Writer's Workshop #1: A Bird's-Eye View -->

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

Writer's Workshop #1: A Bird's-Eye View

Beth Oyler discusses revision.
By Beth Oyler, Writing Consultant

This post is the first in our new monthly Writer’s Workshop series, which provides students with activities to improve their writing.

When I talk about the revision process, some students look at me blankly, wondering What process? Don’t worry if you’re one of those people. If you don’t usually revise your papers (or even if you do), know that revision is just what I say: a process.  You’ll develop your own revision process as you develop your writing, and I hope that the Writer’s Workshop series will help.

The most useful revision strategy for me has to do with organization and getting a bird’s-eye view. Once I’ve completed a first draft of a paper, I take an inventory of the information I’ve included so far. This helps me better understand whether I’ve fully supported my thesis, developed all ideas fully, and organized my information in a logical manner.

To take an inventory, read through the paper paragraph by paragraph, summarizing each paragraph in one sentence (that’s right, just one—or even a phrase if you can swing it!). Don’t let yourself get too wordy. If you can’t summarize the paragraph in a short, simple sentence, star* the summary for that paragraph so you know to come back to it later.

Write your summaries in a way that works for you. If you like Word’s comments feature, use it. If you’d rather print your paper and jot the summaries on a hard copy, go for it.

Okay, so now you have your outline, right? Make sure you’ve starred* any summaries that are too long (if you’re confused, see my example here).  Great! Now we’re ready to dive into those summary phrases/sentences.

First, look at the content of these summaries.
  • Are you missing anything important?
  • Was there something you meant to talk about that didn’t make it into your draft?
  • Is there any information that you don’t need to include that seems to stick out?
Add notes to your list and cross out summaries that don’t seem necessary to the paper. Use your outline to help place any new information.

Now, take another look at those starred* summaries (the ones you weren’t sure what to do with). Why couldn’t you summarize the paragraph succinctly?
  • Is the paragraph too long?
  • Does the paragraph cover too much information and lose focus?
  • Was the paragraph’s information unclear?
Remember that a well-developed paragraph is a collection of sentences that explore a particular idea. If you can’t summarize what that idea is, the paragraph’s focus or development isn’t clear. Identify why your paragraphs were difficult to summarize and make a plan to fix the issue.

The idea of making a plan here is key—now that you’ve identified an issue in your paragraph, you’ll need to know how to fix it! If a paragraph’s scope is too wide, determine how you’ll split the paragraph, noting this in your outline.

Next, focus on the logic and organization of your summaries.
  • Does the order of your paragraphs advance your thesis?
  • Does the organization seem logical and the paragraphs lead into one another?
If your organization needs to be adjusted, play with your summaries’ order to see what works best. Remember that scholarly writing is all about communicating ideas to the reader, so you’ll always need to consider the reader’s perspective.

The last step is making the proposed changes in your draft. Look over my example to learn how the technique can transform an actual paper.

Now, try this in your next assignment! By taking a bird’s-eye view, focusing on the main idea in each paragraph, you’ll see the larger impact of your paper without getting hung up on the minutiae. Keep in mind that once you’ve revised your paragraphs’ organization, you’ll want to pay attention to transitions and flow, ensuring that each paragraph leads into the next.

So far we've discussed how this revision technique can help your own writing, but you can also use it to analyze other writers. Take an article or book chapter and use summaries to determine how those writers organize and present their information. By breaking other authors’ work down, you might just stumble on some organization strategies you can steal! 


  1. Beth, this is a great strategy for revising a paper. I am going to try it with a course paper that I must submit in a couple of weeks. I just got the instructor's review back, and she wants me to add a couple of things to the paper. I am already over the word limit, so I hope this strategy will help me cover the topic thoroughly and concisely.

  2. That's great, Marsha! I hope it works well for you. It's one of my favorite revising strategies that has worked well in the past. Let us know how it goes!

  3. Thanks for the info. I will use this strategies to my thesis

    1. Great! The thesis is such an important part of any assignment.