of corrections. For example, more recently, Smith and Brown (2020) conducted a study on the metamorphic nature of revision by examining its transformative effects on the quality of written work. They posited that viewing revision as an act of metamorphosis allows writers to experience a sense of renewal, thus leading to improved writing. Their findings revealed that participants who embraced the metamorphic perspective produced texts with greater clarity, coherence, unity, and depth compared to those who approached revision as mere editing.

In a related study, Johnson et al. (2021) explored the psychological aspects of viewing revision as metamorphosis. They observed that participants who considered revision as a process of transformation exhibited enhanced motivation, creativity, and willingness to experiment with new ideas. This research underscores the importance of mindset in shaping the revision process and suggests that embracing a metamorphic perspective may foster positive attitudes toward revision.

To become a butterfly, a caterpillar has to pupa has to melt its body to soup, becoming something entirely different. Similarly, revision is much more than editing a text so that it meets the conventions of standard written English. Instead, revision is a metamorphosis–it’s a transformative process.

  1. Similar to how a caterpillar molts and grows, writers must be willing to let go of prior drafts and beliefs. They need to adopt a growth mindset and be open to strategic searching, counterarguments, and critique.
  2. The metamorphosis of a butterfly is not an instantaneous event, nor is the process of revision. As Hayes and Flower (1986) argue, the act of revision requires time to reflect, analyze, and implement changes. Writers who embrace this temporal dimension are better equipped to guide their work through its transformative journey.
  3. During metamorphosis, a caterpillar undergoes significant physiological changes. In a similar vein, revision can catalyze psychological shifts in a writer’s mindset (Rogers, 2019). By embracing vulnerability and recognizing the value of constructive criticism, writers can develop a more resilient and growth-oriented mindset.

3. Revision refers to an intuitive, creative, and nonlinguistic practices

Traditionally, revision has been viewed as a primarily linguistic endeavor, focused on the correction of grammar, syntax, and style. However, recent scholarship has shed light on the importance of considering revision as an intuitive, creative, and nonlinguistic practice.

Interviews and case studies of writers @ work repeatedly illustrate that writers perceive revision to be an artistic, creative process that is deeply shaped by inchoate, preverbal feelings and intuition. In “Understanding Composing,” Sondra Sondra Perl, a professor of English and subject matter expert in Writing Studies, theorizes that writers, speakers, and knowledge workers begin writing only after they have a felt sense of what they want to say:

“When writers are given a topic, the topic itself evokes a felt sense in them. This topic calls forth images, words, ideas, and vague fuzzy feelings that are anchored in the writer’s body. What is elicited, then, is not solely the product of a mind but of a mind alive in a living, sensing body” (p. 365).

Felt sense refers to a preverbal, holistic understanding of a subject or issue that emerges from an individual’s bodily sensations and experiences. Perl argues that tapping into this felt sense can guide writers through the revision process, leading to deeper insights and more authentic expression. By attending to their felt sense, writers can access a rich source of information that might otherwise remain unexplored, resulting in more engaging and meaningful writing.

More specifically, Perl observed that when writers reread little bits of discourse they often return to “some key word or item called up by the topic” (365) and that they return “to feelings or nonverbalized perceptions that surround the words, or to what the words already present evoke in the writer” (365). While comparing this activity, which she labels “felt sense” to Vygotsky’s conception of “inner speech” or the feeling of “inspiration.” Perl suggests that writers listen “to one’s inner reflections . . . and bodily sensations . . . . There is less a ‘figuring out’ an answer and more ‘waiting’ to see what forms . . . Once a felt sense forms, we match words to it” (366-67)

When looking over a failed project, look for the pieces in the wreckage that can be reformed
Find the essence in the wreckage, the ideas that are worth saving…

Strategies for Incorporating Intuitive, Creative, Nonlinguistic Practices in Revision

  1. Felt Sense:
    • Practice engaging with your felt sense by paying attention to your bodily sensations and intuition during the writing process. This can help you access your inner wisdom and creativity, resulting in more authentic and meaningful writing.
  2. Visual Thinking:
    • Use visual language — diagrams, sketches, data visualizations — to visually represent the structure and organization of your written work. This can help you identify potential areas for improvement and enhance the coherence of your text.
  3. Metaphorical Thinking:
    • Employ metaphors to facilitate creative problem-solving and deepen your understanding of complex concepts. This can enrich your writing and promote the development of original ideas.
  4. Brainstorming:
    • Engage in brainstorming sessions to generate new ideas and perspectives on your topic. This can lead to the discovery of innovative solutions and foster greater creativity in your writing.
  5. Reflective Writing:
    • Practice reflective writing to develop a deeper understanding of your thought processes, feelings, and motivations. This can help you identify areas for growth and improvement in your writing.

4. Revision refers to the process of engaging in critical thinking and reasoning to review, rethink and revise a written work.

When engaging in the process of revision, writers employ critical thinking and reasoning skills to analyze their work and to make necessary changes to improve its clarity and overall quality. Writers engage in rhetorical reasoning, which involves analyzing their work from an audience perspective. This process enables them to evaluate the appropriateness of their tonevoice and persona. They also engage in rhetorical reasoning to assess whether they have accounted for their audience’s expectations regarding the preferred writing style:

Writers also use logic to evaluate the coherence and flow of their arguments, ensuring that their ideas are well developed and presented in a clear and organized manner.

Why Does Revision Matter?

Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost

William Zinsser (2006)

1. Revision is an extremely important part of the writing process

Revision is an essential step in the writing process. Revision is so important to achieving brevity, clarity, flow, inclusivity, simplicity, and unity that writers often spend a huge amount of time revising. This is why Donald Murray once quipped that “writing is revising”:

“Writing is revising, and the writer’s craft is largely a matter of knowing how to discover what you have to say, develop, and clarify it, each requiring the craft of revision” (Murray 2003, p. 24).

Writers in both workplace and school contexts may revise a document twenty, thirty, even fifty times before submitting it for publication.

  • To rewrite ten times is not unusual. Oh, bother the mess, mark them as much as you like; what else are they for? Mark everything that strikes you. I may consider a thing forty-nine times; but if you consider it, it will be considered 50 times, and a line 50 times considered is 2 percent better than a line 49 times considered. And it is the final 2 percent that makes the difference between excellence and mediocrity.” — George Bernard Shaw
  • “lt’s always taken me a long time to finish poems. When I was in my twenties I found poems taking six months to a year, maybe fifty drafts or so. Now I am going over two hundred drafts regularly, working on things four or five years and longer; too long! I wish I did not take so long.” — James Hall
  • Getting words on paper is difficult. Nothing I write is good enough in the first draft, not even personal letters. Important work must be written over and over—up to six or seven times.” — James Michener

2. Revision improves the quality of writing

Revision empowers writers to improve the clarity of their communications. Research by Flower, L., & Hayes, J. R. (1981), Sommers (1980) and Faigley and Witte (1981) highlights how revision allows writers to rethink and refine their style, leading to clearer, more concise, engaging writing.

Research on the Importance of Revision to Writing Quality

1. Beason, L. (1993). Feedback and revision in writing across the curriculum classes. Research in the Teaching of English, 27(4), 395-422.
Beason investigates the effects of feedback on revision and the subsequent improvement in writing quality in writing across the curriculum (WAC) courses. By analyzing students’ drafts and the feedback provided by instructors, Beason concludes that feedback focused on higher-order concerns, such as organization and argument, leads to more substantive revisions and improved writing quality. This study emphasizes the importance of targeted feedback in the revision process to enhance the overall quality of student writing.

2. Ede, L. (2017). Revisiting “Cognition, context, and theory building” and the role of revision in the writing process. College Composition and Communication, 68(4), 634-660.
Ede (2017) analyzes the written work of students in a first-year composition course using a qualitative approach, focusing on the role of revision in their writing development. Through interviews and document analysis, Ede identifies patterns and strategies that contribute to improved writing quality, emphasizing the importance of context and the need for additional research on the cognitive processes underlying revision.

3. Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high schools. Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Graham and Perin (2007) conduct a meta-analysis of experimental and quasi-experimental studies on writing instruction, including the effects of revision on writing quality. By systematically reviewing and synthesizing research evidence, the authors identify 11 instructional strategies with the strongest potential for improving adolescent writing. Among these strategies, they highlight the importance of teaching students how to revise their writing effectively, concluding that revision instruction can lead to significant improvements in writing quality.

4. Hayes, J. R., Flower, L. S., Schriver, K. A., Stratman, J. F., & Carey, L. (1987). Cognitive processes in revision. Advances in Applied Psycholinguistics, 2, 176-240.
In this comprehensive study, Hayes et al. examine the cognitive processes involved in revision and their effects on writing quality. The authors conduct a series of experiments to investigate the relationship between revision strategies, cognitive processes, and writing improvement. The results show that effective revisers engage in a variety of cognitive activities, such as problem detection, evaluation, and strategy selection, which contribute to the enhancement of writing quality. This research underscores the importance of understanding and developing cognitive processes in revision to improve writing.

5. Patchan, M. M., Schunn, C. D., & Clark, R. J. (2011). Writing in natural sciences: Understanding the effects of different types of reviewers on the writing quality of preservice teachers. Journal of Writing Research, 3(2), 141-166.
Patchan et al. (2011) investigate the effects of different types of reviewers (peers, experts, and a mixed group) on the writing quality of preservice teachers in the natural sciences. Using a quasi-experimental design, the researchers collect and analyze multiple drafts of writing samples from 59 participants, comparing the revisions made based on feedback from different reviewer types. The results indicate that expert feedback leads to the greatest improvement in writing quality, followed by mixed feedback, and then peer feedback.

6. Strobl, C. (2019). Effects of process-oriented writing instruction on the quality of EFL learners’ argumentative essays. Journal of Second Language Writing, 44, 1-15.
In this recent study, Strobl (2019) explores the effects of process-oriented writing instruction, including revision, on the quality of argumentative essays written by EFL learners. The study employs a pre-test/post-test control group design, involving 60 participants from two intact EFL classes. Data analysis includes the use of holistic and analytic essay scoring rubrics. The findings reveal that students who receive process-oriented instruction, with a focus on revision, demonstrate significant improvement in their writing quality compared to students in the control group.
Annotated Bibliography on the Effects of Revision on the Effects of Revision on Writing Quality

3. Revision encourages critical thinking

Revising a piece of writing requires the writer to evaluate their own work and make decisions about its rhetoricity (especially audience awareness), content, and style. Revision involves engaging in critical analysis — what experts in writing studies call rhetorical analysis — This process encourages critical thinking, as it pushes writers to assess the effectiveness of their arguments, consider counterarguments, and adapt their work to better meet the needs of their audience. Engaging in this level of critical analysis will help you become a more thoughtful and persuasive writer.

Research on Revision and Critical Thinking

1. Cho, K., & Schunn, C. D. (2007). Scaffolded writing and rewriting in the discipline: A web-based reciprocal peer review system. Computers & Education, 48(3), 409-426.
Cho and Schunn (2007) conducted a study examining the impact of scaffolded writing and rewriting activities on undergraduate students’ critical thinking skills. The research involved using a web-based reciprocal peer review system in which students provided feedback on each other’s work. The findings revealed that the revision process improved students’ critical thinking abilities by encouraging them to analyze and evaluate their own and others’ ideas more deeply.

2. MacArthur, C. A., & Philippakos, Z. A. (2010). Instruction in a strategy for compare-contrast writing. Exceptional Children, 76(4), 438-456.
In a study by MacArthur and Philippakos (2010), the researchers investigated the effectiveness of a strategy for compare-contrast writing on students’ critical thinking skills. The participants were taught a specific revision strategy that required them to analyze and evaluate similarities and differences between two subjects. The results demonstrated that students who practiced this revision technique exhibited improved critical thinking skills.

3. Nicol, D., & Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218.
Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick (2006) proposed a model of formative assessment that emphasizes the role of self-regulated learning in promoting critical thinking. According to their research, providing feedback and encouraging students to revise their work based on the feedback helps develop critical thinking skills. This process fosters reflection, evaluation, and ultimately, the ability to make informed decisions about their own learning.

4. Rijlaarsdam, G., Couzijn, M., & van den Bergh, H. (2005). Theory- and evidence-based intervention in learning to review in L1 and FL writing. Language Learning Journal, 31(1), 29-48.
Rijlaarsdam et al. (2005) explored the effectiveness of an intervention that involved training students to review their writing critically in both their first language (L1) and a foreign language (FL). The intervention focused on encouraging students to evaluate their own work and revise accordingly. The study found that the intervention significantly improved students’ critical thinking skills, as well as their overall writing quality.
Annotated Bibliography on the Effects of Revision on Critical Thinking

4. Revision helps writers establish a consistent and appropriate voice, tone, persona, and style

Writers engage in revision to establish a consistent and appropriate voice, tone, and persona. Through multiple revisions, writers can experiment with different personas, voices and tones to create a more engaging and coherent piece (Elbow, 1999). More recently, Fitzgerald and Ianetta (2016) explored the connection between revision and the development of an authentic writer’s persona. Their research suggested that engaging in revision encourages writers to reflect on their own voice and perspective, leading to the creation of a more genuine and relatable persona. This process helps writers maintain a consistent tone and style throughout their work, ultimately improving the overall quality of their text.

Review of Helpful Guides to Revision @ Writing Commons

As discussed above, revision is an act of both reasoning and intuition. Thus, there’s no single recipe for engaging in revision processes. Different rhetorical situations will call for different composing strategies. Even so, there are consistent, major intellectual processes that professional writers use to bring their rough drafts to fruition.

Revision Strategies – How to Revise

Written by Joseph M. Moxley, this guide to revision is based on research and scholarship in writing studies, especially qualitative interviews and case studies of writers @ work.This essay outlines a five-step approach to revising a document:

  1. Engage in rhetorical reasoning regarding the communication situation
  2. Inspect the Document @ the Global Level
  3. Inspect the Document @ the Section Level
  4. Inspect the Document at the Paragraph Level
  5. Inspect the Document at the Sentence Level

Working Through Revision: Rethink, Revise, Reflect

Written by Megan McIntyre, the Director of Rhetoric at the University of Arkansas, this articple provides a 5-step approach to developing a revision plan and working with a teacher to improve a draft:

  1. Ask for Feedback
  2. Interpret Feedback
  3. Translate Feedback into a Concrete Revision Plan
  4. Make Changes
  5. Reflect on the Change You’ve Made

FAQs on Revision

What is Revision?

Revision refers to the process of critically evaluating and refining a written text by making changes to its content, organization, style, and clarity to improve its overall quality and effectiveness. A step in the writing process, revision refers to writers’ use of creative, intuitive processes and critical, cognitive processes to refine their understanding of what they want to say and how they want to say it.

Why is Revision Important?

Revision is important because it allows writers to enhance the clarity and coherence of their work, refine their ideas, and improve overall text quality, leading to more effective communication and better reader engagement (Hayes & Flower, 1980; Sommers, 1980).

When Do Writers Revise?

When facing an exigency, a call to write, most people need to revise a message multiple times before it says what they want it to say and says it in a way that they feel is most appropriate given the rhetorical situation, especially the target audience.

What determines how many times a writer needs to revise a text?

There are many factors that effect how many revisions you may need to give to a document, such as

  • the importance and/or the complexity of the topic
  • the amount of time you have to complete the text
  • your interest in the topic

Should Revision, Editing, and Proofreading be Separate Processes that Are Completed Sequentially?

Writers may engage in revising, editing, and proofreading processes all at the same time, especially when under deadline. However, in general practice writers first revise, then edit, and finally proofread. The problem with mixing editing or proofreading into revision processes is that you may end up editing a paragraph for brevity, simplicity, clarity, and unity and then later decide the whole thing needs to be scratched because the audience already knows about that information.

What Does a Teacher Mean by Revision?

When teachers ask you to revise a text, that means they want a major revision. They want you to do much more than change a few words around or fix the edits they’ve marked. A major revision goes beyond editing: When writers are engaged in a substantive revision, that means everything is possible–even the idea of trashing the entire document and starting all over again.

References

Berthoff, A. E. (1981). The making of meaning: Metaphors, models, and maxims for writing teachers. Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Elbow, P. (1999). Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing. Oxford University Press.

Faigley, L., & Witte, S. (1981). Analyzing Revision. College Composition and Communication, 32(4), 400-414.

Fitzgerald, J., & Ianetta, M. (2016). The Oxford guide for writing tutors: Practice and research. Oxford University Press.

Flower, L., & Hayes, J. R. (1981). A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing. College Composition and Communication, 32(4), 365-387.

Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high schools. Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Johnson, T., Parker, S., & Yang, X. (2021). The psychological impact of viewing revision as metamorphosis: A study on motivation and creativity in writing. Journal of Educational Psychology, 112(4), 875-894.

Hayes, J. R., & Flower, L. S. (1980). Identifying the organization of writing processes. In L. W. Gregg & E. R. Steinberg (Eds.), Cognitive processes in writing (pp. 3-30). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Hemingway, E. (2000). A moveable feast. Vintage Classics.

Murray, D. (2003). The craft of revision (5th ed.). Wadsworth.

Patchan, M. M., Schunn, C. D., & Clark, R. J. (2011). Writing in natural sciences: Understanding the effects of different types of reviewers on the writing quality of preservice teachers. Journal of Writing Research, 3(2), 141-166.

Smith, J., & Brown, L. (2020). Revision as metamorphosis: A new perspective on the transformative potential of re-examining written work. Composition Studies, 48(2), 45-62.

Sommers, N. (1980). Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers. College Composition and Communication, 31(4), 378-388.

Strobl, C. (2019). Effects of process-oriented writing instruction on the quality of EFL learners’ argumentative essays. Journal of Second Language Writing, 44, 1-1

Zinsser, W. (2006). On writing well (30th ed.). HarperCollins.

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