The point of quick revising is to turn out a clean, clear, professional final draft without taking as much time as you would need for major rethinking and reorganizing. It is a clean-and-polish operation, not a growing-and-transforming one. You specifically refrain from meddling with any deeper problems of organization or reconceptualization.
The best time to use quick revising is when the results don’t matter too much. Perhaps you are not preparing a final, finished product but rather a draft for friends. It has to be clear, easy to read – if possible even a pleasure to read. But it needn’t be your best work or your final thinking. Perhaps it’s a draft for discussion or perhaps just a chance for people to learn your thinking about some matter as though you were writing a letter to them. Or perhaps you are just writing for yourself but you want to clean up your draft so that it will be easier and more productive to read when you come back to it.
But there is another situation when you can use quick revising and unfortunately it is the one when you are most likely to use it: an occasion that is very important when the writing has to work for an important audience, but you lack time. You can’t afford to re-see, re-think, and re-write completely your raw writing in the amount of time you have left. Maybe it was your fault and now you are kicking yourself; maybe it was unavoidable. But either way you are stuck. It is 10:30 P.M. now and you have only ten pages of helter-skelter thinking on paper, you need an excellent, polished, full report by tomorrow morning, and you care very much how the reader, reacts to it. In such situations you have to contend with anxiety as well as lack of time. You need the discipline of the quick revising process.
Quick revising is simple and minimal. A lot depends on having the right spirit: businesslike and detached. A certain ruthlessness is best of all. Not desperate-ruthless, “Oh God, this is awful, I’ve got to change everything,” but breezy-ruthless, “Yes, this certainly does have some problems. I wish I could start over and get the whole thing right, but not this time. I guess I’ll just have to put the best face on things.” If you are too worried about what you wrote or too involved with it, you’ll have to work overtime to get the right spirit. You need to stand outside yourself and be someone else.
First, if this piece is for an audience, think about who that audience is and what your purpose is in writing to it. You had the luxury of putting aside all thoughts of audience and purpose during the producing stage (if that helped you think and write better), but now you must keep them in mind as you make critical decisions in revising. Try to see your audience before you as you revise. It’s no good ending up with a piece of writing that’s good-in-general-whatever that means. You need something that is good for your purpose with your audience.
Next, read through all your raw writing and find the good pieces. Don’t worry about the criteria for choosing them. It’s fine to be intuitive. If the sentence or passage feels good for this purpose or seems important for this audience, mark it.
Next, figure out your single main point and arrange your best bits in the best order. It’s easiest if you can figure out your main point first. That gives you leverage for figuring and what order to put things in. But sometimes your main point refuses to reveal itself – the one thing you are really trying to say here, the point that sums up everything else. All your writing may be circling around or leading up to a main idea that you can’t quite figure out yet. In such a dilemma, move on to the job of working out the best order for your good passages. That ordering process – that search for sequence and priorities – will often flush your main point out of hiding.
You can just put numbers in the margin next to the good bits to indicate the right order if your piece is short and comfortable for you. But if it is long or difficult you need to make an outline before you can really work out the best order. It helps most to make an outline consist of complete assertions with verbs – thoughts, not just areas. And of course as you work out this order or outline you will think of things you left out – ideas or issues that belong in your final draft that weren’t in your raw writing. You can now indicate each of them with a sentence.
If after all this – after getting, as it were, all your points and getting them in the right order – you still lack the most important idea or assertion that ties them all together into a unity; if you have connected all this stuff but you cannot find the single thought that pulls it all together, and of course this sometimes happens, you simply have to move on. You have a deadline. There is a good chance that your main idea or center of gravity will emerge later, and even if it doesn’t you have other options.
The next step is to write out a clean-but-not-quite-final draft of the whole piece – excluding the very beginning. That is, don’t write your first paragraph or section now unless it comes to you easily. Wait till you have a draft of the main body before deciding how to lead up to it – or whether it needs leading up to. How can you clearly or comfortably introduce something before you know precisely what it is you are introducing? So just begin this draft with your first definite point. Out of the blue. Start even with your second or third point if the first one raises confusing clouds of “how-do-I-get-started.”
Perhaps you can use the good passages almost as they are – copy them or use scissors – and only write transitional elements to get you from one to another. Or perhaps you need to write out most of it fresh. But you can go fast because you have all your points in mind and in order, and probably you have a clearly stated, single main idea holding it all together.
If you don’t yet know your single main point, there is a very good chance that it will come to you as you are writing this draft. The process of writing the real thing to the real audience will often drive you to say, “What I’m really trying to make clear to you is . . .” and there is your main point. This is especially likely to happen toward the end of your piece as you are trying to sum things up or say why all this is important or makes sense. When your main point emerges late in this way, you may have to go back and fiddle a bit with your structure. It is very common that the last paragraph you write, when you finally say exactly what you mean in the fewest words, is just what you need (with perhaps a minor adjustment) for your first paragraph.
So now you have a draft and a clear statement of your main idea. Finally you can write what you need for an introductory paragraph or section. Almost certainly you need something that gives the reader a clear sense of your main point – where you are going. If you have been writing under the pressure of a tight deadline your final draft will probably have some problems, and so this is no time for tricky strategies or leaving the reader in the dark. Subtlety is for when you can get everything just right.
Finally, get rid of mistakes in grammar and usage.
Main Steps in Quick Revising
- Try to step outside yourself and get into a spirit of pragmatic detachment. Emphasize cutting.
- Keep your audience and purpose clearly in mind.
- Mark the good passages.
- Figure out the main point.
- Put the good passages in order. Perhaps make an outline. Add pieces that are missing.
- Write out a draft – excluding the beginning.
- Write the beginning; make sure you have a suitable conclusion.
- Tighten and clarify by cutting. Reading your draft outloud will help you experience it from a reader’s point of view.
- Get rid of mistakes in grammar and usage.