Part 7: Polishing your message
After you have written a draft of your message, you will need to make changes. While you may feel that you write best “under pressure” the night before your assignment is due or in the minutes before sending an email at work, writing a single draft at the last minute rarely results in anyone’s best work. You may feel that you’ve put a lot of effort into your first draft, so it can be challenging to think about changing your work or even eliminating words that you toiled over. However, it’s well worth the pain of revising, editing, and proofreading so you produce a polished piece of writing that others can easily understand.
To revise a piece of writing, it may help you to consider three approaches: look at the big picture, check your organization, and proofread your final draft.
Higher order concerns
Revising for higher order concerns means working on the organization of your ideas. You might insert sentences, words, or paragraphs; you might move them elsewhere in your document; or you might remove them entirely (Meyer, 2017).
When you revise at the “big picture” stage, you are looking at the most important aspects of the writing tasks, and the ones that require the most thought. Here’s a set of questions to help you revise for these higher order concerns:
- Have I met the purpose and requirements?
- Does my draft say what I mean?
- Have I changed my thinking through writing or researching?
- Are there parts that do not belong here?
- Are there pieces missing?
- Are there places where the writing does not make sense?
- Is the tone right for my reader?
- Are my sources the right kind for my purpose and reader?
- Are all the pieces in the right place?
- Are sources documented?
Another way to edit for higher order concerns is to prepare a reverse outline using your draft. This technique is discussed in the next chapter.
Lower order concerns
Lower order concerns focus on editing and proofreading. When you edit, you work from your revised draft to systematically correct issues or errors in punctuation, grammar, spelling, and other things related to writing mechanics (Meyer, 2017). Proofreading is the last stage where you work from your almost-finished document to fix any issues or errors in formatting or typos you missed (Meyer, 2017). Here’s another way of distinguishing these two tasks. Editing is the act of making changes or indicating what to change; proofreading means checking to make sure those changes were made.
Perhaps you are the person who proofreads and edits as you write a draft, so when you are done drafting and revising for content and structure, you may not have that much editing or proofreading to do. Or maybe you are the person who pays no attention to grammar and spelling as you draft, saving all of the editing until you are finished writing. Either way, plan to carefully edit and proofread your work. For most people, proofreading on a printed copy is more effective than working entirely on screen.
Here are some additional strategies for editing and proofreading your work:
- Take a break between writing and editing. Even a 15 minute break can help you look at your document anew.
- Read your work aloud.
- Work through your document slowly, moving word by word.
- Start at the end of your document and work towards the beginning.
- Focus on one issue at a time. Trying to look for spelling errors, punctuation issues, awkward phrasing, and more all at once can make it easier to miss items needing correction.
- Don’t rely exclusively on spelling- or grammar-checking software. (This poem was run through such a program and no problems were detected!)
- Review through your document several times.
Meyer, C. (2017). Communicating for results: A Canadian student’s guide (4th ed.). Don Mills, Canada: Oxford University Press.
This chapter contains material taken from “Higher order versus lower order concerns” in The Word on College Reading and Writing by M. Babin, C. Burnell, S. Pesznecker, N. Rosevear, and J. Wood and is used under a CC-BY-NC 4.0 International license.