LBS 333    Topics in the History of Genetics and Molecular Biology        Fall 2000

Revising and Rewriting Essays

Revising is not merely fixing the punctuation errors, running the essay through the SpellCheck program, or correcting run-ons, incomplete sentences, and split infinitives.  These activities are a part of "proofreading," which should be the last thing you do before you hand in your essay.  In contrast, revising means taking your essay in hand and "seeing" it again (re-vision).  It means finding the vague phrases, the awkward and indistinct sentences, the rambling, discontinuous paragraphs and rewriting them in order to express clearly what you want to say.  So, first of all, you must get clear about what you want to say.

Rereading: 1)  Ignoring for the moment the comments written on your essay, reread your essay carefully.  Then turn it over.

2) Write down in your journal any words, phrases, sentences, or ideas that you can recall (presumably because they made an impression on you).  Note that if you can't recall anything, your essay probably won't impress others.

3) Now write a single sentence that summarizes what you think the author of this essay was trying to say.  Do you remember what the "controlling idea" or "purpose" or "thesis" of the essay is without having to look?

4) Turn your essay over again and reread it one paragraph at a time.  When you come to the end of each paragraph, write down in journal what you believe the paragraph contributes to the essay.  Repeat for every paragraph.  Be honest.  If you can't find a particular point the paragraph makes in support of the main idea behind the essay, admit this in writing, for these are the paragraphs that need revising and rewriting the most.

Revising: 1) Do you now feel that you should revise your original "controlling idea" or "thesis statement" in order to make it more clear, more significant, or more forceful?  If so, write down your modified version and make sure you feel confident that this is what you really want to say or do in the essay.  In other words, this is what you really want to show us or argue for. (see RHH, ch. 3h-l)

Rewriting: A) Paragraph Level.

1) Looking at your list of paragraph summaries (from 4 above), do you see a need to re-order your paragraphs in order to make better sense of the developing idea in the essay?  For example, ask yourself why paragraph three comes before four?  Are you contrasting two things, and, if so, did you flag paragraph four with a transition "signal word" (however, yet, in contrast, etc.).  Or are you continuing to discuss the ideas of paragraph three, in which case, you could also use appropriate signal words (moreover, furthermore, etc.).  Note that this process also applies to transitions between sentences. (See RHH, chs. 9 and 10)

2) Now that you have reordered your paragraphs (and even if you haven't), reread you essay once again and look specifically for any "gaps" or "missing pieces"--e. g., gaps in your logic or missing pieces of evidence that should be supplied with additional reasons, analyses, or examples.

3) If you are looking for additional ways to analyze or discuss your topic, think about answering these sorts of questions in order to come up with new ideas: a) have I clearly defined all my important terms?; b) have I adequately compared those items (ideas, issues, things, etc.) that need comparing?; c) can I find new relationships between the items?; and d) should I provide more background (or context) about the ideas, evidence, and analysis in this essay?  (see RHH, chs. 2 & 3)

4) Looking at your original essay again, do you sense that it needs more (or better) supporting evidence?  If so, what kind and where could you place it?  Were the ideas in your original draft supported by the wrong  kinds of evidence?  Did the essay contain purposeless examples, pointless illustrations, or vague bits of useless information (relative to the main idea or thesis)? (see RHH, ch. 4)

5) If you use quotations, examine each one critically.  Does it really support your point or advance your argument?  Is every word needed?  Could a paraphrase (in your own words and with proper citation) suffice?  Have you incorporated the quotation into your own text smoothly and clearly?  (see RHH, ch. 30)

Rewriting: B) Sentence Level.

1) Scrutinize each sentence one at a time (painful, yes, but vital).  Begin at the beginning and work your way through the essay asking yourself if every sentence is clear and distinct (see RHH, ch. 12).  Do the sentences seem too simple and choppy (like an old-fashioned telegram)?  Do they lack variation in length and emphasis?  If so, can you see ways to construct compound sentences through subordination, parallelism, series, interruptions, delays, etc. (see RHH, chs. 13 and 14).

2) Seek out faulty or confusing pronoun references (a vague "it" or "this"; a plural pronoun standing in for a singular noun).  Look for any redundant details or unexplained points.  Make sure proper names are used consistently.

3) Grill each verb.  Does each convey the meaning you are trying to express in a clear and lively way.  Remember that compared to pompous, Latinized verbs, simple, Anglo-Saxon verbs often have the benefit of concreteness--we can visualize the action in our mind's eye (e. g., compare "facilitate" to "help").  And yet, make sure your sentences don't overuse the forms of the verb "to be."  Keep an eye out for the symptoms of the dreaded "is-itis"--a succession of "is," "is," "is."  Test each passive voice construction; how many can you remove without altering the meaning or emphasis of the sentence?  (see RHH, ch. 12c-f)

4) Evaluate each word and phrase.  Remove faulty idiomatic expressions, unnecessary jargon, racist or sexist language, inappropriate diction; vague words and expressions, unneeded intensifiers, euphemisms, clichés, hyperbole, and strained or mixed metaphors.  (see RHH, chs. 15, 16, 17).

Now go through this same process for each paragraph.


Revising: C) Essay Level.

1) When you reach the final paragraph, ask yourself whether your conclusion could be made more effective.  Very short essays usually don't require an explicit restatement of the thesis or detailed summary of the points made, especially if the thesis is clear and specific and well-supported.  In longer essays, you'll want to gently remind your reader what the main focus has been in a non-boring way.  Perhaps stylish flair is possible by ending with the same image with which you began the essay.  In any case, it's best to avoid merely repeating your thesis in the very same words.

2) Instead, you might want to take your readers beyond the texts or issues you have analyzed towards some broader and significant observation you have discovered.  Avoid beginning a completely new topic, however.
 (see RHH, ch. 11i-m)

3) Now go back to the opening paragraphs and evaluate their effectiveness as a beginning in light of your ending.

4) But wait. . . . The genuine beginning is not the first paragraph but the title.  How's yours?  Is it truly meaningful in that it says something about what's in this essay and what's your purpose in writing it.  Titles form the first impression your reader has of your essay; why not make it attractive and seductive and inviting?


1) Before you retype the final draft, read the entire essay out loud to yourself and perhaps even to another.  Better yet, have someone read it to you.  Can you and your friend follow the train of thought developed here without a puzzled-face or interrupting "huh?"?  If not, note where these occurred and revisit it once again.

2) After you type up your revision, set it aside for a few hours or even a day.  Then proofread it--several times.  You don't have to proofread all of it at once.  Perhaps do the opening and closing paragraphs by themselves.  Later do the main body.  Still later, do the transitions between introduction and body and conclusion and body.  Alternatively, read the entire essay several times, looking for one specific problem each time--e. g., punctuation errors, spelling/typing errors, etc.  Professional proofreaders (humans, not computer programs) proofread backwards to ferret out those pesky misspelled words we always miss when we read it the usual way.

3) Small corrections can be made with "white-out" and pen.  Give yourself plenty of time to make certain that the ribbon is creating dark type and that your computer printer is acting properly (e. g., reasonable margins).

4) Additional note: Consult the handout on Essay Evaluation Standards, as well as the RHH's handy "Checklist for Revision" in the inside front cover.

5) Penultimate note: At the end of your essay, briefly acknowledge those who have helped you with the writing process (i. e., in brainstorming sessions, peer review sessions, proofreading, listening, etc.).  You are now a writer in an academic community and should realize that you, your peers, and your instructors should be committed to helping one another in all phases of the writing process.  A gracious thank you or informal acknowledgment note at the end of your work is a common courtesy and convention (see below).  Later we will learn how to cite authorities through proper documentation formats.

6) Final note: Hand in your revised final draft in your course folder with your previous drafts, the Evaluation Sheets of your peer editors, and the sheet from your journal (tear it out) with the notes you made as you went through this Revising/Rewriting Exercise.  Then treat yourself to an ice cream or a movie--you deserve it!

Acknowledgments:  I would like to thank all of those instructors I had as an undergraduate and graduate student who took the time and effort to critically evaluate my writing, especially my dissertation director, Professor Christopher Hamlin.  I would also like to thank my colleagues on the Lyman Briggs Writing Pedagogy Group for many of the ideas presented here, especially Professor Robert Shelton.