By Laura Ofstad
For many of us, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of accomplishment after tackling a difficult paper. However, due to a rushed midterm, faulty outline, or the fact that we can never turn out a perfect first draft, we have to spend time tackling our papers a second time.
How can you handle the frustration and stress that comes with revising a paper? The first step is admitting you’re not done. Whether you need to redraft your essay in an attempt to improve a previous grade, you received feedback on your current draft, or you simply know that there’s no way your paper is good-grade quality, you need to sit down and spend some time with it. Now: how should you get started?
1) Make sure you give your project a little space—as much as you can. Whether that’s a week, or a day, or even three hours, you need to clear your head. Professional writers often give themselves three weeks to three months between drafts. Fresh eyes and a fresh mind will do wonders for your revision process.
2) Have a trusted peer or mentor give you feedback. Choose someone whose feedback you think will be pertinent and valuable—someone who will be able to identify what is going on and how you might improve it. If you ask someone to read your paper and the feedback is a bit of a flop, don’t despair—take a deep breath, and look for a second reader!
3) Find a quiet space to sit down and actually work. Silence your phone (or even turn it off) and log out of your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and e-mail accounts. Let it be just you and your paper. (And some coffee, if you need it!)
4) Make a list of your concerns about your paper, and cross them off as you tackle them—this will encourage you as you make progress! Does your thesis match your body? Does your thesis match your conclusion? Are your ideas thoroughly developed? Have you addressed obvious rebuttals? Do you need to do more research, or fix your citations? Check, check, check, check, check!
5) Reward yourself. When you finish your revisions, take a break! Take a walk, talk to some friends, watch an episode or two of that TV show you’ve been procrastinating with. Don’t try to tackle something else right away (unless you’re superhuman)—give your mind a break—and don’t try to proofread right away (unless you have to).
6) Repeat the above steps as necessary, BUT don’t forget to come back and proofread. When you’re exhausted, it’s easy to either skip this step or do a bad job of it. If you need to, ask a friend (who you’re comfortable owing a favor to) to do it for you. If there’s simply no time, hit the big areas: the header, introduction, conclusion, citations, and Works Cited (or equivalent). Scan through your essay looking for the red and green squiggly lines. Spell and grammar check are not always right, but you should at least consider their suggestions. If you have more time, read your paper out loud, or read it backwards, sentence by sentence. This should trick your mind into seeing what you wrote instead of thinking what you wrote, so that you can catch mistakes your mind is clever enough to think through during your regular screen-reading. A cleaner paper always makes a better impression—isn’t that why we shower before class?
Remember: revision is an important part of the writing process. Even professional writers can’t produce a perfect piece of writing on their first draft; author Ann Lamott wrote a short essay on her “shitty first drafts.”
Give yourself plenty of time to revise your papers, and come see us at the Writing Center if you have any questions!