From Rough Draft to Ready For Readers: 3 Revision Tips

Looking for resources about blogging? Read this summer writing series with tips from CTQ bloggers, and join the Collaboratory and Communications Lab today! This week’s post focuses on three tried-and-true revision tips. 

Do you see yourself as a writer?

Even though I’m a passionate teacher of writing, I’m still uncomfortable calling myself a writer. I enjoy it, but is that enough? How many posts or reader comments does it take to earn an official “blogger badge?”

Despite my trepidation, I continue to put words to digital paper because I believe blogging makes me a better writing teacher for my students. In order to authentically coach students through the writing process, I need to engage in the writing process myself. (And what a messy process it is!) If I want my students to see themselves as writers, modeling how writers think about the world seems like the natural thing to do.

Blogging is hard mental work. Mulling over ideas and focusing on an angle takes time. Drafting can be an endless deliberation over which word goes where, which lead works best, and a tug-of-war between creating a short and snappy word count while maintaining a meaty message.

But for me, when a rough draft feels finished but not polished, the fun really begins. It’s time for the metaphorical (or literal) red pen to make an appearance.

It’s time to revise.

If you have a draft (or several) in the hopper just waiting for that next step, try one or a combination of these three revision tips and make your rough draft reader-ready in 24 hours or less. (Hint: I use these strategies with students, too!)

Read it out loud. Really.

It may feel silly or unnatural at first, but reading your writing out loud can help you hear what’s working (and what’s not) in your piece. The trick is to slowly and deliberately read your writing word for word. Pause at punctuation marks, or note where punctuation is missing. This takes practice and focus, as your initial inclination will be to read what you meant to write, not what you actually composed on paper.

Try reading the draft 2-3 times out loud and focusing on different components each time. For example, on the first read think about the overall flow and tone of the piece. If you have a hard time speaking a sentence out loud, you’ve probably hit on a place that needs revision. Make adjustments and read the new and improved version out loud again. Then read it a final time as a stern editor, monitoring paragraph and sentence length, checking each word for accuracy, and polishing punctuation and formatting.

(Note: This is also a great way to prepare for a talk, verbal testimony, or other speaking engagement. Compose first, then rehearse your ideas out loud several times. Feeling extra brave? Try this in front of a mirror or a friendly audience. For more of my go-to speaking tips see this post.)

Sleep on it.

There’s nothing like a good night’s rest to transform a writer into an editor. When a draft is “done,” it’s time to step away from the computer. If you’re under deadline and can’t wait 12-24 hours to post the final version, I find it’s still helpful to let the draft “simmer” while you do something else. Bonus if that ‘something else’ is not writing related. Take a walk (or shower?), step outside, make a snack, or indulge in a little mindless daytime or primetime television. Then tackle revision. You’ll be amazed how a little time and space can help you see your writing with critical and clear eyes.

Adults need peer editors, too!

When I’m in a writing rut, or am unsure if I’m conveying what I want my audience to know and understand, it’s often most helpful to completely turn my unpolished draft over to an objective reader. Relinquishing a messy rough draft to a trusted colleague or family member is a great way to “test drive” your writing. Allowing another reader to critique your piece is helpful because generally an outside reader catches things the writer might miss. It’s difficult to completely distance yourself from your own writing. Sometimes I give my reader guiding questions to address if I know I’m in need of specific feedback in a certain area. Other times I simply hand the draft over and ask the reader for their impressions — the good, the bad, and the ugly. I don’t necessarily apply all of the suggestions (and I allow my students to decide what feedback they’ll incorporate and ignore as well) but I always learn something about my writing by testing it on a reader before publishing.

What are your best revision tips and strategies? How do you share your celebrations and struggles with the writing process with your students?

This post appears as part of a metablogging series from CTQ bloggers featuring their tried-and-true tips and best practices. Join the Collaboratory and then sign up for the Communications Lab to continue the conversation and get tips for taking advantage of summer writing time!

  • SandyMerz

    Another tip and a question

    Thanks for these tips, Jessica. I also try to read each sentence as if it stood alone and examine it, both for typos and for content.

    Here’s are two questions. I usually have plenty of ideas to write about, and can usually find a way to choose one and write a coherent (according to me) essay that (according to me) follows a logical line of reasoning to a conclusion. 

    But what do I do when there’s no clear link between, say, five ideas that are related to theme and merit inclusion in the post?

    And what do you do when you’re 1000 words into a blog with no end in sight, but don’t want to pass, say, 900 – 100 words?

    Thanks Coach!

    • LaurenStephenson

      Notes are helpful

      Hi Sandy,

      If I can weigh in here…

      Sometimes I’m working through a draft and I can smell the underlying connection to seemingly unrelated points, but I can’t articulate it enough yet. So I’ll start taking notes on a piece of paper and talk my way through the points. Having that different visual can be helpful, rather than trying to sew a thread between long written paragraphs. Other times, you just have to sleep on it or turn your attention to something else.

      When a piece is getting too long, there’s always more you can cut. Sometimes it turns out that you have to cut out entire ideas even though they’re so good. One thing that can be helpful for addressing ideas briefly and not going into detail is by linking to other articles that explain them at greater depth, so you don’t have to. But more often than not, you have to do the agonizing task of deciding what is truly essential for the reader to understand, delete beautiful sentences, and move on.

      It’s tough!

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Making Peace with the Chopping Block

      Sandy,

      Thanks for the thoughtful questions and comment. I concur with Lauren’s advice and expertise here, although I still have to make peace with the chopping block on many, many of my blog posts. I tend to draft everything I want to say first, step away, and then come back at a later time to determine what’s essential and what can go — however, that doesn’t mean that cutting isn’t sometimes painful :). In particular I love student stories and anecdotes, and often my leads are far too long and need to be trimmed back so I can get to the “meat” of the message quicker. 

      I know you’re an avid reader of writing books and I’ve stumbled across a couple good ones recently while engaging my 8th graders in an investigative journalism writing unit (where every word counts and less is more! 🙂 The books are both by Roy Peter Clark: Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, & my personal fave, How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times. The latter in particular, while I purchased as a reference for my students, is one I’ll need to come back to and revisit when I’m getting too wordy and trying to make one post do more work than a 350-500 word count blog can handle :). Let me know if you check them out and find them useful. 

  • Jan Ogino

    Read It Out Loud

    This works very well for young writers.  Since we do a lot of close reading together, the class knows what good writing sounds like when we are reading.  Often, when they write, I have them read their work out loud and usually before I can ask them if they heard something they needed to correct or edit, they already caught it, often mid stream and are off to correct it.  It often gives them an opportunity to rethink what they really wanted to say.  They often change their mind about what they want to say or how they want to say it while they are reading it out lout.  In retrospect, this has been a good practice that I have employed for years and I heard the second grade teacher tell the third grade teacher in the copy room, that she was impressed with the writing of her new second graders (my first graders from last year). Yes!

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Some Strategies Span P-12+?

      Jan,

      It was very cool for me to hear as a middle school teacher that this strategy spans grade levels (and ages – since I use it myself! 🙂 I think it is a really powerful writing strategy if kids learn, apply and use it beginning in the primary grades, because it is portable and transferable to any writing task, purpose, mode, genre, etc. 

      Thanks for sharing what this looks and sounds like in the primary grades!

  • NancyGardner

    Reading aloud

    And I will weigh in on the “reading aloud” strategy as a great tool for high school students.  Since they often write while performing other tasks (texting/tweeting/instagraming) or while sleepy or tired, they frequently have sloppy mistakes.  I will require a “choral reading” before they hand in an assignment (either dropbox or hard copy).  Everyone reads his/her paper aloud to him/herself, and I encourage  editing or even revising one last time.  Seniors are a bit embarrassed to participate, but I keep encouraging them!  It is also a way to teach punctuation for clarity–and they are more likely to hear the need for a comma than to be able to recite the rule.

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      An ‘ear’ for punctuation

      Love it!

      I know that hearing punctuation has helped both me and my students far more than memorizing rules for commas :). Thanks for sharing that the strategy is applicable for high school students. From emerging to established writers, we can all benefit from hearing our writing come to life after we put words to the page. 

  • DeidraGammill

    Great advice!

    So glad to read this – thanks especially to Lauren for the reminder that not everything has to be said in one blog post! I find that having my students read their pieces outloud to another person really helps too – they are forced to slow down for their listener, and sometimes they’ll realize that the “thing” they were sure they’d included isn’t actually there (it was inside their heads but never made it to the paper). I’m guilty of that too, so the stepping away for a few hours is essential. 🙂

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Thanks – writing across the content areas…

      Thanks for the comment, Deidra.

      Now that you’ve switched content areas, do you notice any shifts in how students write across the content areas? I’m sure the purpose and audience for their writing has shifted in the courses you’re teaching, and while revision strategies would hold true for any purpose/genre, I imagine there are some nuanced tips for writing and revising for a business audience vs. a literary essay for example? 

  • Stevi

    Revision

    Believe it or not, I love the revision process. That’s when I find I start getting close to discovering what I’m really thinking. Sometimes it takes lots of words before that insight begins to creep out of the shadows. Along with your tips, I stop to ask myself, “What am I really saying?” Then I find that I have to cut out a lot, which hurts since I often have struggled hard to craft a sentence or a paragraph. But cutting is a critical part of my revision process, and so is just trusting my gut. When something doesn’t seem right but I can’t figure out how to fix it, I go for step 2: sleep on it. And then sometimes I have to go for a long walk with my dog and talk out my rambling ideas. Mick, my ever so patient golden doodle, has listening me talk through some wild thoughts.

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Revision – the Path to Clarity

      Thanks as always, Stevi, for reading and for your thoughtful comments :). I hope you are enjoying safe global travels!

      I agree that revision is the fun part (and perhaps my personal favorite part) of the writing process (maybe that’s an ELA teacher thing?) 🙂