When we think of revision, we tend to think of it as a part of the linear process we were taught when learning to write in middle school. It comes near the end, after we write a draft and before turning in the paper, and involves making small changes to perfect the writing. Unfortunately, as we try to grow as writers, this view of revision limits us rather than helping us, trapping us into a single concept.
In an essay, Nancy Sommers states that, “Seeing […] is at the root of the word revision and the process itself; current dicta on revising blind our students to what is actually involved in revision” (53). To understand what she means by her statement, I was inspired to think about the meanings of the word “revision.” I came up with two definitions, both of which help me explain what revision can and should be.
In the first definition, I consider that the word “vision” often refers to our physical ability to see. This would indicate that the meaning of “revision” is “to see again.” Most writers, even the most inexperienced, quickly recognize the value of fresh eyes. It’s easy to see how this applies to the type of revision that could be called “final edit revision” (for grammar, style, punctuation, and word usage). Many writers recognize a need to let a paper sit for a day or two so they can come back with fresh eyes and spot these kinds of mistakes. Less, recognized, though, is the connection with “seeing again” and what I have come to view as the more important definition of “revision.”
Taken another way, “vision” means a theoretical view that the writer intends to bring into being – his vision for the project. If we use this idea of the word “vision” to define “revision”, we can see that it isn’t so much re-seeing what we’ve written as re-thinking our vision for what the paper should be.
This second definition now leads to an explanation of where our view of revision so often goes wrong. If we think of revision as something that happens after the paper is mostly written, then it happens after our ideas are set and becomes, in our minds, the much more narrow concept of checking for grammar errors and word usage, and maybe tweaking a sentence here or there. This means that we have completely solidified our concepts and organization, unchangeable and immobile.
If we instead combine these two definitions of revision and take it to mean “seeing the vision again,” we suddenly have an entirely different view of what it means to revise. Rather than assuming that the concept and organization are completely fixed, revision, at all stages of writing, is an opportunity to re-see a paper holistically. Does the paper fit that original vision? And is that original vision going to work for the paper’s intended purpose? The writer should look at whether the paper fits the audience, whether the organization could be updated for better flow, and whether all of the content is appropriate to the topic or additional points should be added. In fact, after their original drafts and revisions, some writers will revise once for each of these points before the final edit.
It is important to remember, too, that a writer’s vision for a paper often shifts and changes throughout the writing. A holistic approach to revision also allows an opportunity to evaluate the new vision for the paper and make adjustments as necessary. Perhaps this new vision works better, or maybe it needs to be merged back toward the older one. Or maybe a shift in a new direction would be better. Reviewing the vision (or visions) as a whole allows for evaluating its overall effectiveness to ensure that the paper fulfills its purpose in the best way possible.
The idea of re-evaluating the paper as a whole isn’t a new one. We do this early in the project when we have a broad thesis and need to narrow the paper’s scope, for example. We don’t necessarily tend to think of that process of revision, perhaps because it happens too early in the writing process. It also happens when our information leads us in another direction, perpendicular to our original intent. But we don’t see this as revision, either. We call it something else, like “starting over.” Yet both of these processes are re-thinking and changing the vision for the paper. If we realize that these steps are forms of revision, then maybe we can allow ourselves to see revision as a larger process than editing.
By isolating revision as a step that occurs once at the end of a paper, when the ideas and organization are “finished” and only grammar and wording need to be checked, we are trapping ourselves with our original concepts and structure, and missing opportunities to change a good paper into a great one. The lesson here is to step back, take a new look at the paper as a whole, and know that nothing is ever set in stone.
Sommers, Nancy. “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experience Adult Writers.” Cross-talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 43-54.