Revising Your Content

I remember a student telling me at a Model UN conference, "You pay too much attention to words and not enough to ideas." While of course I defended my attention to language, I saw truth in what the student said. If I focus too much on my grammar, for instance, I can miss gaps in my reasoning.

So when you are revising a paper, don't worry at first about perfecting individual sentences. Instead, make sure the paper as a whole makes sense. If it doesn't, you'll end up rewriting those sentences anyway.

Here are some pointers for revising your paper's content:

Make a Reverse Outline

Just as a regular outline helps you plan the structure for your paper, a reverse outline helps you pinpoint how your paper has actually turned out. To do a reverse outline, go through your paper and copy down the thesis and the topic sentence for each paragraph, leaving space between them. Once you have done this, list the supporting details in each paragraph. The resulting outline will enable you to inspect the structure of your argument like a doctor examining an X-ray.

A reverse outline can help you identify several content-related issues. First, if you notice a gap in the outline, that probably means there is a gap in the paper. Second, once you set out your main ideas, you may realize that you haven't arranged them in the best possible order. Third, as you examine your supporting details, you may find that you have included points that don't really strengthen your argument. In all these cases, the reverse outline makes spotting problems easier.

Share Your Paper with a Friend

As I mentioned in the proofreading article, another reader can help you discover content-related issues in your paper. Try to find a reader who is at the same knowledge level as your intended audience. If you've aimed your paper at an audience of biochemistry professors, for instance, a friend lacking that knowledge base may well be confused by points that your intended audience will see as unproblematic. On the other hand, if your paper on Crime and Punishment is written for an audience that has not read the book, then someone who has read it and brings extensive background knowledge to the paper might miss gaps in your summary or argument.

Assuming that your reader is at the appropriate level, use this rule of thumb: If you and your reader disagree about whether a point in your paper is clear, assume that your reader is correct. You know what you meant, but what seems unambiguous to you might well be unclear to an impartial observer.

And remember: The Peer Writing Crew and the Writing Resource Center are among the best writing-related friends you can find.

Improving Your Paper

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