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We know it is essential for improving our creations. We know it works. Yet… we struggle to actually do it.
I’m not here to shame you, because Goddess knows that is the opposite of my jam (PS: did you know that “jam” is a term gay people used to use back in the day as a code word for “heterosexual”? The things you learn when you’re writing a dissertation on lesbian publications from the 1940s!). Instead, I’m here to teach you how feel more empowered about revising by showing you how to break it down into effective, intentional steps.
Revision is a big topic, so I’m presenting it to you as a two parter. This post will cover how to make a realistic revision plan that will set you up for success, and next week’s post will break down how to carry out those plans in action. And lest you think this post is only for my fellow dissertators, know that the plan and action steps are transferable for any creative project revisions.
Why Revision Planning Matters
We often underestimate how long and drawn out the revision process will be. We may know what we want our final draft to do or look like generally, but we bypass the fact that we need to perform multiple complex actions to actually get it from a blank screen to a finely tied bow on top. While this confusion is often attributed to the planning fallacy, where we optimisticly think yeah, I can do that in an hour when previous tasks have never once taken less than 10 hours, it may also be due to a lack of effective planning. If we generate a plan ahead of time that recognizes who we’re writing for, what they want from us (and what we want from us), and what our particular revision should be accomplishing, then we will set up guidance and motivation to ease our revision process.
Audience & Expectations
Your first step in making a revision plan is identifying your audience. Is this a dissertation chair? A professor? A potential employer? A magazine editor? An agent? An ideal client avatar? An evaluation committee for a job, fellowship, or scholarship? Let’s call this person your “evaluator,” because they will be evaluating the quality of your revision.
Your next step is to identify what their expectations are of your revision. It may be possible to directly ask them for their expectations or read them on an application page. What would quality revision look like to them? Are they sticklers for following the rules, or for breaking them? Are they looking for daring creativity? Do they want an entire overhaul? Do they want you to double the project in length, or cut it down by a third? If you jive with your evalutor’s expectations, you should adjust your output to hit them explicitly. Don’t waste your time trying to do all the things if you know this evaluator is really only looking for you to do one thing well.
A note on what to do when your expectations do not line up with your evaluator’s.
Sometimes your expectations for what a revision should do will be in disagreement with your evaluator’s expectations. This may be due to a difference in interests, field, training, politics, experience, etc. There are a number of ways you can address this dischord, but I’ll focus on three here:
- Choose your battle and revise purely to satisfy your evaluator’s standard of quality, get a high score, and move on, even if you disagree.
- Choose to stay true to your opinion of what equals quality-to-you and submit your revision as is with no qualifiers. This also applies to when you are truly okay with submitting average work. Real talk example: When I was going through some rough times in college (not yet in recovery for my alcoholism + undiagnosed Complex PTSD + working 30-40 hours a week), I decided to just do C-level work in particular classes that I knew wouldn’t hurt my ability to apply to an MFA. I got mostly Bs at least three Cs in college, and a decade later I have an MFA, an MA, am a year away from finishing my PhD, and will celebrate six years of sobriety on this month. Perspective and priorities, buddies.
- Choose to communicate with them directly about how you plan to direct your revisions. Because I am interested in pushing the limitations of standard academic writing to make it more accessible and interdisplinary, I try to explain to my evaluator what this will look like in my actual product. They usually help me in my creative revisions, or at least try to meet me in the middle. To communicate with your own evaluator, acknowledge their expectations, and also communicate why you prefer to do X. Share examples with them of successful X. If there are no examples of successful X yet, then that may be your motivation for generating your own project in X way the first place!
Draft Version & Purpose
We usually have to revise more than once, not because we suck at creating, but because each iteration serves a particular purpose. I’ll talk about writing papers here, but feel free to adapt the sentiments to art or music or other creative constructive work that requires drafting and revision.
“Zero” aka First Draft
Your purpose here is to generate ideas and start developing a thesis. This draft may lack clear transitions, examples, or an introduction or conclusion, and that is totally okay.
Note: I have heard people use “zero draft” to describe brainstorming and visualizing ideas in outlines, concept maps, or other non-prose formats. I count that labor of creation as a proper first draft. I allow my students to turn in visualized first drafts, and I often submit them alongside any prose I’ve generated when I share my first draft with my evaluator.
Your purpose here is to start developing a systematic structure for your argument. What needs to come first, second, third, etc. You’re moving your ideas around and seeing how they talk to one another.
Second, Third, etc. (but not final) Revisions
Your purpose here is to hone your paper’s systematic argument by developing the effectiveness of individual sections (work on sentences, then paragraphs, then groups of paragraphs). Hone your word choice and structure for the purpose of meaning, and leave copy editing to your…
Your ideas and argument are already solid, so your purpose here is copy editing and refining the surface of your paper. Think punctuation, choosing the most effective transitional word, cutting out unnecessary words, and completing that blasted bibliography page that we tend to leave until final edits are due.
I broke the revision process down into these parts because your job as a reviser is to identify the purpose of the draft you’re working on and do only that and no more.
Once you know what the purpose is for your particular revision, give yourself permission to put off anything that will distract you from the goal at hand. This will help to limit overwhelm and will give you a roadmap for doing a good job at THIS draft.
Write up a plan
I developed a revision plan worksheet that you can use to guide your own planning. You can access a printable version of these questions in this Revision Plan Worksheet or view them below.
- Project Name:
- Draft I’m working on now: First, Revised draft #____, Final
- Hard Deadline for Final draft:
- Hard Deadline for THIS Draft:
- Like to Have Deadline for THIS draft:
- Is anyone providing me with feedback during THIS draft? When do I need to get this draft to them in order to give them adequate time to comment and also give me adequate time to address their comments before I submit my revision to my evaluator?
- Who will be evaluating the quality of my project?
- What is their criteria for a “good job” on for THIS draft?
- What is my criteria for a “good job” on for THIS draft?
- Which of their/my criteria am I aiming for in this project, and why? What will that look like in THIS specific draft? Is it possible to lessen my energy output and still do well on THIS draft?
- What obstacles might I run into while I’m revising? How can I plan ahead to deal with them?
- How will I take care of myself throughout the revision process?
- How often will I take breaks, and what will I do during my breaks?