How to Rock an Essay Revision
In intro classes like Comp I and Comp II, you’ll probably be tasked with writing a handful of essays through a series of drafts. You’ll write the essay, get some instructor and peer feedback, and then have a chance to edit and revise the essay to improve it and, hopefully, get a better score when you resubmit it.
I’ve taught introductory level college composition classes for the last four years, and one of the most difficult aspects is trying to convince my students the importance and value of the revision process. There’s a lot of misconceptions that most of them have when they’re first told to revise—particularly that simply correcting minor grammatical errors will make the essay “perfect” and earn them an A. Unfortunately, I’m the one who has to pop their bubble and hand the barely revised essay back to them with the same exact score as their initial draft. Or, worse—a lower score. I had a policy at my first university that an essay that wasn’t “substantially” revised would simply earn the same score, minus an entire letter grade. Imagine the looks on the faces of those students who didn’t put any work into their revisions when they got their essays back.
If an instructor is giving you an opportunity to correct and resubmit an essay, you should take full advantage of it, and show them that you value their feedback and the chance to implement it on a new draft. Instructors, like myself, spend hours upon hours giving each essay thoughtful and specific feedback, and to have that feedback go completely ignored makes us question whether we should continue to do so, and also question that student’s interest in and commitment to success in the course. Plus, it’s just plain rude. If I’m going to sacrifice all that time to read and respond thoughtfully to your paper (especially on an adjunct salary), the least you can do is give it some real consideration when I hand it back.
Teacher rants aside, I wanted to share a few tips on how to successfully revise a paper using instructor and/or peer feedback, as well as your own existing knowledge of the assignment. So, whether you’re working through Composition I and II, or if you’re in a literature or writing class where you’ll be allowed to make revisions to your papers, these are a few things you can do to turn in a better essay the second time around.
Read and consider all feedback.
Many of my students question the value of their peer’s feedback when we do peer review. “But, isn’t that just the blind leading the blind?” They ask me. Eh, not as much as you’d think! The act of reviewing someone else’s paper is actually where you’ll learn the most, rather than from reading someone else’s feedback on yours. By reading someone else’s work and giving them feedback, you’re participating in a reflexive process—you might notice they’re doing some things you think aren’t working, and then you’ll inherently force yourself to address those same issues if they’re present in your essay. When it comes to instructor feedback, though, take all of this seriously. If you don’t understand any of their feedback, politely ask them to clarify so you know exactly what they think you need to work on.
Don’t look at feedback as prescriptive.
Basically, don’t assume that by fixing the errors your instructor marked in red ink, you’ll get an A. I tell this to my students every semester: my feedback is not prescriptive for an A. My feedback is guiding rather than directive. You might have an instructor who thinks and feels differently, though, so just follow their lead. Take whatever feedback they give you and use it as a starting point, rather than a be-all, end-all of how to make your essay “perfect” because…
No second draft is perfect.
Just because you revised and edited an essay, I can promise you that it still isn’t perfect. Don’t hold that expectation for yourself. For example, there are essays and short stories and lyric narratives I’ve written and re-written five, six, seven times over the years and they could still be improved and reworked to be better. I revised my entire novel manuscript four times through before submitting it to literary agents, and when I signed with one, she sent me another round of edits. And then, when we sell it to a publisher, an editor there will go through the manuscript with me again. Writing is a process, so don’t panic if it isn’t perfect.
Read your work out loud.
I have probably told students this tip ten thousand times over the last few years, and it amazes me how many of them still ignore it. By reading your work out loud, you’ll force yourself to read what is really there, rather than what you meant to write. Your brain is tricky and it will fill in gaps without you knowing when you read over something you wrote. Then, when you hand it to someone who didn’t write it and has never seen it before, they will see all those gaps that you didn’t. Things like misused words, sentences that are worded strangely (clunky sentences, I call them), missing punctuation, and misspellings will pop out when you read your writing out loud.
Make a checklist out of the assignment guidelines.
More than likely, your professor or instructor gave you some kind of assignment sheet with information on what the essay should be about, and some requirements for it. Using this sheet, make a checklist. Does the essay fulfill the assignment? Does it have a clear claim that you directly support with evidence? Does it stay focused on the purpose? Does it meet the word count? Is the tone appropriate? Does it follow the proper citation guidelines? Go through your checklist and see if your paper fulfills each part.
Talk to your instructor.
Go speak with your instructor about your essay. If you feel stumped about how to really improve your essay, they are the best source for assistance, since they’ve read it, and have already assigned it a score. Make an appointment or visit them during office hours.
Revise and edit, rather than doing just one.
Revising and editing are two different processes. Revising takes on the higher order aspects of your essay, like its structure, organization, transitions, tone, purpose, thesis, and so on. Editing, on the other hand, simply means correcting lower order issues, like fixing a comma splice, correcting a misspelled word, or putting the proper punctuation where you had it incorrectly placed. More than likely, if your instructor is giving you an opportunity to revise your essay and turn it back in, they want you to do more than just edit it!
If you need any extra help, visit your school’s writing center. Happy revising!