I’m just going to come out and say it: I dread doing revisions on my written work. I have two big pieces of writing sitting on my desk right now, waiting to be revised and rethought about and reapproached, and I am trying to pretend that they are not there. One is a paper I am writing for a journal, with a colleague, and the other is the first three completed chapters of my PhD thesis. I am spending a lot of time fixing my reference list, and reorganising my desktop folders and refiling readings in order to avoid having to do these revisions. But it’s not the writing that is putting me off, it’s the thinking.
I have realised over the years that this is the hardest part of the revision process, and I think this is what students may be feeling overwhelmed by when they come to the writing centre and we give them advice and guidance on revisions they could and should do in order to improve their written work. Thinking is hard work. Or rather, academic thinking about theoretical and abstract ideas and how they apply to a particular argument or question is hard work. Often, thinking in the revision stage of the writing process is harder than the initial thinking that helped you write draft one, largely because you may have to unthink ideas that are irrelevant or misplaced or even wrong in the context of what you are reading and writing about. And then you have to think new ideas, and work out how these might fit with the older ideas that are good, and can stay. And often – almost always for me – this thinking process happens while I am rewriting pieces of the text that need to change. So I think and write, rather than think and then write. This often means that I go through a few drafts in revising my work before I am happy with what I have written. It’s a process in the true sense of the word – it’s tough, and can take a long time, and is very demanding of my emotional and mental resources. But I grow as I do it, every time, and I learn more about what I am writing about as well as how to write in ways that will make my work credible and readable.
But it is hard work. And I don’t like doing revisions because it’s difficult, especially if there has been a longer period of time between the first draft and the second draft, and it’s time consuming. Getting back into the right headspace takes effort, and often I want to be done with that piece of writing and move onto the next one, so I sometimes also feel resentful of the intrusion on my new thinking and writing spaces. But, I have also learned, for all this moaning, that the revision process is necessary and even good for you for a reason. It helps you to realise that your thinking on any topic you are writing about is never really done. You could revisit a first year essay in second, and third year and as a postgrad, for example, and right very different versions of that essay which would hopefully show the widening and deepening of your knowledge and learning, and also the growth in yourself as a writer. The revision and rethinking/writing facilitates your growth as a writer and also the deepening of your knowledge and understanding as you work on clearer and more credible ways to articulate what you know and what it means in the context of the argument you are making. When we write and think about what we know we are forced to think about what it means, and why others need to read about it. We are forced to be articulate in ways that challenge what we think about our own writing and the topics we are writing about, so revising our work also makes us better scholars. Or, it can at least with the right help along the way.
Revisions can’t just be done by the scholar with the assumption that if you say ‘this needs revision’ they will know why and how. Often students hand in work that they know is not finished yet, or good enough yet, but they are stuck and can’t work out how to improve it on their own. They need guidance from those who know about the kind of writing they are doing, and also about what they are writing about. They need feedback that recognises what they have done well, and that can point out the gaps (and give suggestions on how to fill them), and probe thinking by asking the right kinds of questions. All writers need help, even the very good ones. This is why editors, reviewers, readers exist. We, at the writing centre, are one kind of reader or reviewer that can help undergraduate students think about and revise their writing. Lecturers and tutors in the disciplines are another. Feedback that helps writers to make choices about their writing and understand where they are going wrong, why, and how they could get onto the right track is hard to give, but it is an essential part of the revision process. And the revision process is an essential part of students’ growth and intellectual development as they become knowers in their field. It is hard, yes, but it’s also ultimately rewarding when the thing you write receives recognition and praise. It makes all the hard work worth it.