Ivory Tower Writing #16: Making the most out of revisions

This post covers some ways to, if circumstances allow, improve on your paper after you get comments.

Finally, you’ve finished your paper, have submitted it, and are now awaiting the results. In a typical undergraduate class, this is the end of the a single cycle. Expect to rinse, lather, and repeat ad infinitum until you graduate.

When it comes to writing research papers (or assigning the writing thereof), I usually follow a simple cycle. First, announcement of the themes/topics, usually in the first two weeks of class. Second, submission of outline, usually during midterms. Third, consultation regarding said outline, from midterms onwards. Fourth, submission of the final draft. I prefer this process as it allows ample time for students to explore topics and for me to guide them so they don’t veer off a proverbial cliff. It also trains them for the inevitable final year thesis writing. That being said, not everyone follows this; I’d venture around 1-5 percent.

Anyway, we’ve covered a lot of the pre-writing and writing phases, but we haven’t particularly covered the post-writing phase. One thing that pops up during the post-writing phase is the dreaded word: revisions.

As Ernest Hemingway allegedly said, “The first draft of everything is shit.” This is why it is important to revise. Through a couple of revisions, a rough paper may be polished into a something that’s less dreary than a first draft.

So, how should you ideally revise your draft?

The first step would be to scan the paper for comments from your professor. In some cases, the comments would be clear (“Change this”, “Delete this”, etc.); but in many cases, comments may be cryptic (like the simple yet mysterious “???” comment). If you’re lucky, they would be written legibly in red/blue ink; if not, then tough luck. If you’re submitting using software like Turnitin, check the post-it icons in the built-in Turnitin PDF viewer. Whatever it takes, read these comments.

The second step is to work on the comments that you know you can work on. Simple comments like “Delete this” are easy to follow. But, proceed with caution. Just because your professor says you should delete a certain paragraph, you don’t necessarily have to comply. Re-read the paragraph/sentence and think whether it should be deleted. The revision process is not about blindly following comments; it is about reflection.

For harder comments, such as the cryptic “???” remark, this is when you ought to schedule a consultation with your professor. If they have office hours, that’s great; otherwise, contact them via their preferred method of communication. Prior to the consultation, make sure you bring a copy of the draft (print is ideal) and a list of questions you plan to ask. Usually, you’d be allowed only one chance (profs are mysteriously busy people), so might as well make the best of it.

The third step, assuming you have consulted the draft, is to re-write. Read your draft and see what can be improved. This tiered approach should help.

First and foremost, focus on structure, organization, and substance (ideas, theories, arguments) first. These are the most important building blocks of your paper, so you have to make sure they are well-built and able to withstand criticism. Make sure they make logical sense. If your essay is about nuclear deterrence, then provide a brief explanation of what nuclear deterrence is, how it is done, and then you can start explaining your p

Second, check your grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure, and spelling. I have had read too many papers where the main ideas were obscured by horrible diction and illogical grammar. There is a crystal-clear difference between “Indonesia provides deterrence to Singapore” and “Indonesia deters Singapore”.  You may also want to cut down on excessive sentences (known formally as run-on sentences) and review your vocabulary. Watch out for excess jargon (“Philanthrocapitalism views the act of charity as synergetic with the bottom-line of the company and should be the dominant paradigm of emerging entrepreneurs in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”), weasel words (“A bunch of scientists found…”), and unnecessary melodrama (“Since the Cold War ended, sweeping and profound changes in international politics have rendered states directionless in threat assessment.”)

Third, remember formatting. Were you supposed to use APA or Chicago-style citations? Footnotes, endnotes, or in-line citations? How many words were you supposed to write? Do you need headings, subheadings, etc.? As they say, the devil lurks in the details.

Revisions are never fun, but they are necessary. If you want to have a good paper, like it or not, you have to revise. It is not meant as a punishment; instead, think of it as an opportunity to further develop your skills and maybe, just maybe, prove your professor wrong.

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