Writing is an essential part of working out your ideas. I don't think you really understand something until you are able to convey it to someone else. Moreover, you shouldn't expect to work out your ideas in one attempt -- everyone needs to revise! And this means not just after your teachers have slogged their way through the version you submit and identified the problems in your exposition, but beforehand.

In the first draft of a piece or in your preparatory notes you are inventing the problem; delineating the main points. You're getting your thoughts out to arrive at a working set of words.

Once you have this much of a paper you can (re)organize those points, and after (re)writing the paper you can better identify the weaknesses in it. Cosmetic changes in wording do not constitute revision; there are two levels of revision which should precede fine-tuning your vocabulary:

First, you should RE-ENVISION the paper. Does it need major restructuring? How does each paragraph connect with the previous one, and to the paper as a whole? Try shifting sections around; incorporate new insights as they arise. Also ask yourself: Is what I have written true? Have I written about what I set out to write? If not, why not? Have I changed my mind?

Re-envisioning requires some distance from your draft. Spend some hours or a day away from it, nominally doing something else but remaining pre-occupied with your paper, letting it digest. Jot down notes wherever you are when the ideas come to you so you can try them out when you return to your writing table.

Next, FILL THE HOLES. What transitions and links are weak or missing? (Words such as "surely," "it seems," "logically," and so on are sure signs of connections unmade.) What are your blind spots? Are you avoiding admitting to yourself that you need to do more research? Think about the holes in your information and your argument; can you fill them? Have you provided examples? Have you anticipated counter-arguments? Long sentences with many loosely linked ideas are cues that you need to divide the sentence and develop each idea separately.

Perhaps you feel that you know the meaning of what you've written, so there's nothing to change. If so, then read it to someone else. Do they follow what you mean? Frustratingly, they may not. You may even feel they are being thick or difficult in not understanding you. Perhaps they are. Nevertheless, if you clarify your writing so that bothersome readers can follow, you will probably improve it for other readers who were (more or less) understanding you.

On the other hand, you should be prepared to DELETE as well as to add. It is often harder to delete than to add because it is difficult to overcome your investment in what you've already written. Nevertheless, deletion is an important part of revision.

The aim of writing is not to explain everything for all time, but to achieve some temporary closure. If you can't fill a hole, make clear those places where you or the field in general need to do further work. In a few weeks you may know more, but the appropriate question is whether you have finished with the paper for the moment.

After such self-scrutiny and revision you should know exactly what it is you want to say, and the third level of revision, the FINE-TUNING of vocabulary to achieve the desired connotations, should be much easier. However, even when typing the final draft you should be thinking and not merely transcribing, remaining open to opportunities to rewrite and restructure your paper so you are saying what you want to as well as you can.

Also remember:
-Take responsibility for what you're saying. The passive voice may be useful for variety, but do not use it to avoid thinking through an issue. Instead, identify the group or person hidden behind a passive construction.

-Before every sentence, paragraph and section ask yourself: What am I trying to say? What words or phrases express that idea best? After writing a paragraph check to make sure it is about what you said it would be about.

-Watch out for gobbledegook and jargon. Clean this out and use English.
Peter Taylor, with help from Ann Blum and Greg Tewksbury.
(Version 4, September 1993)

Updated: 6-17-02