Tools to Streamline Revision
Tuesday, September 06, 2011 Tech Tips
By Matt Smith, Writing Consultant
In my previous blog post, I focused on software that can help you generate, record, and organize your ideas during the prewriting phase of a writing project, whether you’re working on a short personal essay or a massive scholarly paper. Those programs can be incredibly helpful as you create your early drafts, but using them when you’re tweaking your final drafts—refining your language to make it more concise, for example, or making sure that each topic or subtopic in your paper has its own paragraph—is a bit like swinging an ax instead of tapping a chisel: Some tools are meant for felling and chopping, while some are meant for shaping and sculpting. In this post, I’ll focus on some tools that can help you polish your text in the final stages of the writing process.
The most indispensable of these finishing tools is also probably the least exciting—Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar checker (discussed more in-depth here). Grammar and spelling (often simply called mechanics), while minor compared to big-picture concerns like organization and tone, have a powerful effect on your readers overall, and correcting mechanical issues is usually one of the easiest and most noticeable improvements you can make in revision. (Think of them as the fasteners that hold your paper together: One or two loose nails or missing screws won’t do much harm, but if too many are misused or absent, you’ll have a pile of assorted lumber instead of a wall, a bookshelf, or a cabinet.) Be careful, however, not to rely on this function too heavily—the exact meaning, after all, is tricky for even the smartest program to discern, and Word will occasionally misread your writing.
Speaking of built-in Word features, you can also use the Find/Replace function (press Control + F to open it) during revision to make your writing more concise. In early drafts, many writers—myself included, shamefully—tend to use two or even three words, usually adjectives, when they only need one to convey their meaning. While searching for all of these redundant words manually would test the patience of a monk, they’re most often connected by the conjunction and, so you can usually find a phrase with redundant words, such as examine and inspect the theories of Vygotsky, by searching for and and eliminating the extra words (in this case, by deleting and inspect).
Concision, of course, operates alongside diction (also called word choice), another important element of writing style, and diction’s effect on your readers is subtle but significant. While always and often may seem to have similar enough meanings for casual conversation (the grocery store is always out of my favorite peanut butter isn’t too far off from the grocery store is often out of my favorite peanut butter), in scholarly writing the difference between always and often can determine whether your research findings are lauded as revolutionary in your field or dismissed as misleading hyperbole. Luckily, you can use Wordle to eliminate overused words that could be easily misinterpreted (such as always). When you upload your text to Wordle, it creates a word cloud, or an arrangement of the words that appear most often in your writing scaled according to their frequency—that is, the most-used words are larger, while the less-used ones are smaller. If any of the larger words have especially strong or broad meanings, you can use the Find/Replace feature in Word to find them and replace them with more descriptive, nuanced words. Wordle can also help you vary your use of phrases that are repetitive but otherwise harmless. For example, you might not realize, during the drafting of your paper, that you’ve used the phrase Department of Health and Human Services 27 times in your seven-page paper until you see it in a Wordle cloud in a 64-point font.
While the issues I’ve covered so far are all vital qualities of writing that you need to consider when you revise your work, occasionally you’ll want to make major structural readjustments to your paper’s organization instead of focusing on these comparatively minor issues of style. Even if you begin your paper with a detailed outline built on crystalline logic, some measure of chaos inevitably creeps in as you write. For example, it may have taken you three paragraphs to adequately address a topic when you thought it would take only two, or you might have had far less material to include in a section than you initially planned. The result is often a paper full of interesting, thoughtful, yet disorganized ideas. At the Writing Center, we often recommend that students use a technique called reverse outlining to address their papers’ organization as they revise. As the name implies, reverse outlining consists of going through your paper and noting the topic of each paragraph, usually on a note card or Post-it; reorganizing these topics into an outline that makes clear, logical sense; and applying this new structure to your paper.
Reverse outlining can be a bit time-consuming, but there are a few software tools to make it faster and simpler. The word-processing and project-management program Scrivener has the most innovative implementation of this feature currently available. Scrivener’s Corkboard allows you to rearrange note cards on a virtual corkboard, and each note card represents a particular portion of your text. For example, if you move the note card titled “Impact of Piaget’s theories on contemporary psychology” so that it comes after the card titled “Introduction of Piaget,” Scrivener will actually move the text of the “Impact of Piaget’s theories…” section so that it comes after the text of the “Introduction…” section. Of course, you’ll still need to make minor adjustments to your text, such as tweaking your transitions, but this can save you a great deal of time overall in revision. (Note: Scrivener is currently only available on Macs, though there is a Windows version in development.) You can also use programs like PNotes or Word’s Outline View feature to reverse-outline your paper, though you’ll need to rearrange the text in your document manually.
Though these tools are by no means exhaustive—they can only supplement good writing practices and skills, not replace them—they can be a huge help as you enter the final stages of producing a finished discussion post, reflection paper, KAM, or dissertation. Revision is, quite literally, the process of seeing your writing again, and if nothing else these tools can help you to see, and refine, aspects of your work that weren’t yet apparent in your earlier drafts.