How to Revise Your Paper

Most people would agree that no pieces of writing are more carefully written, read, revised, reread and re-revised than résumés and cover letters. How carefully do we review and correct these critical documents? Read the following sentences, all of which came from real-life documents, and judge for yourself. (Our thanks to Fortune magazine for collecting these howlers.)

  1. I demand a salary commiserate with my qualifications and extensive expereince.
  2. I have lurnt Microsoft Word and Excel computor and spreasheet pogroms.
  3. I received a plague for being salesperson of the year.
  4. I am a perfectionist and rarely if if ever forget details.
  5. As indicted, I have over five years of analyzing investments.
  6. I was responsible for ruining the entire operation for a Western chain store.

There is one sure way to avoid embarrassing yourself in writing, as these sincere but ignorant and careless applicants did. That one way is to learn how to revise your own work. Revision is a process that is neither easy nor quick, but it is worthwhile, whether your goal is the job you want, a good grade on a term paper, or a fast promotion.


No one can write in a single draft an essay that is perfectly organized and developed, let alone one that is free of errors. The purpose of the first draft is to get down on paper something you can work with until it meets your reader’s needs and expectations.
Planning and drafting should take about half the time you devote to writing a paper. The rest should be devoted to revision. Revision is the process of refining your message until

These three goals are the essentials of good communication. You can achieve them only if you keep your readers in mind as you revise. Because a first draft reflects the contents of the writer’s mind, it often seems all right to the writer. But in order to transfer an idea as clearly as possible from the mind of the writer to the mind of the reader, revision is necessary. The idea needs to be honed and refined until it is as clear to your reader as it is to you. By revising from your reader’s point of view, you can avoid misunderstandings before they happen.


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Revision means “re-seeing.” It does not mean recopying. The aim of revision is to improve your writing’s organization, accuracy, and style. Revising is a three-stage process. Each step requires that you read through your entire essay. (No, we aren’t kidding! Revision often makes the difference between a C paper and an A paper.) The goal of your first reading is to ensure that you have met your reader’s information needs: you fill in any gaps in content and reorganize information to help your reader better understand your thesis. In your second reading, you look for weaknesses in paragraph development and errors in sentence structure. Your third reading concentrates on the correctness of each word. The three revision steps are explained in detail later.

The Three Steps of Revision

  1. Improve the whole paper by revising its content and organization.
  2. Refine paragraph and sentence structure, and correct any errors in grammar.
  3. Edit and proofread to catch errors in word choice, spelling, and punctuation.


   Inexperienced writers often skip the first two steps and concentrate on the third, thinking they will save time. In fact, they waste time—both theirs and their readers’—because the result is writing that doesn’t communicate clearly and won’t make a positive impression.
The best way to begin revising is to let as much time as possible pass between completing your first draft and rereading it. Ten minutes, or even half a day, is not enough. The danger in rereading too soon is that you’re likely to “read” what you think you’ve written—what exists only in your head, not on the paper.

If you haven’t allowed enough time for this cooling-off period, there are two other things you can do to help you get some distance from your draft. If your first draft is handwritten, type it out. Reading your essay in a different form helps you to “re-see” its content. Alternatively, read your paper aloud and try to hear it from the point of view of your reader. Listen to how your explanation unfolds, and mark every place where you find something unclear, irrelevant, inadequately developed, or out of order.

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As you read through your paper, keep in mind the three kinds of changes you can (and probably should) make at this stage:

  1. You can rearrange information. This is the kind of revision that is most often needed but least often done. Consider the order in which you’ve arranged your paragraphs. From your reader’s point of view, is this the most effective order in which to present your ideas?
  2. You can add information. Adding more development or even a new key idea is often necessary to make your message interesting and convincing as well as clear. It’s a good idea to ask a friend to read your draft and identify what needs to be expanded or clarified. (Be sure to return the favour; you can learn a great deal by critiquing other people’s writing.)
  3. You can delete information. Now is the time to cut out anything that is repetitious, insignificant, or irrelevant to your subject and reader.

     Your thesis statement is your contract with your reader, so it should be the guiding principle of your paper. It should contain nothing that is not developed in the body of the essay, and there should be nothing in the essay that is not directly related to your thesis statement. When you find a mismatch between the thesis statement and the paper, change one or the other or both until the two agree. Using a word processor to move blocks of text around is as easy as shuffling a deck of cards.
     If you are not already using a word-processing program, now is the time to begin. Before you start to revise, change the computer’s settings to meet the format requirements of your paper: set the spacing, margins, font style and size, etc. (See Format and Documentation on this Web site for instructions and examples.) Most people find it easier to revise from a paper copy, so print your draft double- or triple-spaced. Read it through carefully, making notes for changes in the margins or in the spaces between the lines; then go back to the computer to make the changes.
     Remember to save your work frequently. It takes only a split second to click on the Save icon, but that split second could save you hours—even days—in the event of a computer disaster. Learn to save your work in a systematic and easy-to-find filing system. Calling a paper “draft” or “essay” will cause frustration later when you want to reopen the file to revise it but can’t remember the name of the file you were working on. Give each file a distinctive name (or name and number), and save each draft separately just in case you want to go back and use material from a previous version of your document.
Use the checklist that follows to guide you as you review your paper’s form and content.


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Have you included enough key ideas and development to explain your thesis and convince your reader? Remember that “enough” means from the reader’s point of view, not the writer’s.


Is your topic


Are your main points


Does your introduction


Does your conclusion


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Here, too, you should allow time—at least a couple of days—between your first revision and your second. Read your draft aloud, and use this list of questions to help you improve it.



Does each paragraph


Sentence Structure

Is each sentence clear and complete?


Are your sentences varied in length? Could some be combined to improve the clarity and impact of your message?


Have you used verbs correctly?


Have you used pronouns correctly?


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By now you’re probably so tired of refining your paper that you may be tempted to skip editing—correcting errors in word choice, spelling, and punctuation—and proofreading—correcting errors in typing or writing that appear in the final draft. But these final tasks are essential if you want your paper to make a positive impression.
     Misspellings, faulty punctuation, and messiness don’t always create misunderstandings, but they do cause the reader to form a lower opinion of you and your work. Careful editing and proofreading are necessary if you want your writing to be favourably received.
     Most word-processing programs include a grammar checker and a spell checker. The newer programs have some useful features. For example, they will question (but not correct) your use of apostrophes; they will sometimes catch errors in subject–verb agreement; and they will catch obvious misspellings and typos. But don’t make the mistake of assuming these programs will do all your editing for you. Many errors slip past them. Only you or a knowledgeable and patient friend can find and correct all errors.
     If spelling is a particular problem for you, you should first run your paper through a spell checker. After that, you’re on your own. Read your paper backward word by word, from the end to the beginning. Reading backward forces you to look at each word by itself and helps you to spot those that look suspicious. Whenever you’re in doubt about the spelling of a word, look it up! If you find this task too tedious to bear, ask a good speller to read through your paper for you and identify any errors. (Then take him or her out for dinner and a movie.)
     Here are the questions to ask yourself when you are editing.




Have you used words to “mean” rather than to “impress”?



Are all words spelled correctly?


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Within Sentences

Beginnings and Endings


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By the time you have finished editing, you will have gone over your paper so many times you may have practically memorized it. When you are very familiar with a piece of writing, it’s hard to spot the small mistakes that do creep in when you produce your final copy. Here are some tips to help you find those tiny, elusive errors:

  1. Read through your essay line by line, using a ruler to guide you.
  2. If you’ve been keeping a list of your most frequent errors in this course, scan your essay for the mistakes you are most likely to make.
  3. Use the “Editing Checklist” on the inside front cover of Canadian Content to make a final check of all aspects of your paper.
  4. Use the list of correction marks on the inside back cover to check for errors your instructor has identified in your writing.

     Your “last” draft may need further revision after your proofreading review. If so, take the time to rewrite the paper so that the version you hand in is clean and easy to read. If a word processor is available to you, use it. Computers make editing and proofreading almost painless, since errors are so easy to correct.
At long last, you’re ready to submit your paper. If you’ve followed the three steps for revision conscientiously, you can hand it in with confidence that it says what you want it to say. One last word of advice:


(Even the most conscientious instructors have been known to lose things.)


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