The writing process is never done--it is only finished when you need to hand something in or voluntarily discontinue working. If you were to pick up a piece of writing that you completed two years ago, you undoubtedly would see ways that you could improve it. Two years later, you could do the same thing. Because perspectives on life and the world are always changing (even if we don't notice it), we will always look at our writing differently. We also learn more in the meantime, either about our writing or the topic that we are writing about, or just about ourselves. Nobody's writing is perfect. Nobody gets a piece "right" on the very first try, which is why writers go back many times and rework their writing so that it makes more sense, is clearer, and is more presentable to the reader. Although you should read the full text of this section, for some quick revision hints click here.
It is easier here to start with what revision is not. Revision is not proofreading for typographical errors or misplaced words, and revision is not using your spell check. While these two are important steps that should be done before you submit any piece of writing, they do not actually constitute revision.
So, you are asking yourself, what is revision? Revision is the process of looking back on your writing (or someone else's writing) and making changes to it to make it better. Many books give advice on revising that isn't really helpful. They say things such as "remove unnecessary words." But how exactly do you know that those words are unnecessary? How do you write with clarity, conciseness, and organization, and still make sure that your point has come across?
The first thing that you need to do is to make sure that you distance yourself from your work. This will allow you to look at it with fresh eyes. There is one very easy way to distance yourself from your work; leave it alone, at least overnight. So yes, you need to finish your work at least a few days before it is actually due. In doing so, you can "sleep on it." Don't look at it for at least a whole day. Or, if you only have an hour to distance yourself from it, do something in the meantime that will allow you to clear your head and not think about your paper at all. Then, when you pick it up again, you can begin to revise it.
Revision is a very difficult concept to teach to people. Writers especially are very attached to their own words. They wrote them, and they are reluctant to change them. But remember that you can write the best sentence in the whole world, and it can be a sentence that absolutely does not belong in what you are writing. That is when you need to take a pair of scissors, cut the sentence out, and save it in a folder for later. Maybe you will get to use it in another paper. Maybe you will later find that you have a whole folder full of great sentences. In either case, you need to realize that the sentence doesn't actually belong where it is, and that it is okay to remove it or alter it so it does belong.
Revision, as I already stated, is a complex process which must take place at a number of different levels. But there are really only four things that you can do to change what you have physically written down. These are:
Now that you have an indication of what you can do to revise something, you need to think about where to look at your paper. Revision, like writing, is usually something that is done from a larger to a smaller scale (although it doesn't have to be). For example, if you have written a research paper, first, you identified an overall topic that you wanted to research. Then you narrowed this down into a research question. Next you answered this question by creating a working thesis. You explained the thesis in depth by moving through an outline, answering each section of the outline with research and explanation and support. Finally you reviewed your work for its appropriateness towards its audience.
Your paper revision should move in much the same way, although the steps are somewhat shorter. You have already identified a topic and developed a working research question. These may not require revision. However, you should look at your paper and ask yourself: Does my paper match the thesis? In other words, is the question that you developed as a result of your question and answer chain the one that your paper answered, or is your paper answering a slightly different question? If your paper seems to be slightly different than what you thought you would be answering, you have two choices. You could, of course, rewrite the paper so that it did match your thesis. The easier course, though, is to change your thesis, and maybe some parts of your introduction as well, to be sure that they are compatible with the rest of your work.
From here, you need to next look at the overall "shape" of your paper. Ask yourself questions such as the following:
Try also looking "in between" your paragraphs. Okay, I can hear everybody saying that there is nothing in between paragraphs. But in the little silence in between each paragraph there is a little thing called a "transition." And that little silent "transition" actually has a pretty powerful voice. That little silence in between each paragraph needs to speak--it is there to say to your reader, "Okay, we just covered one point, and now we are moving to another, related point." Are there any gaps in between, where your transition is "silent," and where suddenly you make leaps from one piece of information to another, potentially leaving your reader behind? Sometimes it is easy to spot where you, as the writer and the informed researcher, might be making a leap from a subject to another subject--and only you can see how those are related! Now, you need to look at those spaces and ask, does the end of one paragraph indicate that the reader will be moving to another, related point? If not, you need to add a transitional statement or change your existing information so that your reader can tell that there will be a shift.
The third step of revision is to look at the sentence level of your writing; look at sentences in relationship to other sentences. Does each sentence follow another sentence in logical order? Do you have quotes that are "strung together" (one quote followed directly by another; usually a bad option)? These are places where you may need to add information to either make connections between two thoughts in two different sentences, or offer your reader some interpretation or explanation in between your supporting evidence (your quotes).
Last but not least, you should look at your paper at the word level. Are you using appropriate words for your audience? Are you defining terms and abbreviations that are specialized and are unique to your research project or need to be defined in order for your reader to fully understand them? (EMS, for example, can be either "Emergency Medical Systems" or "Eastern Mountain Sports"--and there is a very big difference between the two!) Are you using words that are big just to impress your audience? Sometimes words that are too big make sentences sound odd or awkward and, in that case, it would be better to simplify. Do you have words that your spell checker didn't catch because they are spelled correctly, even though they aren't the right words? (People have gotten into some pretty embarrassing situations with that one!) Are your words in the right order? For instance, do you want the reader to remember the big, ugly, red shoes, or the ugly, big, red shoes? An example such as this may not seem to make much difference, but it certainly can.
Revision has become much easier with the rise of computers. Don't be afraid to use your cut and paste key--you can always move things back. Don't be afraid to print out your paper, and in the process of trying to see what it might look like in a different format, take a pair of scissors and cut out paragraphs or sentences, move them around and tape them back together. I handed in a rough draft like that once in high school. Once the teacher was done quizzing me on how I wound up with some pages that were three inches long and some that were sixteen inches long, she was so thrilled with the idea that she made everybody take out their scissors!
Also remember that sometimes your best critic for a paper, especially an essay where you have done a lot of research and immersed yourself in the information, is a person who knows nothing about your topic. That is the person who can help you understand where there are words or terms that need to be defined, places where your organization doesn't make as much sense as it might, or paragraphs where you thought the main idea was clear (and they just can't see it). People like that are very valuable as helpers in the process of revision. Remember, just like any other subject, revision needs to be practiced to be done well, and revising alone is not always the most successful option. Don't be afraid to share your work with others. The more feedback you get from people, the more you will begin to see how to improve your work.