In the previous five columns, we have been tutoring Liz (a fictional eleventh-grade honors student) in the library. We’re helping her compose a paper on Orwell’s immortal 1984, but more importantly, we’re teaching her the elusive art of writing. In the previous column, we taught Liz how to write paragraphs that are clear, simple, and focused (a foundational artform overlooked far too often). We also taught her the basics of literary analysis. We concluded the session by telling Liz to write a completed draft and to bring it back so that we can begin the process of revising and editing.
I want to pause here for a moment, and reinforce a fundamental truth I mentioned in the previous column: writing improves and blossoms through successive drafts. After composing a complete draft, writers improve it through the process of revising and editing. Because of online word processing programs (such as Google Docs and MS Word), there is no longer a target number of drafts to produce. We create a single evolving draft and improve that until (ideally) there is nothing left to change. And then we hand it in.
Revising and Editing
You’ve probably heard the phrase “revising and editing” before, but what does that really mean? First, it’s not a single, unified activity; it means two different things. To understand the difference between the two, you must remember the following:
- Revising is bigger than editing
- Revising comes before editing
To put it simply, revising involves making large changes to the text, such as moving paragraphs and deleting sections—and this is why it comes first. Editing involves smaller changes, such as improving word choice and correcting errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
As we begin the process of revision, we must be guided by the three principles necessary to produce high-quality academic writing (I call these the “big three”). Here they are, along with brief explanations:
- Topic: The subject of the piece must be quickly and clearly expressed. After that, it must be discussed in sufficient depth to provide a sense of satisfied enlightenment to the reader.
- Focus: The piece must shed light on the main topic only, avoiding digressions and unrelated material.
- Organization: The ideas must flow smoothly and logically, and should provide the reader with a satisfying sense of order.
Revising and editing can be done directly onto the online document, or it can be done with a hard copy and a pencil in hand. For today’s tutorial, let’s say that Liz has returned to the library with a hard copy of her paper in hand, and a hopeful smile on her face. After greeting Liz (and admiring her tenacity), we sit with her, and we start the process of revision and editing.
We begin by reading the text carefully and critically, looking for places to improve (and draw out) its meaning. (As we move through the revision process, we discuss our choices with Liz, so that she can learn to revise independently—an extremely important component of becoming a skilled writer.) We look closely at content, evaluating for focus and the presence of relevant (and irrelevant) material. To put it simply, we look for what’s working, and what’s not working.
If something is working (deftly elucidating our main topic), we’ll keep it in the piece, perhaps expanding it with additional information. If something is not working (for example, if it wanders from the topic or thesis, or if it disturbs the focus of the text), we can alter it or simply omit it. Deleting unnecessary verbiage is always a great favor for the reader. When we shorten our writing, it becomes muscular, efficient, and interesting. During this first round of revision, we make notes on Liz’s paper indicating “expand” or “omit.”
We also look at organization, and this is extremely important for any piece of writing. As we do so, we critically evaluate the order in which information is presented, and the placement of specific passages. To help us with this, we wonder the following: do the ideas flow smoothly from one to another? Is the organization clear and understandable? Does the presentation of material make sense? Is there anything present that might confuse the reader? Will the organization help the reader to understand the topic?
As we examine the paper’s organization and look for ways to improve it, we make notes onto Liz’s paper (in pencil), indicating passages that seem out of place, and scribbling arrows to give them a proper new home. When the plan for revision is complete, we conclude the session. We instruct Liz to revise her paper in accordance with the notes on it, and to do this tonight, before she forgets our suggestions. After that, she will come back (perhaps in a few days) with her revised draft.
It will definitely need to be edited.
When Liz returns a few days later, she brings her paper, newly revised and greatly improved. While sitting with her, we explain the process of editing, which is essentially a sophisticated form of proofreading. As we examine the paper (pencil in hand), we look for mechanical errors and correct them; we improve lucidity and meaning; we polish the text until it feels quite professional. How do we do this?
We start the editing process by reading the revised draft carefully. As we do, we look for errors that are highly visible. Are there misspellings? Improper grammar? Incorrect punctuation? We mark and correct mechanical flaws as we find them. In addition to these improvements, we also look at style and readability. Are there any redundancies? Are there places where the word choice can be improved? We look at sentence structure. Is each sentence clear and comprehensible? Do Liz’s sentences tend to be very long? Are they too short? Do they vary in length? We inform Liz that varying the length of her sentences will help to make her writing more interesting and readable.
When our editorial changes are penciled in, we demonstrate to Liz a very effective technique for editing. We read sections of Liz’s paper out loud to her, instructing her to listen for anything that sounds funny, awkward, unclear, or untrue to the rhythms of natural speech. We also tell her to listen for any areas of exposition that don’t say what she wants them to say. This method works extremely well; our ears pick up errors that our eyes miss.
When the editing session is complete, and Liz’s paper is covered with our editorial notes, we conclude the tutorial. We tell Liz to put in the corrections tonight, while they’re still fresh in her mind. Then, we invite Liz back for one final session (of light editing), where her essay on Orwell’s 1984 will become polished and perfect and absolutely beautiful.
And that is how you tutor a young student in writing.
That concludes the entire cycle of helping students compose a paper, and (more important) teaching them how to write. In the next column, we will begin helping another writer with another paper. What sort of paper will that be? Well, you’ll have to read my next column and find out. I promise you an enlightening experience.
Thank you for spending this time with me, and I’ll see you in the quickening beauties of early winter. Until then, so long—and don’t forget to write.
Dr. Timothy Horan is a full-time school librarian and part-time public librarian on Long Island (NY). He holds master’s degrees in English, library science, and education, along with an advanced graduate certificate in creative writing, and a doctorate in English literature. In 2013, The Suffolk School Library Media Association (SSLMA) awarded him the “School Librarian of the Year.” In 2019, they awarded him the “Outstanding Contribution to the School Library Profession.” He has published dozens of scholarly articles on libraries, writing, and education. He is the inventor of the School Library Writing Center, and literally wrote the book(s) on the subject: Create Your School Library Writing Center, Grades 7 - 12, and Create Your School Library Writing Center, Grades K - 6 (both from Libraries Unlimited). He is the editor of VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates) Magazine and has a library in his house which he designed and built himself. This is where he does his best thinking and writing.