Donald Murray's Revision Checklist

Advice on Revising Essays and Reports

revision checklist
"Revision is not the end of the writing process," says Donald Murray, "but the beginning.". (Patrick George/Getty Images)

A revision checklist can help you turn a rough draft into a finished document. It may be as simple as the acronym CUE (short for coherence, unity, emphasis) or as detailed as the multi-page revision guides found in many college handbooks. But regardless of length, the most effective revision checklist is usually one that you create yourself: a series of questions or tasks based on your own writing habits, goals, and abilities.

In his book The Craft of Revision*, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Donald Murray offered his own checklist as a model for novice writers. "As we read during revision," he said, "we deal with a complex blend of overlapping concerns. It is helpful, especially in the beginning, to develop your own checklist of the elements that contribute to voice."

Here, in an abbreviated form, is Murray's revision checklist.

  1. Is It Specific?
    We write with information, not free floating language; words are the symbols for specific information. And the more specific the language, the more the reader believes and trusts the writer.
  2. Is It True?
    [S]top and make sure that everything, word-by-word, is accurate in itself and in the context of the line, the paragraph, the section, the entire work.
  3. Is It Me?
    I have to tune my voice to my own way of making music on the page.
  4. Does It Fit?
    The word has to fit the words before it and the ones that come next; the phrase has to fit the line; the line the paragraph; the paragraph the section; the section the whole piece.
  1. Is It Clear?
    I do not want to call attention to myself but to my subject; I do not want to get between the reader and the subject.
  2. Will the Reader Read?
    Is the information placed in a position that gives it proper emphasis; have I been as simple as possible without oversimplifying the subject; is the draft paced so that the reader is propelled forward but still allowed time to absorb each point before being moved on to the next one; have I asked the reader's questions--and answered them?
  1. Does It Advance the Meaning?
    Every piece of information, every word and the sound of every word, every comma and semicolon, every sound, every space, should serve the meaning of the draft.
  2. Does It Use Tradition?
    The traditions of our written culture--rhetoric, grammar, mechanics, usage, spelling--are the record of the conventions that successful writers in the past and present have used to communicate meaning. Conform to them when they help you communicate your meaning, as they will most of the time, and go against expectation when they do not.
  3. Does It Flow?
    After all this fiddling around, cutting that, inserting this, moving the other stuff around, making changes in information and position, meaning and sound, the draft must be smoothed over so that none of the effort shows. The music of the final draft should flow with an easy naturalness so the reader is absorbed in what is said, not how the writer has said it.

As you work on developing your own checklist, you might also want to have a look at these two guides:


* Adapted from The Craft of Revision, 2nd ed., by Donald Murray (Harcourt Brace, 1995).

The fifth anniversary edition of The Craft of Revision was published by Wadsworth, Cengage Learning in 2003.