The Biggest Mistake when Revising Your Writing

revising the path-writing-Lemyre-Distant Voyage

There is a mistake that plays a role in every challenge you have when revising your dissertation, academic book, or journal article.

And there are tons of those challenges, more than plenty to go around:

How do you keep the whole in mind, and move between big picture changes and fine grained revisions, and all the moving parts?

How do you get the different parts and chapters to cohere so that they are all part of a “book?”

Or, you rearrange things one way and it fixes something in one part of the text, but it causes more problems somewhere else.

Different people give you different feedback—how do you meet different expectations, accommodate all the demands on you without making a bigger mess of things?

How do you match theory or scholarly conversations on the one hand, and presentation of material, description, or research on the other?

You tinker and toil on something for days or weeks, but you don’t even know if it will be in the final text.

You can get bogged down with any of these confusing decisions for months, or years.

Much of that time can be spent stuck, or wandering in the mazes of your text. And then it can feel hopeless.

But there is something underlying all these troubles, and there is something you can do about that.

Now, to be honest here, there is no magic pill for an efficient revision process.

There is a whole lot that has to be learned before you master the process of revision.

But there IS an efficient process of revision. It exists. And anyone can learn to do it.

Sure it takes a little time to learn– more time than this article.

So if there is no magic pill for revision, then what is the closest thing to a magic pill for revision, that you can do right now to get started on the path to revision?

What I’ve found more often than not is that when one is bogged down in revision, the writer has no trouble articulating all or more of the problems above, right away. But when I ask them one question, there is a telling pause.

That question is: “What do you want your book to be like?”

But it is precisely knowing this ONE THING that helps with everything, and there is a good chance you haven’t worked hard enough on it yet.

The good news is that, chances are, doing that work now will help you right away, and for weeks to come, no matter what the trouble is.

And the best part is that it is 2/3’s fun!


How to Eat Your Revision Sandwich

This procedure has three parts, which are stacked in order like a sandwich. It’s one slice yummy bread to begin. Then there is the… er… filling. And then it’s another yummy slice of bread. Two thirds good!

Revising is like eating a shit sandwich, let’s be straight and trustworthy here. Shit sandwiches are on the menu of all ambitious creative endeavors, especially long-haul ones like writing. Those who succeed are willing to eat them and finish their work.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t focus on the bread.

So here’s how you make a palatable revision shit sandwich.

What you need:
Your Imagination
Memories of Your Draft, and Writing Your Draft
90 min.
pad and paper


Since we are academic writers here, we have the very good fortune of being able to orient ourselves and our attention in the same medium that we work in, writing. 

Do this 90 minute or so procedure in writing. Writing goes deep. Especially in a writer. Of course I know you are going to read through all these procedures but if you can resist that and do it one at a time, and move on, that would be great. Most important of all is to actually do the exercise and see what it stirs up. I know how it is– we read something, think “got it, good point” or we think “that wasn’t anything” or better, but not good enough, “I’m definitely going to do this one day.” It’s far more effective to actually go through the process of weaving this deeply into your writing being by actually doing the writing.

So on to part one…

Slice One: The Piece You Meant to Make

Here we do the work of re-connecting with the origins of our drafts. Answer these questions with about a paragraph of free-writing, but feel free to go on longer.

Because these questions are closely related to grant proposals, try to answer truthfully from your own sense of interest rather than from how you officially proposed to write your work (that, is if an official proposal was different—it might not have been different from what you really wanted).


1. What was your original idea or trigger? What made you want to write this piece? What was the connection you made or what did you connect with at that moment?


2. How did you imagine the topic and material or research—what did it include in your mind? Describe what it would cover and portray.


3. Describe how you imagined the work would contribute to on-going conversations. What fields would it speak to, as you intended at first, and what would it say?


Slice one is about good times—the sense of starting out and what you wanted when you set out writing. Re-connect with it here.



Slice Two: What you have now.

Here we use our memory and knowledge of having written our draft to see which things stick out in our mind as urgent and important for revision. We can use a more systematic approach to step-by-step revision later, but now we want to connect in the broadest sense with what we have on our hands.


1. What parts did you love writing? What parts felt good to write? Were there any pleasant surprises? What do you feel good about now?


2. What 3-7 parts of the text stand out in your mind now as getting mucked up when you were writing them? IMPORTANT: This refers to actual places in the text that you remember, not general attributes. When you wrote your draft you knew some places were not going well. List them with labels in a way that identifies them for you.


3. Now go through this list, and write a sentence or two for each that describes what you think went wrong there specifically.



Slice Three: Your Destination


This is the most fun and the most important part of the Pre-sweep goal setting.

Here you get to just dream and imagine. So, go ahead and relax and imagine your finished work. See it physically. Imagine what the cover looks like and what the pages look like. How did you imagine the topic and material or research would appear in final form? Are there a lot of descriptions, anecdotes, storytelling, or quotes, are there a lot of diagrams or photos, or theoretical exegeses? How does the text array itself on the page? Just picture that in your mind.

Now after you’ve connected a bit with that sense, and don’t rush it, take your pen and pad out and write an answer to the following questions about how you want to your text to be.


1. What is the biggest change that has been made to your draft that brought it to where it is in your imagination?

This could be changes in the amount and nature of material presented, stories told, descriptions and depictions and conversations portrayed, the arguments made. It could be anything, but it is the biggest change that brought your text to this new place as it is in your imagination.


2. What is the second biggest change?


3. What is the third biggest change?


And it stops right there. You have three high priority tasks now. You have three marks that you are trying to hit with your work. That’s not all you have now, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but first a word about setting your mark…

This may seem too simple, or too touchy-feely, asking you to use– gasp— imagination, like there is something weak or new agey about that. But the fact is that most us have not specifically envisioned the most important changes to our work before. We’ve let others tell us what they are, or we have hundreds of possibilities swirling in our mind, or we know very well many, many things to change, that are “bad” and “wrong” in our mind, but we do not have a sense of where to start, or it’s overwhelming.

But most importantly of all, we have no sense of what all these changes are supposed to add up to.


Blind Revision

You can’t hit a mark that is not there.

And while the plethora of decisions that you face as a reviser is vast and deep, it is infinitely more difficult to traverse all that without a sense of where, exactly, you are trying to go.

Writers routinely open their documents and look for what’s wrong, and work away at fixing it, with blinders on, oblivious to what the destination is.

So I’m sure you can see now that what we have, in using our imagination, is much deeper than a to-do list. (We need those, too).

Instead we have a compass, and now you can see how this relatively short and informal pre-scan starts to target your revision process.

It may seem so obviously important that you can’t believe you’ve neglected it. Don’t feel bad. Almost everyone I’ve worked with, and my own self at times, sees only flaws to fix, but doesn’t see as clearly what they are going for. This mind-shift is essential to revision, and especially efficient revision.

Now, of course there is a lot more to talk about here, like how to systematically go about enacting the changes to get where you want to be. But…

You can’t do that efficiently without having a place you want to be.

Like I said, it’s not a magic pill. Although it is not a cure-all, IT IS A HELP-ALL. Having done this pre-scan, everything else about revising will become a little easier.

And yet another thing you have gained is that you have begun to get yourself used to breaking things down and using procedures and techniques on the road to revising, rather than winging it.

This is the greatest way to start off on that journey to finished.


To continue that journey, consider downloading the Free eBook Series on Writing which is for practicing your writing process so that it’s focused and builds momentum, and exploring writing techniques that bring your work up to the next level, removing the writing obstacles that slow down our prose or make it unsatisfying to you. It’s a joy to write again.

Click here to download it right now: Free eBook Series on Writing