Some Tips About Revising

The following is a list of things to check for when you revise, to make sure you don’t do them. Write your paper first, then look at this.

  1.  It is very unlikely, given the length of the papers in 10A, that you will need block quotations. In general, don’t quote more than you can analyze and don’t quote anything you don’t need. You should devote roughly two to five sentences of your own prose to analyze one line of the text. Be sure to quote selectively; don’t quote something that isn’t directly tied to your thesis, and don’t quote anything you don’t analyze. You don’t have to write a review and explain “what happened” in the text; you are offering an explanation and interpretation of the text. Ask yourself “why,” “how,” and “what” questions as you look at the language of the text; how does a particular word or phrase work, what is it doing, and why is the author using that particular expression.
  2.  Don’t generalize; be very specific. Rather than concentrate on the entire text, isolate a few passages or points to discuss, and discuss them in excruciating detail, being sure to relate each point to your thesis. Avoid the “everybody knows” sorts of generalities that are typical in the first few sentences of papers; they will put you and your reader to sleep (“The middle ages were a time of anti-feminism . . . ”).
  3.  Avoid starting a sentence with “this” (or the plural equivalent “these”): “This shows that Beowulf . . . .” Beginning with “this” not only makes you sound like you don’t know what the author is doing (if you knew, you would have said what she was doing), you also confuse your reader who will have to figure out what “this” refers to. You should also think carefully before starting a sentence with “it” “there” “that/those,” and “such.” In each case, ask your self if the thing you are referring to is blatantly obvious to your reader; if your referent isn’t obvious, find another, more direct way to start the sentence.
  4.  Make sure you have a clear, strong thesis; something you can “prove” in the rest of your paper. Narrow your thesis down to something specific enough that you can deal with it efficiently. Make sure that each paragraph is clearly related to your central thesis (and don’t simply repeat parts of the thesis without making a connection). Without a thesis you have no purpose in writing, no way to organize paragraphs, and your paper will resemble a loosely connected jumble of ideas with no real point.
  5.  Don’t rely on generalities. You are better off using a debatable thesis (“Margery Kempe was less sincere about her faith than Julian of Norwich”) that you can support by careful interpretation, than you would be if you merely cite mindless generalities. If you can support your thesis with evidence from the texts you won’t be “wrong.”Be specific.
  6.  Avoid the stereotypical paper structure of a thesis containing three ideas that are the topic sentences for the following paragraphs. A tripartite structure is useful on an essay exam when you are absolutely desperate, but it creates bland essays. Use a thesis that has a point, something to persuade your reader is true.
  7.  Avoid “obviously,” “clearly,” and similar expressions; it may not be obvious to everyone, and if it is obvious, why bother saying it? When you revise your essay cross out such tag phrases and turn the sentence into a declarative statement; you need to sound sure even when you aren’t; for the duration of your paper, you are an expert.
  8.  Remove all instances of passive voice. It sounds like you are not sure of yourself, and weakens your argument. Come see me if you want some help.
  9. Don't use three words when you could use one to express the same idea more effectively. Be especially cautious about prepositional phrases, phrases that contain a preposition like: of, on, with, beside, over, about, and in. Ask yourself if there is a better way of saying the same thing without using a prepositional phrase. Prepositions are not bad; it's just that often we use them to create long, winding, poorly organized and hard to follow sentences.
  10.  You can email me to ask brief questions, or send me a paragraph to see what I think, or a thesis statement, even an outline.

Spangenberg 06/2003