The Writing Center @ The University of Wisconsin - Madison

Revision Strategies for Longer Projects

 

In any piece of writing over 75 pages it's difficult for writers to remember every argument. Even if you keep a careful inventory of all the feedback you receive from your committee, advisors, and peers, making significant revisions to a longer project can be an uphill task. In order to make effective revisions, advanced writers need to internalize questions and strategies for revising longer projects. Making a hard copy of your project can be a great first step. As Alison Miller notes in Finish Your Dissertation Once and For All!, using a printed copy of your dissertation allows you to lay out all of your pages and see the global moves your project makes—a view that is often inhibited by looking at one page on a computer screen at a time.

In case you were looking for a guide to starting, planning, or staying motivated as you write your project, there is no shortage of fantastic resources. Check out the Writing Center's Resources for Dissertators for more information.

On this page, we detail the following revision ideas for longer projects:

Reverse Outlines

Miller suggests that one strategy to help you approach revising your dissertation is figuring out what has been written so you know where to begin revising. The easiest way to map your writing is with a reverse outline. As our guide to reverse outlines suggests, by writing out the main idea of each paragraph and considering and articulating what it does to help make your point, move your argument, or guide the reader, you can:

  • Check your argument's logic.
  • See what is out of place or what is missing.
  • Determine what is worth keeping or what needs substantial reorganization.

See the Writing Center’s reverse outline materials for an example outline.

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Mining

In The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities, Eric Hayot describes a strategy for building a structure out of a first draft. He begins by rereading his work as soon as he completes a subsection. As he reads he tries to find the best ideas, and as he locates the clearest ideas he creates a structure around those concepts. This strategy is helpful for Hayot "because [he] doesn't often censor much in the first draft, [his] writing [tends] to have a number of different ideas, some of which are properly subordinated or connected to one other and others that are outliers" (31). Reading back through and locating the best thoughts allow Hayot to "trace a structural outline" that will then lay a foundation for new sections. Hayot's process of mining ensures that the order of his ideas makes sense, and it also allows him to get a better idea of what new material needs to be completed.

Some of the possible, revision-informing questions that this kind of outline can raise are:

  • Are all the claims thoroughly supported by evidence?
  • What kinds of evidence are used across the whole argument? Is the nature of the evidence appropriate given your context, purpose, and audience?
  • How are the sub–claims related to each other? How do they build off of each other and work together to logically further the larger claim?
  • Do any of your claims need to be qualified in order to be made more precise?
  • Where and how are counter–arguments raised? Are they fully and fairly addressed?

For more information about reconsidering your claims, evidence, and counter–arguments, check out our resources on Revising an Argumentative Paper.

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Thinking like a Reader: Revision Questions

The authors of The Craft of Research approach revision from the standpoint of the anticipated reader. Readers, they argue, "don't read word by word, sentence by sentence, as if they were adding up beads on a string" (Booth et al. 204). Readers want a sense of the whole. Booth et al. offer questions writers can answer to check if their organization will help readers understand and conceptualize their argument.

  1. What are your key terms, and do they run throughout your project?
  2. Readers look for key terms in each section to help relate each section to the overall project. Looking for and circling key terms will help you notice if a section is connected effectively to the main argument. Adding a key term to a paragraph can signal the relationship of a paragraph to a main argument.

  3. Are the beginning and ending of subsections clearly signaled?
  4. Readers need to recognize where sections start and end. Checking to make sure you have inserted clear headings or language that signals the logic of your order will help the reader more easily follow your points.

  5. Is it clear how each section relates to the whole?
  6. Asking yourself how a section supports your argument (e.g., explaining context, summarizing a theory, providing context) will not only help you articulate how a section relates to an argument with a very effective topic sentence, but it will also help you to evaluate the significance of each point.

  7. Is the point of each section stated in a brief introduction or at its end?
  8. Each point of an argument should be foregrounded so that the reader can anticipate the organization.

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Funneling

Funneling is an approach to revision in which you review your work as whole, review each section, review each paragraph, and finally review each sentence. In her Guardian article "How to Edit your Dissertation," Stella Klein describes funneling and how to work through each section.

  • Review your work as a whole
  • As you review your work as a whole, you might try to answer: "Have you developed a clear argument in response to your central question?" or "Have you defined key words and concepts early on?"

  • Review each section
  • Evaluating each section involves checking to see if all the points are relevant to the discussion at hand, but also it is the point at which you scrutinize your evidence and analysis. In addition, check all chapter and subsection titles to make sure the points are directly relevant.

  • Review each paragraph
  • See the Writing Center's guide for paragraphing for a description of the elements each paragraph should include, and use this guide to check your paragraphs. Also, see the final section of this page on Hayot’s “Uneven U” structure for more information about effective paragraphing.

  • Review each sentence
  • Editing effectively for grammar, style, and punctuation requires reading carefully through each sentence. See the Writing Center’s guide to Editing for a quick checklist of common grammar mistakes and how to spot and fix them.

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Revision Reflections

Below are accounts of revising from two recent dissertator—Edgardo, a Bio Biological Systems Engineering PhD and Sarah, an English Literature PhD. As you'll notice from their reflections, neither uses just one approach, but rather employs a combination of the four strategies mentioned above.

Edgardo:
There are 3 strategies that I have learned to make my writing more effective. First, doing reversed outlines helps me to visualize if what I wrote has a cohesive flow of ideas, so the reader is not lost. After doing the reverse outline, I usually move paragraphs and a few sentences to improve the flow of ideas and make the argumentation more logical. Second, the use of structural language helps to organize information in each paragraph. As I read good articles and textbooks in my field, I notice the authors use structural language to frame the information and make it more intuitive and easy for the reader. Recognizing this, I revise old text and write new sections of my dissertation by telling the reader, for example, the number of things, problems, factors, or mechanisms that I will discuss. Finally, prioritizing important concepts or ideas in the structure of a sentence helps me to signal to the reader what is the key point, which also helps me to think what the key points are. Therefore, I revise to put the important arguments or information at the beginning of each sentence, instead of putting it after secondary information that I use as background information. Using these strategies, among others, has allowed me to spend more time discussing with my advisor the ideas and arguments of my dissertation rather than on the clarity of the writing, which still requires time but is less.

By evaluating each section of his project using a reverse outline, Edgardo considered his readers' needs more and added sign posting language that helped to highlight his main points. But reverse outlines also helped Edgardo see more clearly what his main ideas were.

Sarah:
It wasn't until I had finished all of my chapter drafts and began revising my dissertation that I figured out what the argument of my dissertation was going to be. For me, revising was all about making sure that every paragraph, every sub–section, every close reading, served the purpose of that larger argument. Once I knew what I was trying to say, I decided how each chapter contributed to that argument, and I could therefore much more easily decide what needed to be added and what needed to be cut. I did some reverse outlining, but what was often more helpful was conceptualizing the steps of my chapter's argument from scratch. I'd grab a blank piece of paper and, without actually looking at my draft, try to map out my argument in simple sentences or phrases. In addition to acting as a revising guide, this helped give me confidence in my own ability to hold all the pieces of my argument together in my head.


My actual revising process involved a strong focus on introductions, conclusions, and topic sentences. I probably spent the most amount of time on the intro and conclusions of each chapter, then the intro and conclusions of each sub-section within the chapter. Then, I focused on topic sentences and concluding sentences of each paragraph. Often, I found that the middle of my paragraphs were fine (the close readings, dives into specific theories, use of secondary sources), but the first and last sentences of each paragraph (which explained the significance of those readings, etc.) were weak. However, as soon as I had a strong sense of the big picture, those sentences became easy to write. I didn't focus on sentence-level issues until I knew the structure and ideas were strong. Another key element of revising for me was letting go of the idea of perfection. Ideas are always evolving and changing and growing, and if I had let myself go down every rabbit hole, I never would have finished. So once I was happy with that main argument, I made myself stick to it no matter what. My mantra was, "It just needs to be good enough."

Writing is a thinking process, and so often after writing takes place writers are clearer about the answer to a project's central question. Sarah capitalized on this by revising her argument and structure without looking at her dissertation. In many ways, this process of conceptual mapping resembles a kind of mining strategy because she identified her best ideas and created a new structure based on them. She then combined mining with funneling as she evaluated every part of her dissertation.

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Considerations for Social Scientists: Storytelling

This is a structural goal that can be used to help you revise.

In Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded, Joshua Schimel begs scientists and social scientists to tell good stories. His argument is that without telling stories, the valuable and influential data that scientists report gets lost, misrepresented, and misunderstood. Even though science uses a "formalized structure," Schimel contends it still tells a story. The role scientists have is to not just present data, but to provide an understanding. He gives the example of the discovery of DNA. The image of the DNA helped scientists develop an understanding of the molecule's structure to explain how heredity works. Schimel explains: "The data are the supporting actors in the story you tell. The lead actors are the questions and the larger issues you are addressing. The story grows from the data, but the data are not the story" (11). Moving beyond just presenting data information, telling a story highlights the data's relevance and shows how the data can be used. However, scientists run into problems, Schimel suggests when they try to "jam" data into preconceived frameworks. He advises, "exploring the boundaries and limits of your data so that can you find the important story" (12).

Understanding the importance of storytelling can help in revision. Look closely back over your data, and try to answer:

  • How did you interpret the outlying information?
  • What is the significance of your data?
  • What knowledge or understanding did you provide your readers?
  • Now look back over your introduction. Have you signaled how the understanding gained from your project addresses a larger problem or answers a specific question?

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"Uneven U"

This is another structural goal to use.

Eric Hayot suggests that the arrangement of argumentation and evidence into an "Uneven U" describes "the vast majority of U.S. academic writing about literature today" (66). Hayot identifies this structure in paragraphs, but argues that it could be seen as a "fractal [. . .] model for any unit" of argument in a section, essay, or even a book (66). The structure is composed of 5 parts, which follow a 4–3–2–1–3–4–5 pattern:

  • 5  abstract, general; oriented towards solution or a conclusion
  • 4  less general; oriented toward a problem; pulls ideas together
  • 3  conceptual summary; draws together two or more pieces of evidence, or introduces a broad example
  • 2  description; plain or interpretive summary; establishing shot.
  • 1  concrete; evidentiary; raw, unmediated data or information (60)



Uneven U


Example:
We begin with the problem of character [4]. That the reader understands that the novel is populated by "minor" characters—that these seeming protagonists have come detached from their usual narrative position—depends heavily on intertextual references to a number of other works [3]. These range from the popular to the highbrow [2]. Belvedere and Nestor, for instance, are the names of the butlers in the 1980s American Television sitcom Mr. Belvedere and the Tintin graphic novels . . . [1]. All together these characters amount to a cavalcade of conspicuous minority, an exemplification of the notion that quantity has a quality all its own [3]. To understand the novel thus requires us to understand how that characterological quality merges from onomastic proliferation [4]—in turn understand what the novel might mean by quality at all [5]. (61)

The benefit to writing in an "uneven u" is that you know where your work is going and what it is trying to do, which in turn helps your reader keep up with you.

Looking for this structure in your unrevised project will help you to see if you accidentally followed a 2–2–2–2 arrangement, in which you have provided a lot of evidence, but did not pull your ideas together. Try labeling a paragraph or a section using this system, then ask yourself:

  • What kind of pattern emerges?
  • Does this paragraph or section need more specific arguments or interpretation?
  • What major idea is this paragraph or section linked to?

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Works Cited and Consulted

Booth, Wayne, Gregory G. Colomb and Joseph M. Williams. The Craft of Research. 3rd ed., University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Hayot, Eric. The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities. Columbia University Press, 2014.

Klein, Stella. "How to Edit your Dissertation." The Guardian, 1 April 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/apr/01/how-to-review-and-revise-your-dissertation. Accessed 7 July 2016.

Miller, Alison. Finish Your Dissertation Once and For All! American Psychological Association, 2009.

Schimel, Joshua. Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded. Oxford University Press, 2011.