Step 9: Revise – Rewriting the Text for the Reader

Focus on the next stage of the writing process, when you assess and revise the whole paper to create a new draft. This new draft is oriented to being read and understood by your audience and may be created to conform to a particular text form or genre. Rewriting to create a new draft is what we mean by revision.

To encourage you to take that next step, we are introducing some well-tested revision strategies to take the guesswork out of effective revision.

Revise Your Initial Draft

Admit You Need to Revise

Once you have written an initial draft, it is necessary to recognize one absolutely vital point: all texts for an audience require revision. While you are drafting, you are primarily writing for yourself – to say what you mean – but once you have a rough draft written, you need to shift your perspective and start thinking about the reader as the reader needs to be able to follow your thoughts. Take a break from your writing and come back to it after a day or two. When you have achieved some distance to what you have written, it is much easier to see the text from a reader’s perspective, and that is where you must focus your attention in the revision stage.

Take the Reader's Perspective

What does an academic reader expect from your paper? Most students write their papers with the view that their professor is the reader. It is helpful, however, to think of your reader as any intelligent, interested individual. Students and professionals alike need to ask themselves some crucial questions:

  • Can the reader follow me?
  • Do I make sense?
  • Will readers recognize and understand my main point?
  • Am I following the required text form (genre)?

We start with the fundamental principle in text revision:

“The meaning of a text is not what the writer intends but what the reader interprets.” (Gopen and Swan)

Your reader largely determines what your text means. It is the writer’s responsibility to ensure that the reader can understand the text. In order to communicate key points to your readers, you need to first place them where the reader expects to find them, and then communicate them in a way that the reader can understand.

Break Revision Down by Level

Revision is hard work. Approaching it systematically can make it easier. Revision needs to occur at all levels of the text: at the global level, at the paragraph level, and at the sentence level.

The first level is global revision:

  • look at the paper as a whole
  • consider its organizing structure
  • evaluate its rhetorical approach
  • assess its logical coherence

The second level focuses on the paragraph level:

  • look at the internal organization and coherence of each paragraph
  • identify the key points and revisit sources to be sure they are correctly paraphrased, summarized, and explained
  • examine how and if the paragraph fits into the main argument

The third level addresses sentence-level writing:

  • examine sentence logic and coherence, both internally and in the context of the sentence before and after
  • ensure variety in sentence length and structure
  • analyze word choice – is your language precise?

Check and Revise Your Working Thesis

Now that you have done considerable research and written a draft of your paper, you have a very good idea of what is considered significant to readers in your field. This is a good time to reconsider your thesis and check that it includes the major points and the nuances of the argument you wish to present to your reader. Consider the topic (e.g. I am studying the publication of the Danish Muslim cartoons), the question (e.g. because I want to understand the Muslim response to the publication of cartoons) and the significance (e.g. in order to help my reader understand how cultural theory and the work of Stuart Hall in particular can explain this reaction) (Booth, Colomb and Williams 59).

This elaborative approach can help you move beyond formulaic, three-point thesis statements which are too restrictive for academic writing.

The key here is to connect with your community of readers, responding to the issues they are interested in, anticipating their questions and objections, and integrating their anticipated response. Keep in mind: “No thoughtful reader will accept your claim based solely on your views: you must also address theirs” (Booth et al. 112).

When you are in a position to see how published research relates to your idea, you will discover that you have entered into the ongoing academic conversation about your topic. We recommend that you approach the revision of your thesis methodically with the idea of your reader in mind.

There are three stages in this revision process:

Working with the Assignment

It is important to be sure that your thesis responds precisely to the assignment. If you are not engaging in the writing task assigned, all your hard work will be wasted.

Working with the Evidence

The tentative thesis statement you started out with is not something set in stone. You may have encountered complicating evidence and gained new insights about your topic. When you revise your working thesis, you have to examine all available evidence and revise the claim you started out with in the light of your new insights.

The following questions will prod you to take conflicting evidence into account:

  • How can I explain the mismatches between my thesis and my selected evidence?
  • What kind of evidence cannot be adequately accounted for by my tentative thesis?

The following example demonstrates revising your working thesis:

  • Working thesis: David Fincher’s film Fight Club (1999) represents a ‘crisis of masculinity’ as experienced by its characters, which is blamed on capitalist consumer culture.
  • Confirming evidence: The narrator complains in voice-over about his “Ikea nesting instinct,” while he and Tyler criticize advertisements they see on the bus. The destruction of the narrator’s material possessions effectively propels the film’s narrative forward.
  • Complicating evidence: Tyler’s statement that, “We’re a generation of men raised by women” suggests what? How does this idea inform the film’s representation of ‘masculinity in crisis’?
  • Revised thesis: Fight Club’s crisis of masculinity is represented as the combined product of two dominant socioeconomic forces within late-century capitalism: an increased reliance on consumer culture and the feminization of modern society.

Once you have revised your thesis to take into account your new knowledge of the topic, test it against three very specific criteria (Booth, Colomb and Williams):

Is the thesis:

  • Substantive: Does the analysis show depth of thought?
  • Contestable: Does it take a stand and can you disagree with it?
  • Explicit: Is it detailed rather than vague? Is it worded as an argument?

Working with Sentence Structure and Word Choice

A complex thesis statement suggests that your thinking on the topic is similarly sophisticated. The first step in creating a more complex thesis is to get away from statements that are obvious, and changing the sentence structure can actually help you do that. In this strategy, you change the self-evident statement from a main clause to a subordinate clause and then push the statement towards a more complex insight (Norgaard 126-147):

  • Tentative thesis: “The Great Gatsby traces the education of its narrator Nick Carraway.”
  • Problem: Tentative thesis = self-evident statement.
  • Solution: Subordinate the main clause by adding a subordinating word + main clause (e.g., Because The Great Gatsby traces the education of its narrator Nick Carraway, ...)
  • Revised thesis: Add a complex new insight with a subordinate clause and new main clause (e.g. “Because The Great Gatsby is really about the education of its narrator Nick Carraway, his initial discussion with Daisy Buchannan must not be taken at face value. Nick would have us believe that Daisy is a simpering socialite, when in fact she is intelligent and sensitive.”)

Refer to the following pattern:

Although (self-evident statement)(insert thought), new thesis (insert thought)

Because (insert thought), (insert thought)

If (insert thought), (insert thought)

When (insert thought), (insert thought)

Different subordinating conjunctions like the ones above help generate sharper analysis that can lead you to a more complex and substantial thesis. For a full explanation of subordinate and main clauses, refer to the Academic Writing and Subordination resource.

Another strategy to revise and improve your thesis is to get as specific and precise as possible to reflect your deepened understanding of the material. Build on your previous knowledge by incorporating what you have learned.

Karl Marx debunked religion as “the opiate of the people.” (old)

Revised: Although Marx debunked religion as “the opiate of the people,” the structure of his thought is deeply theological. (new)

(Avery et al. 32)

This example is certainly both specific and intriguing, and it shows how reader interest can build when we move from old information at the beginning of the sentence to new information at the end where it gets most emphasis. In other words, placing the most interesting material in a stress position towards the end of a sentence is a great strategy. The reader will interpret this material as being important, and you, the writer, will be able to build on the point you’ve just made in the next sentence.

Here is another example that follows the same pattern; it goes from simple to complex in terms of idea, wording, and sentence structure, but it also shows how to create extra emphasis through the use of the colon, which extends the sentence with a definition. This is a great strategy that has a lot of mileage.

The Nativity is a high-spirited comedy and The Crucifixion is a brutal tragedy. (descriptive statement)

Revised: Although one is a high-spirited comedy and the other a brutal tragedy, the medieval plays The Nativity and The Crucifixion explore a common theme (secondary stress position): the intersection of the human and the divine (main stress position).

(Avery et al. 32)

In addition to the colon, the semicolon can also work extremely well if you need to write a longer sentence to accommodate your idea. Semicolons are used between two main clauses when there is an implied connection between them.

In the next example, the writer uses a semicolon to extend the sentence and accommodate his argument:

The meaning of these caricatures is best viewed through a Cultural Studies perspective due to its emphasis on the interaction between audiences and texts, creation and meaning, and the formation of identity (secondary stress position); from this theoretical standpoint, I will show that Muslim response to the cartoons can be seen as both a challenge to Western hegemony and an attempt to define a common Muslim identity (main stress position).

This revised thesis statement has many strong points:

  • identifies the issue
  • identifies the perspective/method and explains that choice
  • articulates a clear argument: “I will show that…”
  • uses a compound-complex sentence

The meaning of these caricatures (issue) is best viewed through a Cultural Studies perspective (method) due to its emphasis on the interaction between audiences and texts, creation and meaning, and the formation of identity (explanation of choice); from this theoretical standpoint, I will show that Muslim response to the cartoons can be seen as both a challenge to Western hegemony and an attempt to define a common Muslim identity (main argument).

A word of caution: Don’t automatically assume that a strong thesis is always long and complex. Sometimes a substantive, well-thought-out argument looks deceptively simple, as in the next example from an A+ paper on art and morality:

A work of art can be morally bad and aesthetically good (and vice versa), but in some cases it is precisely the morally reprehensible nature of the work that makes it aesthetically valuable (lead-up to the thesis). If a moral defect in a work of art enhances our imaginative engagement with the work, then aesthetically it is not a defect at all but a virtue (thesis).

In other words, try not to set up any unnecessary rules about sentence structure or length; rather be open and flexible in your response to new ideas as they occur to you.

Word Choice

Use precision in wording and try to incorporate the terminology of your field appropriately. Accuracy is important, so use your dictionary to check the meaning of words you are unsure of. In addition, improve accuracy by using qualifiers to “hedge” strong claims. For instance, “Swans are white” is more accurately stated “Most swans are white.” Using qualifiers can make your thesis statement more defensible, particularly when you are aware of contradictory evidence.

Summary Checklist

  1. Have you used good sentence structure, correct grammar, and strong diction in the thesis statement?
  2. Is the thesis significant? Does it take into account the “so what” question?
  3. Is the thesis defensible? (Have you used qualifying expressions such as “primarily” or “for the most part” when necessary?)

A Final Tip

When revising, it is good practice to save files under a different date, so you have a record of changes made and don’t lose previous versions, which you may wish to revisit during later revision.

A Word about Proofreading

Proofreading is the last step in the revision process. Proofreading involves the slow, careful reading of a text, paying special attention to spelling, punctuation, omitted or repeated words, incomplete citations, and other minor errors that do not usually impinge upon meaning or clarity. Instead, such errors usually demonstrate inattention or carelessness.

Thesis Development: Beyond the Basics

Below you will find two examples that show the development of a thesis. For more details and examples on drafting a thesis statement, consult the Laurier Writing Centre handout, “How to Write a Strong Thesis Statement.”

Example 1

  • Topic: The Vietnam War
  • Narrowed Topic: American Involvement in the Vietnam War
  • Research question: What was the most important cause of America’s increased involvement in the Vietnam War in the 1960s?
  • Thesis: The escalation of the Vietnam War during the 1960s was caused primarily by America’s anti-communist foreign policy.

(Avery et al. 22)

Example 2

  • First try at thesis: “Ibsen’s play A Doll House is about conflicted gender and marital relations.”
  • Comment: This claim is self-evident (description). Once you know that in this play from 1879, Nora, the main character, leaves her husband and three children, it becomes clear that this claim is stating the obvious. You can’t disagree with it; a thesis statement has to be debatable.
  • Second try: “In this paper I will discuss how Nora deals with the demands of marriage and motherhood.”
  • Comment: This is a statement of intent; it is not debatable. Saying what the paper is going to be about is not the same making an argument or claim.
  • Third try: “Nora Helmer is a good mother in A Doll House.”
  • Comment: We now have a claim – you can disagree with the thesis, but is it substantive enough? A weak thesis can be strengthened when you identify a contradiction or problem, a new perspective.
  • Fourth try: “Although Nora Helmer leaves her children, she is really a good mother.”
  • Comment: While this thesis is much more interesting, it could do more (be more specific). It does not really reflect a broad critical awareness of the play itself. It prods the questions: Is it just the writer who sees Nora as a good mother? What does it mean to be a good mother in this play?
  • Fifth try: “Although Nora Helmer leaves her children at the end of A Doll House, the play presents her as a good mother; Nora herself must become a free adult, must discover who she really is, before she can raise her children.”
  • Comment: Now we have thesis that is both substantial and specific.

(This extended example is adapted from The Hardcourt Brace Anthology of Drama 1471-1473)