Monday, December 26, 2011

The Twelve Step Program for Revising and Editing Papers

The Twelve Step Program for giving up stress over revising and editing papers

Here’s the deal: Start large and get small. Why would you want to edit punctuation before you know what sentences you want to cut? It is a big waste of time. So, work out what stays and what needs to go first, then pull out your handbook and dictionary and sweat the small stuff. The advice below will take more than 15 minutes—probably a couple of hours, but you should start at least 24 hours before the paper is due in case you need to do additional research or consult the teacher. You need to read over the paper with a critical eye, and I humbly suggest that you do this at the time of day when you are normally in the worst mood. Be reasonable but ruthless. Scowl at the paper. Use a red pen and pretend to be the teacher you hate the most (or a green pen if you prefer). But don’t skip any of the 12 steps below (including #13). Need I say this? “SAVE EACH DRAFT” with a new name—like “draft 53” (Try using a different color for each one, or if you only have one color ink left, try a different font.)
  1. First Cut: Read the paper over fairly fast and take out rambling bits, places where you lost direction, sentences or paragraphs that are off topic. Save this as “[your topic]-draft2.”
  2. Revising outline 1: Organization: Even if you made a perfect outline to start with, make another one. This time look at each paragraph and write its point in the margin next to it. Then list these points on a separate sheet and evaluate the organization. Is it logical? Do you repeat yourself? Should material be moved together? Do you have important ideas buried in the middle instead of stating them first or last where people will notice them more? Rearrange things. Now cut and paste ideas, sentences, and paragraphs according to what you learned from studying the revising outline. Save this draft in a different color or font than the last one, as “[your topic]-draft3.”
  3. Revising outline 2: Evidence: Make another revising outline from the new draft. This time, look at the evidence you used. Highlight and then list all evidence and see how much there is.
    • Do you need less evidence? More than 60% highlighted material may be too much, make sure your own analysis, connections, and argument are well formulated and are fore grounded so that the evidence supports your argument rather than being asked to try to make the argument for you. Even a paragraph that summarizes or synthesizes sources should begin with a topic sentence in your own words. If it doesn’t, revise it.
    • Do you need more evidence? Where? What kind? Every claim you make must be supported by at least one piece of reputable evidence (“Joe and Vinny’s music tips and medical facts page” is not reputable unless it tells you that the medical facts have been reviewed by a medical doctor—and names the doctor—or tells you the source from which they were taken.) Do you have that evidence somewhere, or must you go and do more research? Add it or do it!
    • Make whatever changes this analysis suggests. Save this draft in a different color or font than the last one, as “[your topic]-draft4.”
  4. Revising outline 3: Citations: Go over the new draft with your highlighter (or a different one to add variety), marking every single piece of information that comes from any source aside from your head. At each end of the highlight should be a “bookend”—an introductory phrase at the beginning and a citation at the end. If that isn’t so, fix it. Save this draft in another color or font as “[your topic]-draft5.” Use MLA, APA, Chicago, CBE, or whatever style your professor asked you to use. For composition, MLA is generally the default.
  5. Thesis check: Reread your introduction and highlight your thesis. Now look at each paragraph and note in the margin how it explains, develops, supports, or challenges your thesis. Is it clear what each paragraph is doing there? If not, add a sentence making it clear. This may well take the form of a topic sentence. (See below) Do you deal with arguments against your thesis (a.k.a. counter evidence?). If not, consider what objections someone could raise and insert at least one paragraph explaining the objection and either showing why it is not really an objection, or acknowledging its persuasiveness but affirming that it is not sufficient to dissuade you from your thesis. If there are no arguments that any reasonable person could make against your thesis if they have considered the same evidence as you, your thesis is weak (or simply a statement of truth). Revise it.
  6. Transitions and topic sentence check: These are absolutely essential in longer papers because after a certain point we can too easily get distracted or lost. Your task is to keep us on track. Topic sentences, broadly defined, can do this Topic sentences work like road signs, pointing us in a new direction or reassuring us that we are still going the right way! Each paragraph needs to begin with one or more sentences in your own words that (i) connect back to the previous paragraph, moving us smoothly into the new idea, (ii) connect back to the thesis so we know where we are going, and (iii) introduce the material to come in the rest of the paragraph. A simple topic sentence takes the form of a restatement of the thesis, such as “The second argument in favor of changing the drinking age to 12 is…” By page five this will be nauseatingly boring. Go for informed creativity. Look at your textbooks for examples of how to write really informative topic sentences. Textbooks make an art from of this. Add any topic sentences and transitions your last draft lacks and save the new draft in a different color or font (as “[your topic]-draft6.”)
  7. Revising outline 4: Perfection is possible: (This is the last outline—honestly!). This time, write out your thesis, then list each topic sentence, and under it note the source of your evidence. It is good to take a break here and come back to the outline later when your mind is refreshed and has had chance to think about something else for a while. Then make sure the outline is perfect. If there is no evidence to support a claim, look at your notes or pay another visit to the library or a reliable internet site. If there is too much, decide whether you need all of it. If you need more explanatory paragraphs, draft topic sentences for them. Review this the way you were taught to review the kind of outline some people create before they write a paper. Then make any final content additions, revisions, etc. (yes, save…)
  8. The head and the tail: Now it is looking like a paper! Read the introduction and then read the conclusion. Do they seem to belong to the same paper? If not, revise. Does the conclusion introduce the paper better than the introduction (come on, be honest)? If so, revise it as necessary and make it your introduction. Then write a new conclusion that concludes the paper (skim through your list of topic sentences and make sure that we are reminded of the main points in the conclusion and don't learn anything new there). Save this. It should be looking pretty good by now.
  9. Revising and editing sentences: Now you need to read the paper over from the beginning, retaining your critical mood. This time you’re looking for disjunctures—things that are out of place in this paper or in academic papers in general.
    • Pay attention to your tone and avoid informal usage (“kids,” for example) and excessively formal phrases that sound as if they come from the Thesaurus or a dictionary worm. Simple is often clearest. Don’t practice new vocabulary words if you aren’t sure what they mean. (Check your handbook for advice. In The Longman Writer’s Companion, 2nd ed. you’ll find a whole section on editing words on pages 175-186).
    • Avoid the word “you.” (If I’ve corrected this before, do a word search for “you” and replace any that you find.) English does not have a formal form of the word "you," and the informal should be avoided in formal situations just as it is in many other languages. “One,” “readers,” “researchers,” or “we” are appropriate substitutions.
    • Watch out for references that don’t refer to anything. The sentence “as soon as a student arrives in class, they should begin revising their paper” makes no sense because we don’t know to whom they and their refer. A student is singular, so can only be referred to by a singular referent (he or she). Pluralizing is your best bet (“As soon as students arrive in class, they should begin revising their papers.”)
    • Check for misleading introductory phrases. If you write “In Jamieson’s handout, ‘Revising Research Papers,’ she says….” you are not talking about something I wrote in that handout, but about something that “she” (someone other than me) is quoted in that handout as saying. Fix it to read, “In her handout, ‘Revising Research Papers,’ Jamieson says…” or simply “In ‘Revising Research Papers,’ Jamieson says…”)
    • Make sure your sentences are varied in style and length. Too many short sentences will start sounding like a list really quickly; however, don’t be tempted to just connect complete sentences with commas or you will create run-on sentences. (Check your handbook for advice. In The Longman Writer’s Companion, 2nd ed. you’ll find a section on editing sentences on pages 133-174).
    • Type in those editing changes and save the draft.
  10. Editing sentences for grammar and mechanics: Finally we get to those small changes! The easiest way to do this effectively is to print out the paper, turn to the last page, and read the last sentence. Then each sentence at a time, working your way up each page to the beginning. This takes a while, but it is amazing how many errors you’ll find. This is the single best way to edit a paper—even better than asking your room mate to do it (unless he or she already knows this strategy, but even so, you should do it yourself first.) Reading this way focuses your attention on each sentence as a sentence and prevents you from getting carried away by the quality of the content and reading right over the errors. As you read each sentence, keep an eye open for the kinds of errors others have pointed out in previous papers. Check to make sure each sentence makes sense, and that there is some overall variety in sentence length. (Check your handbook for advice. In The Longman Writer’s Companion, 2nd ed. you’ll find a whole section on editing grammar on pages 73 to 132, another on editing punctuation on pages 187 to 210, and a third on proofreading on pages 211 to 230). Write in changes as you go, and then type in those editing changes and save the draft.
  11. Formatting: You’re almost done. Now you need to check your formatting. Look at the example on page 70 of the Longman Writer’s Companion, 2nd ed. and follow the instructions exactly. Make sure your title tells us what the paper is about. Save the final draft in Times/Times New Roman 12, and make sure the text is black (most professors require black ink, which is the default, but if you run out, many will accept any dark color such as blue, purple, or brown—ask first). Make sure you have a works cited list that provides correct citations for all sources referred to in the paper (just the citation information NOT the annotations).
  12. Final Check: Read over the works cited listing and review the citations one more time. Then PRINT OUT THE FINAL DRAFT. Staple the pages in the top left corner.
    • Wait, there’s one more thing to do: Read over the copy you intend to hand in one last time. Make sure that all the pages are there, in the right otder (and the right way up) and that nothing odd happened during printing.
  13. okay, I lied, but -- Yeah. You're DONE!! Do a victory dance and hand in what will be an awesome paper if you have really followed these steps