The writer’s palette: color-coding as a revision strategy

academics College revising writing
By Sherah

Revision is an essential part of the writing process, but it can feel daunting. You’ve toiled over ideas, finally gotten words onto the page, and now you need to revise. This step can seem overwhelming, especially if you’re pressed for time or tired of looking at the same draft. 

Visualization strategies are a great way to take a step back from your text and ease the revision process. One of my favorites, color-coding, can make the revision process feel less like cleaning up a mess of words and more like transforming your draft into a work of art. 

At its most basic, color-coding is just using specific colors to identify elements of your writing. In a short story, for example, you might turn all dialogue red, character’s actions blue, and scene descriptions purple. Using colors as a visual aid can help you assess and organize drafts without getting lost in your prose. 

This brief video from the UNC-Chapel Hill Writing Center explains how to use color-coding as a brainstorming strategy, but it's also a powerful and flexible revision tool. Here, I’ll walk you through a few common ways color-coding can help you revise your academic writing.

Revising Application Essays and Personal Statements

Although application essays are more personal than many other forms of academic writing, first drafts tend to be full of generalizations. These can be useful for brainstorming or to get your ideas flowing, but impactful application essays and personal statements are ultimately built from detailed, writer-specific sentences. Color-coding can help you identify generalizations in your early drafts and decide where to focus your revision efforts. 

Use one color to highlight sentences that only you could have written. In a contrasting color, highlight anything that could reasonably be cut and pasted into another applicant’s essay. Revise any text highlighted in the second color to be more concrete, specific, and distinctly about you. 

Ensuring You’ve Addressed the Prompt

This is my favorite way to use color-coding, especially when a writing prompt requires you to address multiple questions or issues.

To begin, break your prompt into its component parts and assign each its own color. Here’s an example from one of my recent coaching sessions: 

Compare and contrast two representations of zombies in North American popular culture, one from the 20th century and another from the 21st. Discuss their similarities and differences, keeping in mind the historical context of each. How do these relate, if at all, to Zora Neale Hurston’s discussion of Marie M?

While there are multiple ways to break down any prompt, this student used six colors to categorize her assignment: 

  • Historical context of White Zombie (1931)
  • Historical context of Zombieland (2009)
  • Similarities between the films
  • Differences between the films
  • White Zombie and Marie M
  • Zombieland and Marie M

 

After you’ve coded the prompt, highlight sentences in your draft in the corresponding colors. 

When you’re finished, zoom out or hold your printed draft at arm’s length. Your visualization will help you quickly determine if you’ve addressed each question. You can also use it to evaluate how much attention you’ve dedicated to each topic.

Assessing Structure and Flow

A color-coded draft also gives you valuable information about the organization and flow of your essay, as it draws attention to transitions between topics. 

You can use color-coding to this end even when you aren’t coding your essay to a prompt. Simply read over your essay, highlighting sentences that maintain focus on one topic in the same color. When you transition to a new topic, change colors accordingly. 

When you finish and zoom out from your draft, you’ll be able to see how many topics you’ve covered, consider how they’re grouped, and assess the coherence and organization of your ideas at a draft-level. 

So, there you have it: a clear, organized, and colorful way to help you revise your writing. Color-coding is an incredibly flexible strategy, so experiment to find out how it can work best for you. No matter how you use it, color-coding can help you see through clutter and make revision feel more creative and less like cleaning up after yourself. 

 

Sherah earned BAs in Art History and English Literature/Creative Writing from Agnes Scott College and an MA in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies from Georgia State University. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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