This checklist is for surface revisions. These are the changes you make to your paper after youve figured out your ideas, your proofs, and how they all fit together. If that stuff is the skeleton and muscle of your paper, surface revisions are about the skin: the part everybody sees, which makes it look pretty. Or, to use another metaphor, if youre building a house you dig the foundation and put up the frame before you start worrying about the wallpaper and curtains.
Ive focused on four main areas of revision here, which are the areas most students tend to need to work on. Use these checklists as needed to work on your paper, or a classmates paper if youre working together. The areas are:
Read the paper and identify the main idea in each paragraph. Then,
For each paragraph, decide if it:
Read the paper looking carefully at all quotations, paraphrases and summaries of source material. Then answer the following questions.
For all quotations:
For all paraphrases and summaries:
This exercise is the simplest to explain, but one of the hardest to do. Go through the paper paragraph by paragraph, and cut 10% of the words from each paragraph without changing the meaning.
You may rewrite sentences as needed to make them more concise, but you may not remove anything of substance.
Tip: Typical paragraphs range from about 100 words (pretty short, maybe 1/3 of the page) to about 300 words (pretty long, most of the page). So a good rule of thumb is to cut between 10 and 30 words, depending on the length of the paragraph.
The rationale for this exercise is that most writers tend to use more words when fewer would do. This is true even of writers who have trouble coming up with enough material to fill the required number of words or pages. Rather than fill out their paragraphs with substance (see the Tip below) they repeat themselves or use long complicated phrases to say simple things.
Theres a perfectly good reason why this happens. In the early phases of writing youre figuring out what you want to say. Often it takes several tries to get it rightbut then those several tries remain in the draft. Or, you want to make sure your reader understands so you make your point several different ways. Or the ideas youre working with are complicated, which leads to long complicated sentences that go around the point before getting to it.
All this is finein a draft. But now its time to clean up that draft, picking only the best way to express your idea, cutting out the repetitions and wasted words, rephrasing to simplify and clarify. Youll find that your ideas become clearer and your writing has more impact once you cut away all that dead wood.
Tip: If you are having trouble filling the required word or page length, the solution is not to repeat yourself, or use ten words to say something you could say just as easily with two. The solution is to develop your paragraphs with more information. There are several specific types of information you can include to flesh out your ideas:
- Illustrationsexamples of real events, situations, people, etc. that embody the point the paragraph is making
- Proper nounsspecific individuals or groups (individuals, organizations, cities, states, nations, etc.) that play a part in your story
- Quantitative informationStatistics, dates, amounts; also mosts and leasts and similar comparisons
- Vivid descriptions that appeal to the five senses (sight, sound, taste, smell, touch)
- Explanationperhaps the most important of all: sentences that tell the reader how or why the evidence actually proves the thesis. Spell it out for us!
Get the information from your research notes or, if necessary, go back to your sources for more details.
One expectation behind this exercise is that you have more material in your research notes than you can fit into your paper. Besides making your writing more powerful and more appealing, cutting unnecessary words will free up space to include more of this material that your research has uncovered.
Once youve done everything elsemade sure your paragraphs are unified, coherent and developed; incorporated source material correctly; cut out all unnecessary wordsits time for one last pass to clean up those miscellaneous errors that always slip by.
Probably the single most common error in student papers, made by novices and experts alike, is the comma splice. This error is explained briefly but thoroughly in The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing punctuation page, but in a nutshell a comma splice is joining two complete sentences with a comma, rather than a semicolon (;) or coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, etc.), or separating them with a period, as required.
Other common errors include fragments, run-ons and mixed sentences. Errors in punctuation are also common, especially putting apostrophes in plurals, where they dont belong.
Here are three sites with comprehensive discussion of these and other points:
Of course, the single biggest source of errors is very simple: failure to proofread carefully. Most people can catch most errors if they just take the time to look. It can be hard to spot errors in an essay youve read a dozen times already, but there are some tricks that help you see them with fresh eyes.
The best way to catch them is to break up the flow of ideas. Youve been concentrating on expressing yourself as well as you cannow its time to focus on each sentence as a sentence, all by itself, without regard for how it fits with the rest of the essay, to make sure it follows all the rules. The best way to do this is by interrupting the ideas, so your brain wont be tempted to fill in the gaps and correct the little mistakes with what it knows you meant to say. Here are three ways to do that:
Each of these techniques focuses your attention on individual sentences and lets you see errors you may have overlooked many times already. I strongly recommend you use at least one of these techniques, especially if you have trouble with grammar, spelling, punctuation or other rules.