revision (composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

revision and reading aloud
"Read your own prose aloud and with emphasis—or better still, have a friend read it to you" (Richard Lanham, Revising Prose, 1979). (PhotoAlto/Sigrid Olsson/Getty Images)


In composition, revision is the process of rereading a text and making changes (in content, organization, sentence structures, and word choice) to improve it.

During the revision stage of the writing process, writers may add, remove, move and substitute text (the ARMS treatment). "[T]hey have opportunities to think about whether their text communicates effectively to an audience, to improve the quality of their prose, and even to reconsider their content and perspective and potentially transform their own understanding" (Charles MacArthur in Best Practices in Writing Instruction, 2013).

"Leon approved of revision," says Lee Child in his novel Persuader (2003). "He approved of it big time. Mainly because revision was about thinking, and he figured thinking never hurt anybody."

See the Observations and Recommendations below. Also see:

From the Latin, "to visit again, to look at again"

Observations and Recommendations

  • "Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it's where the game is won or lost."
    (William Zinsser, On Writing Well. 2006)
  • "[R]evision begins with the large view and proceeds from the outside in, from overall structure to paragraphs and finally sentences and words, toward ever more intricate levels of detail. In other words, there's no sense in revising a sentence to a hard shining beauty if the passage including that sentence will have to be cut."
    (Philip Gerard, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life. Story Press, 1996)
  • "Writing is revising, and the writer's craft is largely a matter of knowing how to discover what you have to say, develop, and clarify it, each requiring the craft of revision."
    (Donald M. Murray, The Craft of Revision, 5th ed. Wadsworth, 2003)
  • Fixing the Mess
    "Revision is a grand term for the frantic process of fixing the mess. . . . I just keep reading the story, first on the tube, then in paper form, usually standing up at a file cabinet far from my desk, tinkering and tinkering, shifting paragraphs around, throwing out words, shortening sentences, worrying and fretting, checking spelling and job titles and numbers."
    (David Mehegan, quoted by Donald M. Murray in Writing to Deadline. Heinemann, 2000)
  • Two Kinds of Rewriting
    "[T]here are at least two kinds of rewriting. The first is trying to fix what you've already written, but doing this can keep you from facing up to the second kind, from figuring out the essential thing you're trying to do and looking for better ways to tell your story. If [F. Scott] Fitzgerald had been advising a young writer and not himself he might have said, 'Rewrite from principle,' or 'Don't just push the same old stuff around. Throw it away and start over.'"
    (Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. Random House, 2013)
  • A Form of Self-Forgiveness
    "I like to think of revision as a form of self-forgiveness: you can allow yourself mistakes and shortcomings in your writing because you know you're coming back later to improve it. Revision is the way you cope with bad luck that made your writing less than excellent this morning. Revision is the hope you hold out for yourself to make something beautiful tomorrow though you didn't quite manage it today. Revision is democracy's literary method, the tool that allows an ordinary person to aspire to extraordinary achievement."
    (David Huddle, The Writing Habit. Peregrine Smith, 1991)
  • Peer Revising
    "Peer revising is a common feature of writing-process classrooms, and it is often recommended as a way of providing student writers with an audience of readers who can respond to their writing, identify strengths and and problems, and recommend improvements. Students may learn from serving in roles of both author and editor. The critical reading required as an editor can contribute to learning how to evaluate writing. Peer revising is most effective when it is combined with instruction based on evaluation criteria or revising strategies."
    (Charles A. MacArthur, "Best Practices in Teaching Evaluation and Revision." Best Practices in Writing Instruction, ed. by Steve Graham, Charles A. MacArthur, and Jill Fitzgerald. Guilford Press, 2007)

  • Revising Out Loud
    "You will find, to your delight, that reading your own work aloud, even silently, is the most astonishingly easy and reliable method that there is for achieving economy in prose, efficiency of description, and narrative effect as well."
    (George V. Higgins, On Writing. Henry Holt, 1990)
  • Writers on Revising
    - "We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time."
    (Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage. Random House, 1981)

    - "Beginning writers everywhere might take a lesson from [Lafcadio] Hearn's working method: when he thought he was finished with a piece, he put it in his desk drawer for a time, then took it out to revise it, then returned it to the drawer, a process that continued until he had exactly what he wanted."
    (Francine Prose, "Serene Japan." Smithsonian, September 2009)

    - "An excellent rule for writers is this: Condense your article to the last possible point consistent with clearness. Then cut off its head and tail, and serve up the remains with the sauce of good humor."
    (C.A.S. Dwight, "The Religious Press." The Editor, 1897)

    - "Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.”
    (Bernard Malamud, Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work, ed. by Alan Cheuse and Nichola Delbanco. Columbia University Press, 1996)

    - "I rewrite a great deal. I'm always fiddling, always changing something. I'll write a few words--then I'll change them. I add. I subtract. I work and fiddle and keep working and fiddling, and I only stop at the deadline."
    (Ellen Goodman)

    - "I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter."
    (James Michener)

    - "Writing is like everything else: the more you do it the better you get. Don't try to perfect as you go along, just get to the end of the damn thing. Accept imperfections. Get it finished and then you can go back. If you try to polish every sentence there's a chance you'll never get past the first chapter."
    (Iain Banks)

    - "Revision is very important to me. I just can't abide some things that I write. I look at them the next day and they're terrible. They don't make sense, or they're awkward, or they're not to the point--so I have to revise, cut, shape. Sometimes I throw the whole thing away and start from scratch."
    (William Kennedy)

    - "Successful writing takes great exertion, and multiple revisions, refinement, retooling--until it looks as if it didn't take any effort at all."
    (Dinty W. Moore, The Mindful Writer. Wisdom Publications, 2012)
  • Jacques Barzun on the Pleasures of Revision
    "Rewriting is called revision in the literary and publishing trade because it springs from re-viewing, that is to say, looking at your copy again--and again and again. When you have learned to look at your own words with critical detachment, you will find that rereading a piece five or six times in a row will each time bring to light fresh spots of trouble. The trouble is sometimes elementary: you wonder how you can have written it as a pronoun referring to a plural subject. The slip is easily corrected. At other times you have written yourself into a corner, the exit from which is not at once apparent. Your words down there seem to preclude the necessary repairs up here--because of repetition, syntax, logic, or some other obstacle. Nothing comes to mind as reconciling sense with sound and with clarity in both places. In such a fix you may have to start farther back and pursue a different line altogether. The sharper your judgment, the more trouble you will find. That is why exacting writers are known to have rewritten a famous paragraph or chapter six or seven times. It then looked right to them, because every demand of their art had been met, every flaw removed, down to the slightest.

    "You and I are far from that stage of mastery, but we are none the less obliged to do some rewriting beyond the intensive correction of bad spots. For in the act of revising on the small scale one comes upon gaps in thought and--what is as bad--real or apparent repetitions or intrusions, sometimes called backstitching. Both are occasions for surgery. In the first case you must write a new fragment and insert it so that its beginning and end fit what precedes and follows. In the second case you must lift the intruding passage and transfer or eliminate it. Simple arithmetic shows you that there are then three and not two sutures to be made before the page shows a smooth surface. If you have never performed this sort of work in writing, you must take it from me that it affords pleasure and satisfaction, both.
    (Jacques Barzun, Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, 4th ed. Harper Perennial, 2001)

  • John McPhee on the End of Revision
    "People often ask how I know when I'm done--not just when I've come to the end, but in all the drafts and revisions and substitutions of one word for another how do I know there is no more to do? When am I done? I just know. I'm lucky that way. What I know is that I can't do any better; someone else might do better, but that's all I can do; so I call it done."
    (John McPhee, "Structure." The New Yorker, January 14, 2013)

Pronunciation: re-VIZH-en