Chapter 5: The Revision Process
- Discuss the revision process
- Identify 4 main elements for revision
- Highlight some specific points to revise
- Explain how to revise for grammar
You have finished your piece of writing and you feel a sense of relief. However, just when you think the production of your document is done, the revision process begins. Your document is not complete, and in its current state it could, in fact, do more harm than good. Errors, omissions, and unclear phrases may lurk within your document, waiting to reflect poorly on you when it reaches your audience. Now is not time to let your guard down, prematurely celebrate, or to mentally move on to the next assignment. Think of the revision process as one that hardens and strengthens your document, even though it may require the sacrifice of some hard-earned writing.
General revision requires attention to content, organization, style, and readability. These four main categories should give you a template from which to begin to explore details in depth. This chapter will explore ways to expand your revision efforts to cover the common areas of weakness and error. You may need to take some time away from your document to approach it again with a fresh perspective.
Content is only one aspect of your document. Let’s say you were assigned a report on the sales trends for a specific product in a relatively new market. You could produce a one-page chart comparing last year’s results to current figures and call it a day, but would it clearly and concisely deliver content that is useful and correct? Are you supposed to highlight trends? Are you supposed to spotlight factors that contributed to the increase or decrease? Are you supposed to include projections for next year? Our list of questions could continue, but for now let’s focus on content and its relationship to the directions. Have you included the content that corresponds to the given assignment, left any information out that may be necessary to fulfill the expectations, or have you gone beyond the assignment directions? Content will address the central questions of who, what, where, when, why and how within the range and parameters of the assignment.
Use these tips to help with content:
- Do you need to add information readers need to understand your document? Check to see whether certain key information is missing, for example, a critical series of steps from a set of instructions, important background that helps beginners understand the main discussion, or definitions of key terms.
- Do you need to omit information your readers do not need? Unnecessary information can also confuse and frustrate readers. After all, it’s there so they feel obligated to read it.
- Do you need to add examples to help readers understand? Examples are one of the most powerful ways to connect with audiences, particularly in instructions. Even in non-instructional text, for example, when you are trying to explain a technical concept, examples are a major help, analogies in particular.
Organization is another key aspect of any document. Standard formats that include an introduction, body, and conclusion may be part of your document, but did you decide on a direct or indirect approach? Can you tell? A direct approach will announce the main point or purpose at the beginning, while an indirect approach will present an introduction before the main point. Your document may use any of a wide variety of organizing principles, such as chronological, spatial, compare/contrast. Is your organizing principle clear to the reader? Do you have a conclusion? Does your conclusion mirror your introduction and not introduce new material?
Use these tips to help with organization:
- Do you have a strong introduction? Make sure you have a strong introduction to the entire document- one that makes clear the topic, purpose, audience, and contents of that document. And for each major section within your document, use mini-introductions that indicate at least the topic of the section and give an overview of the subtopics to be covered in that section.
- Do you need to change the organization of your information? Sometimes, you can have all the right information but arrange it in the wrong way. For example, there can be too much background information up-front (or too little) such that certain readers get lost. Sometimes, background information needs to be consolidated into the main information. For example, in instructions, it’s sometimes better to feed in chunks of background at the points where they are immediately needed.
- Do you need to strengthen transitions? Readers often have difficulty following a document if the writer makes the common error of failing to make one point relevant to the next, or to illustrate the relationships between the points. Make connections between the main sections of your report, individual paragraphs, and individual sentences much clearer by adding transition words and by echoing keywords more accurately. Words like “therefore,” “for example,” “however” are transition words; they indicate the logic connecting the previous thought to the upcoming thought.
Style is created through content and organization, but also involves word choice and grammatical structures. Is your document written in an informal or formal tone, or does it present a blend, a mix, or an awkward mismatch? Does it provide a coherent and unifying voice with a professional tone? If you are collaborating on the project with other writers or contributors, pay special attention to unifying the document across the different authors’ styles of writing. Even if they were all to write in a professional, formal style, the document may lack a consistent voice. Read it out loud. Can you tell who is writing what? If so, that is a clear clue that you need to do more revising in terms of style.
Use these tips to help with style:
- Do you need to change your sentence style? Is the sentence style targeted to the audience? In instructions, for example, using the imperative voice and “you” phrasing is vastly more understandable than the passive voice or third-personal phrasing. Passive, person-less writing is harder to read. Put people and action in your writing! Similarly, go for active verbs as opposed to be verb phrasing. All of this makes your writing more direct and immediate; readers don’t have to dig for it.
- Do you need to break up long sentences? Sentence length matters as well. An average of somewhere between 15 and 25 words per sentence is about right; sentences over 30 words can often be confusing.
- Ask yourself the following questions:
- Does my document have repetitious words?
- Does my document have old expressions and references?
- Does my document have unnecessary fillers (extra unnecessary words)?
- Does my document have slangs and clichés?
- Does my document have parallel construction?
- Does my document have obscured verbs?
Readability refers to the reader’s ability to read and comprehend the document. As a business writer, your goal is to make your writing clear and concise, not complex and challenging. If your document consists of long paragraphs with no breaks, it can make your document difficult to read. The way your document is organized also gives your audience some insight into the kind of business professional you are. Remember that many times the first chance your audience has to meet you is through your writing, so making a good first impression in your writing is key.
Use these tips to help with readability:
- Did you use white space? White space is empty space on a paper. Empty space makes the document appear less cluttered and jumbled. White space doesn’t only mean adding a blank line now and then. Use heading and lists to increase white space. Search your rough drafts for ways to incorporate headings, for example, look for changes in topic or subtopic. Search your writing for listings of things; these can be made into vertical lists. Look for paired listings such as terms and their definitions; these can be made into two-column lists. Of course, be careful not to force this special formatting. Don’t overdo it.
- Did you use effective margins and font styles? Use special typography and work with margins, line length, line spacing, type size, and type style. You can do things like making the lines shorter (bringing in the margins), using larger type sizes, and other such tactics. Certain type styles are believed to be friendlier and more readable than others.
Revising for Specific Points
When revising your document, it can be helpful to focus on specific points. When you consider each point in turn, you will be able to break down the revision process into manageable steps. When you have examined each point, you can be confident that you have avoided many possible areas for errors. Specific revision requires attention to the following:
Format is an important part of the revision process. Format involves the design expectations of the author and audience. If a letter format normally requires a date at the top or the sender’s address on the left side of the page before the salutation, the information should be in the correct location. Formatting that is messy or fails to conform to the company style will reflect poorly on you before the reader even starts to read it. By presenting a document that is properly formatted according to the expectations of your organization and your readers, you will start off making a good impression.
Another key part of the revision process is checking your facts. Did you know that news organizations and magazines employ professional fact-checkers? These workers are responsible for examining every article before it gets published and consulting original sources to make sure the information in the article is accurate. This can involve making phone calls to the people who were interviewed for the article—for example, “Mr. Diaz, our report states that you are thirty-nine years old. Our article will be published on the fifteenth. Will that be your correct age on that date?” Fact-checking also involves looking facts up in encyclopedias, directories, atlases, and other standard reference works; and, increasingly, in online sources.
While you can’t be expected to have the skills of a professional fact-checker, you do need to reread your writing with a critical eye to the information in it. Inaccurate content can expose you and your organization to liability and will create far more work than a simple revision of a document. So, when you revise a document, ask yourself the following:
- Does my writing contain any statistics or references that need to be verified?
- Where can I get reliable information to verify it?
It is often useful to do independent verification—that is, look up the fact in a different source from the one where you first got it.
Correct spelling is another element essential for your credibility, and errors will be glaringly obvious to many readers. The negative impact on your reputation as a writer, and its perception that you lack attention to detail or do not value your work, will be hard to overcome. In addition to the negative personal consequences, spelling errors can become factual errors and destroy the value of content. This may lead you to click the “spell check” button in your word processing program, but computer spell-checking is not enough. Spell checkers have improved in the years since they were first invented, but they are not infallible. They can and do make mistakes.
Typically, your incorrect word may in fact be a word, and therefore, according to the program, correct. For example, suppose you wrote, “The major will attend the meeting” when you meant to write “The mayor will attend the meeting.” The program would miss this error because “major” is a word, but your meaning would be twisted beyond recognition.
Punctuation marks are the traffic signals, signs, and indications that allow us to navigate the written word. They serve to warn us in advance when a transition is coming or the complete thought has come to an end. A period indicates the thought is complete, while a comma signals that additional elements or modifiers are coming. Correct signals will help your reader follow the thoughts through sentences and paragraphs, and enable you to communicate with maximum efficiency while reducing the probability of error (Strunk, 1979).
Figure 5.1 “Punctuation Marks” lists twelve punctuation marks that are commonly used in English in alphabetical order along with an example of each.
|Apostrophe||’||Michele’s report is due tomorrow.|
|Colon||:||This is what I think: you need to revise your paper.|
|Comma||,||The report advised us when to sell, what to sell, and where to find buyers.|
|Dash||—||This is more difficult than it seems—buyers are scarce when credit is tight.|
|Ellipsis||…||Lincoln spoke of “a new nation…dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”|
|Exclamation Point||!||How exciting!|
|Hyphen||–||The question is a many-faceted one.|
|Parentheses||( )||To answer it (or at least to begin addressing it) we will need more information.|
|Period||.||The answer is no. Period. Full stop.|
|Question Mark||?||Can I talk you into changing your mind?|
|Quotation Marks||“ ”||The manager told him, “I will make sure Renée is available to help you.”|
|Semicolon||;||Theresa was late to the meeting; her computer had frozen and she was stuck at her desk until a tech rep came to fix it.|
Figure 5.1 | Punctuation Marks
It may be daunting to realize that the number of possible punctuation errors is as extensive as the number of symbols and constructions available to the author. Software programs may catch many punctuation errors, but again it is the committed writer that makes the difference. Here we will provide details on how to avoid mistakes with three of the most commonly used punctuation marks: the comma, the semicolon, and the apostrophe.
The comma is probably the most versatile of all punctuation marks. This means you as a writer can use your judgment in many cases as to whether you need a comma or not. It also means that the possible errors involving commas are many. Commas are necessary some of the time, but careless writers often place a comma in a sentence where it is simply not needed.
Commas are used to separate two independent clauses joined by a conjunction like “but,” “and,” and “or.”
|The advertising department is effective, but don’t expect miracles in this business climate.|
Commas are not used simply to join two independent clauses. This is known as the comma splice error, and the way to correct it is to insert a conjunction after the comma.
|The advertising department is effective, the sales department needs to produce more results.|
|The advertising department is effective, but the sales department needs to produce more results.|
Commas are used for introductory phrases and to offset clauses that are not essential to the sentence. If the meaning would remain intact without the phrase, it is considered nonessential.
|After the summary of this year’s sales, the sales department had good reason to celebrate.|
|The sales department, last year’s winner of the most productive award, celebrated its stellar sales success this year.|
|The sales department celebrated its stellar sales success this year.|
Commas are used to offset words that help create unity across a sentence like “however” and “therefore.”
|The sales department discovered, however, that the forecast for next year is challenging.|
|However, the sales department discovered that the forecast for next year is challenging.|
Commas are often used to separate more than one adjective modifying a noun.
|The sales department discovered the troublesome, challenging forecast for next year.|
Commas are used to separate addresses, dates, and titles; they are also used in dialogue sequences.
|John is from Ancud, Chile.|
|Katy was born on August 2, 2002.|
|Mackenzie McLean, D. V., is an excellent veterinarian.|
|Lisa said, “When writing, omit needless words.”|
Semicolons have two uses. First, they indicate relationships among groups of items in a series when the individual items are separated by commas. Second, a semicolon can be used to join two independent clauses; this is another way of avoiding the comma splice error mentioned above. Using a semicolon this way is often effective if the meaning of the two independent clauses is linked in some way, such as a cause-effect relationship.
|Merchandise on order includes women’s wear such as sweaters, skirts, and blouses; men’s wear such as shirts, jackets, and slacks; and outwear such as coats, parkas, and hats.|
|The sales campaign was successful; without its contributions, our bottom line would have been dismal indeed.|
The apostrophe, like the semicolon, has two uses: it replaces letters omitted in a contraction, and it often indicates the possessive.
Because contractions are associated with an informal style, they may not be appropriate for some professional writing. The business writer will—as always—evaluate the expectations and audience of the given assignment.
|It’s great news that sales were up. It is also good news that we’ve managed to reduce our advertising costs.|
When you indicate possession, pay attention to the placement of the apostrophe. Nouns commonly receive “’s” when they are made possessive. But plurals that end in “s” receive a hanging apostrophe when they are made possessive, and the word “it” forms the possessive (“its”) with no apostrophe at all.
|Mackenzie’s sheep are ready to be sheared.|
|The parents’ meeting is scheduled for Thursday.|
|We are willing to adopt a dog that has already had its shots.|
Learning to use good, correct standard English grammar is more of a practice than an event or even a process. Grammar involves the written construction of meaning from words and involves customs that evolve and adapt to usage over time. Because grammar is always evolving, none of us can sit back and rest assured that we “know” how to write with proper grammar. Instead, it is important to write and revise with close attention to grammar, keeping in mind that grammatical errors can undermine your credibility, reflect poorly on your employer, and cause misunderstandings.
Jean Wyrick has provided a list of common errors in grammar to watch out for, which we have adapted here for easy reference (Wyrick, 2008). In each case, the error is in italics and the [correct form] is italicized within square brackets.
1. Subject-verb Agreement
The subject and verb should agree on the number under consideration. In faulty writing, a singular subject is sometimes mismatched with a plural verb form or vice versa.
|Sales have not been consistent and they doesn’t [do not] reflect your hard work and effort.|
|The president appreciates your hard work and wish [wishes] to thank you.|
2. Verb Tense
Verb tense refers to the point in time where action occurs. The most common tenses are past, present, and future. There is nothing wrong with mixing tenses in a sentence if the action is intended to take place at different times. In faulty or careless writing, however, they are often mismatched illogically.
|Sharon was under pressure to finish the report, so she uses [used] a shortcut to paste in the sales figures.|
|The sales department holds a status meeting every week, and last week’s meeting will be [was] at the Garden Inn.|
3. Split Infinitive
The infinitive form of the verb is one without a reference to time, and in its standard form it includes the auxiliary word “to,” as in “to write is to revise.” It has been customary to keep the “to” next to the verb; to place an adverb between them is known as splitting the infinitive. Some modern writers do this all the time (for example, “to boldly go…”), and since all grammar is essentially a set of customs that govern the written word, you will need to understand what the custom is where you work. If you are working with colleagues trained across the last fifty years, they may find split infinitives annoying. For this reason, it’s often best to avoid splitting an infinitive wherever you can do so without distorting the meaning of the sentence.
|The Marketing Department needs assistance to accurately understand our readers [to understand our readers accurately].|
|David pondered how to best revise [how best to revise] the sentence.|
4. Double Negative
A double negative uses two negatives to communicate a single idea, duplicating the negation. In some languages, such as Spanish, when the main action in the sentence is negative, it is correct to express the other elements in the sentence negatively as well. However, in English, this is incorrect. In addition to sounding wrong (you can often hear the error if you read the sentence out loud), a double negative in English causes an error in logic, because two negatives cancel each other out and yield a positive. In fact, the wording of ballot measures is often criticized for confusing voters with double negatives.
|John doesn’t need no [any] assistance with his sales presentation. [Or John needs no assistance with his sales presentation.]|
|Jeri could not find no [any] reason to approve the request. [Or Jeri could find no reason to approve the request.]|
5. Irregular Verbs
Most verbs represent the past with the addition of the suffix “ed,” as in “ask” becomes “asked.” Irregular verbs change a vowel or convert to another word when representing the past tense. Consider the irregular verb “to go”; the past tense is “went,” not “goed.”
|The need arised [arose] to seek additional funding.|
|Katy leaped [leapt] onto the stage to introduce the presentation.|
6. Commas in a Series
A comma is used to separate the items in a series, but in some writing styles, the comma is omitted between the final two items of the series, where the conjunction joins the last and next-to-last items. The comma in this position is known as the “serial comma.” The serial comma is typically required in academic writing and typically omitted in journalism. Other writers omit the serial comma if the final two items in the series have a closer logical connection than the other items. In business writing, you may use it or omit it according to the prevailing style in your organization or industry. Know your audience and be aware of the rule.
|Lisa is an amazing wife, mother, teacher, gardener, and editor.|
|Lisa is an amazing wife, mother teacher, gardener and editor.|
|Lisa is an amazing teacher, editor, gardener, wife and mother.|
7. Faulty Comparisons
When comparing two objects by degree, there should be no mention of “est,” as in “biggest” as all you can really say is that one is bigger than the other. If you are comparing three or more objects, then “est” will accurately communicate which is the “biggest” of them all.
|Between the twins, Mackenzie is the fastest [faster] of the two.|
|Among our three children, Mackenzie is the tallest.|
8. Dangling Modifiers
Modifiers describe a subject in a sentence or indicate how or when the subject carried out the action. If the subject is omitted, the modifier intended for the subject is left dangling or hanging out on its own without a clear relationship to the sentence. Who is doing the seeing in the first sentence?
|Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, celebrations were in order.|
|Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, we decided that celebrations were in order.|
9. Misplaced Modifiers
Modifiers that are misplaced are not lost, they are simply in the wrong place. Their unfortunate location is often far from the word or words they describe, making it easy for readers to misinterpret the sentence.
|Trying to avoid the deer, the tree hit my car.|
|My car hit the tree when I tried to avoid a deer in the road.|
The “Is It Professional?” Test
Finally, when revising your document with an attention to detail, you simply need to ask the question: is it professional? If a document is too emphatic, it may seem like an attempt at cheerleading. If it uses too much jargon, it may be appropriate for people with a technical background but may limit access to the information by a non-technical audience. If the document appears too simplistic, it may seem to be “talking down” to the audience, treating the readers more like children than adults. Does your document represent you and your organization in a professional manner? Will you be proud of the work a year from now? Does it accomplish its mission, stated objectives, and the audience’s expectations? Business writing is not expository, wordy, or decorative, and the presence of these traits may obscure meaning. Business writing is professional, respectful, and clearly communicates a message with minimal breakdown.
The four main categories—content, organization, style, and readability—provide a template for general revision. By revising for format, facts, names, spelling, punctuation, and grammar, you can increase your chances of correcting many common errors in your writing.
End of Chapter Activities
5a. Thinking About the Content
What are your key takeaways from this chapter? What is something you have learned or something you would like to add from your experience?
5b. Discussion Questions
Select a news article from a news Web site, newspaper, or magazine. Find as many facts in the article as you can that could require fact-checking. Then check as many of these facts as you can, using sources available to you on the Internet. Did you find any errors in the article?
Which of the following sentences are examples of good business writing in standard English? For the sentences needing improvement, make revisions as you see fit and explain what was wrong with the original sentence. Discuss your results with your classmates.
- Caitlin likes gardening, golfing, hiking, and to swim.
- At any given point in time, well, there is a possibility that we could, like, be called upon for help.
- The evaluation of writing can be done through the examination and modification of each sentence.
- While in the meeting, the fire alarm rang.
- Children benefit from getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, and outdoor playtime.
- Yee has asked us to maximize the department’s ka-ching by enhancing the bling-bling of our merchandise; if we fail to do this the darn president may put the kibosh on our project.
- Ortega’s memo stated in no uncertain terms that all employees need to arrive for work on time every day.
- Although there are many challenges in today’s market and stock values have dropped considerably since last year, but we can hope to benefit from strategic thinking and careful decision making.
- If you are unable to attend the meeting, please let Steve or I know as soon as possible.
- One of the shipping containers are open.
- Find an example of a good example of effective business writing, review it, and share it with your classmates.
- Find an example of a bad example of effective business writing, review it, and share it with your classmates.
5c. Applying chapter concepts to a situation
Submit or revise?
The University of Vancouver posted a job for a Communications Associate in its Marketing and Communications Department. Mohammed, a final year student, pursuing a BA in Professional Communications, applied for the job. He is excited as he is permitted to work full-time on campus as an international student, and he needs the extra money. He was successful in the interview, which was stage one of the recruitment process and advanced to stage two.
Stage two included writing a blurb for an event that would be posted on the university’s Facebook page. The Human Resources Manager emailed the details of the assignment to Mohammed, but he did not see the email until an hour before the deadline. He quickly completes the task but is not pleased as he has no time left to proofread and edit the finished product carefully.
From the interview, Mohammed felt the Human Resources Manager and Director of Communications were both very approachable. Additionally, the salary and benefits are more than Mohammed expected. Mohammed fears that he will miss a great opportunity if he does not submit his best work.
Should Mohammed ask for an extra day to revise his work or submit it as is before the deadline?
5d. Writing Activity
Watch this video from TEDxIdahoFalls The Magic Of Revision. Summarize the video. What are some ideas can you apply to revising your business writing?
This chapter contains information from Business Communication for Success which is adapted from a work produced and distributed under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA) in 2010 by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution. This adapted edition is produced by the University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing through the eLearning Support Initiative.
Strunk, W., Jr., & White, E. B. (1979). The elements of style (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Macmillian.
Wyrick, J. (2008). Steps to writing well (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth.