How to revise your writing in 3 easy steps

academics High School revising writing
By Amy T.

So, you’ve finished the first draft of an essay, paper, short story, or personal statement! You’ve done the first hardest part: sitting down and putting pen to paper. But writing, like any other creative pursuit, is “10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.” In other words, the first draft is just a start. Revising is where the real work happens. 

While the word “revising” might scare you more than “first draft,” if you can make friends with the revision process you will become a much stronger, more confident writer. Your writing will see huge improvements. And you may just find that the mysterious process of editing and revising becomes your favorite part of writing. 

Sound too good to be true? Let’s dig into 3 easy steps to help revise your writing. 

Revising: to look at or consider again an idea, piece of writing, etc. in order to correct or improve it. 

1. Walk away–for at least 2 hours

Put your pen down, close your laptop, and go on a walk. Or work on another assignment. Or eat a snack. Basically, do anything except immediately return to your draft! 

Why? You’ve just been deeply immersed in your world of ideas and words, not to mention staring at the computer for hours on end! Completing a draft can often feel like a race to the finish line. You give your all–and are left with blurry eyes and mental mush. Even if that’s a bit dramatic, it’s human nature to think that what you just wrote is really, really good, and doesn’t need any revising. You’ll save yourself time and trouble by simply stepping away, taking a breather, and returning to your draft later with keener eyes. 

How much later? At least two hours, and ideally you would put a night’s sleep between Draft One and Draft Two. With space, you’ll catch mistakes more easily, and your thoughts, persuasive arguments, and ideas will be much more cogent. 

Pro tip: to successfully complete this step, you need to actually have left enough time to take a mental break. If you’re a procrastinator, try to schedule in revising time as well as writing time–your final draft will thank you for it! 

2. Print your draft the old-fashioned way

Unless you’re printing a 400-page tome (and maybe then, too!), hands-down the best way to approach Draft Two is with a hard copy and pen in hand. 

There are a few reasons why: for one, you’ll be more likely to actually revise your work if you’ve gone to the trouble of printing it–not to mention not wasting paper. But more importantly, the visual aid of a hard-copy draft will reveal all kinds of nuances, from grammatical errors, to a thesis that just doesn’t jive with the evidence provided, to a concluding statement that simply doesn't land the plane. 

Print your draft and write all over it. Mark it up. Underline awkward words, draw arrows around sentences whose order should be swapped, and put an asterisk next to strong ideas that aren’t working in their current form–but, with a little better evidence or placement, would make the essay (or story, or personal statement) a home-run. 

The best part about the hard-copy method is that, when you finally open your computer to input the edits, you won’t forget any of your brilliant-but-messy revision ideas. And, you’ll have another chance to read the essay all the way through, which is a sneaky way of adding in another round of revision! 

3. Read your draft out loud 

Before you get to Step 3, I’ll let you in on a secret: Step 2 is not a one-and-done. Sometimes, you need to re-print your draft and mark it up a few times to get to a clean version with coherent ideas and optimal word choice. Be patient, it’s part of the revising process and will make your writing better. 

When you finally feel happy with your draft, the greatest tool in a writer’s toolkit is your own voice. Out loud. As in, read your draft out loud, in a normal speaking voice, adhering to a natural breathing pattern. Any lingering awkwardness, any run-on sentences, any confusing arguments, anything you overlooked with your editor’s pen will make itself known now. Think about it: you simply can’t read your work out loud without catching those pesky, overly complex sentences that humans would never say, but that somehow make their way onto the page. Right?

Bonus points for reading out loud to someone else. Just kidding, you won’t get bonus points. But your writing will benefit from the extra feedback, and so will your confidence as a writer! 

Remember, the revising process is about improving your writing, and since writing is essentially thinking on the page, it’s also about improving your thinking. So next time you have a writing deadline staring you down, walk away, print your draft, and read it out loud. 

You just might find that when you come back, there’s a whole new essay in front of you–with better ideas, better arguments, and just the right words to express your thoughts.

Amy attended Stanford University, where she majored in Urban Sustainability and minored in Italian, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. Amy went on to receive her MFA in Creative Writing from Hollins University, where she was a Dillard Fellow and received the Andrew James Purdy Prize in Short Fiction.

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