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Prepared by University of Guelph

Section E: Revising Your Work

This section will guide you through various revision and proofreading stages by asking you to reflect on critical questions and feedback by providing strategies you can use to review and revise your work.

What will I learn?

By the end of this section, you will be able to

  • analyze your work for the purposes of revision and editing,
  • implement strategies for revision and editing in several small stages,
  • interpret and reflect productively on feedback you receive, and
  • transform critical comments into concrete actions you can take as a writer.

Regardless of the kind of assignment you’re writing, revision and proofreading are critical parts of the writing process. As you prepare an assignment, you will probably revise and re-write many times, both on your own and after you receive feedback from others. Looking at your paper through fresh and critical eyes will help you determine if you are meeting the requirements and expectations for the assignment, and if you’re communicating clearly with your reader.

Even if you plan to give your paper to someone else to review for you, you should first work on revising and editing your own paper. The reason? You know what your ideas are and what you’re trying to say. If you can make your own work clear, you will get better feedback from an outside reader.

In the writing process, it’s useful to separate the tasks of writing and revising. If you’re too worried about the right word or proper comma placement when you write a draft, you might be sacrificing your ability to fully engage with your ideas and thoughts. As well, you may decide later that a section needs significant changes or doesn’t fit, and then all of your careful editing is wasted.

Here are five broad strategies for revising and proofreading your work successfully and efficiently:

  1. Get some distance. Take a break. Go for a walk. Give yourself at least a few hours between finishing a draft and picking it back up again for revision.
  2. Revise and proofread in stages. Don’t try to review all your work at once. If you do, you’ll likely become frustrated and miss what you want to change.
  3. Pay attention to large, overall concerns like content and structure. Work on smaller items like grammar and punctuation last.
  4. Keep re-reading your work to make sure your entire paper makes sense as you make changes.
  5. Give your work to others for feedback. Seeing how your work is understood by a reader can help you improve your writing in new ways.

The steps below break down the components of an assignment so that you can revise and edit effectively.

When reviewing your content for revision, make sure your information is presented clearly, at the right time, with sufficient depth, detail, and relevance for the purpose of your work. Check that there is no extra and irrelevant information. It’s hard to let go of ideas and thoughts, but if they don’t fit, they must be cut.

Questions to ask

  • Is my purpose clear?
  • Is my main idea/thesis stated early?
  • Do I have sufficient evidence or data to support my ideas?
  • Is all my material relevant to my purpose?
  • Have I addressed my readers’ potential questions?

Action

Think about what each paragraph says and does:

  1. For each paragraph, write a one-sentence statement that summarizes the paragraph (what it says).
    • Example: This paragraph describes the characteristics of two enzymes, salivary amylase and phosphorylase.
  2. For each paragraph write a one-sentence statement explaining how the paragraph functions in the paper (what is does).
    • Example: This paragraph provides background information about the major proteins used in the lab.

After you have summarized each paragraph in this way, review the document as a whole. Are there any gaps? Does each paragraph serve your thesis or purpose?

The shape and flow of your paper or assignment is very important. Your reader should be able to follow the logic of how you present information like a path, easily and without surprises or feeling lost.

Questions to ask

  • Are my ideas presented logically?
  • Do I introduce new information by connecting it to what I’ve already said?
  • Do I connect back to my thesis or purpose to show how pieces fit into the overall paper?
  • Is my information easy to follow? Does the writing flow?
  • Have I repeated any ideas in more than one place?
  • Are any parts too long or too short?
  • Does my organization follow the structure required for the assignment?

Action

Make a reverse outline:

  1. Summarize each paragraph in a single sentence.
  2. Arrange these summaries according to the order of your paragraphs.
  3. Evaluate the outline. Do you notice any gaps in information or places where the content should be re-arranged?

Each paragraph or section should be a well-organized, self-contained unit that focuses on a main idea and/or serves one purpose. Check to see if each paragraph is cohesive by ensuring that all of your information flows and is connected, like a chain, from beginning to end.

Questions to ask

  • Does the paragraph focus on a single idea?
  • Does the idea clearly relate to my thesis or purpose?
  • Do I begin with a topic sentence to summarize the paragraph?
  • Do I provide evidence and other details to support any argument/claims I make?
  • Do I provide sufficient explanation and analysis to connect the paragraph’s main idea, the evidence, and my thesis?
  • Do I finish the paragraph with a summary or a transition to the next idea?

Action

Move from known information to new information.

Example: In the paragraph below, the known information (highlighted in gold) introduces sentences. Sentences end with the new information (highlighted in green).

An enzyme is a specialized protein that increases the rate of a specific chemical reaction. The enzyme increases this reaction rate by lowering the activation energy, the energy a molecule requires to begin a chemical reaction (Alberts et al., 2014). An enzyme lowers the activation energy by, first, binding to the substrate, a reactant, at its active site to form a substrate-enzyme complex. This binding provides better chemical conditions to activate the reaction and, in turn, lowers the activation energy (Artioli, 2008).

Sentences can be different lengths, but each sentence should focus on one point or idea as clearly and concisely as possible. Say the sentence out loud. Does it sound awkward or difficult? If it does, try speaking the same idea aloud as plainly as possible to get a starting point for a new sentence.

Questions to ask

  • Are any sentences too long with too many ideas?
  • Do any sentences have more words than needed?
  • Can I replace vague words with more precise language?
  • Do I use the right word (not the biggest word) for what I want to say?
  • Can I state an idea more simply?

Action

Visually separate each sentence and read them in reverse order, from the end of your paper to its beginning. This will help you to view each sentence individually, which will help with revising.

Here are some suggested actions for revising sentences for readability.

Use active voice (rather than passive), when appropriate.

Passive Example: Assignments and other work were collected in order to evaluate my growth in the course.

Active: I collected my assignments and other work to evaluate my growth in the course.

Look for small words (e.g. articles and prepositions) that you can eliminate without hurting clarity.

Too Many Words Example: The colour variations in the positive test results are indicative of the concentration of sugar in the solution.

Better: Positive test results varied in colour, indicating different sugar concentrations in each solution.

Look for nouns that would work better as verbs.

Too Many Nouns Example: Before a change in Human Resource's policies can be implemented, necessary meetings with labour groups in the organization will be required.

Better: Before Human Resources can change policies, the department must meet with the organization’s labour groups.

When writing for a purpose, you must take into account the situation and your audience. You would write a lab report differently than a reflective essay because the two types of papers demand a different style. A lab report is more formal and relies on objective, scientific writing, while a reflective essay might be more personal and descriptive.

Questions to ask

  • Is the style appropriate for the assignment?
  • Is my language too formal or too informal?
  • Do I use appropriate terminology or too many technical terms for my audience?
  • Are my sentences and paragraphs the appropriate length for the assignment?
  • Does my tone reflect the kind of assignment I’m writing?

Action

  • Review the assignment expectations. Think about the purpose, situation, and audience.
  • Read your writing out loud to hear how it sounds.
  • Read your work as though you are one of your readers.

When you are writing an academic assignment, you are participating in a larger conversation. It’s important to tell your reader where you found your information and to acknowledge the work that’s already been done in your field. There are conventions you should follow for your discipline.

Questions to ask

  • What citation style am I using?
  • Do I cite/credit each source of facts and ideas?
  • Are all research sources listed in a final bibliography?
  • Are my in-text citations and bibliography consistent in format (author, date, title, publisher information)?
  • Is my formatting (headings, margins, visuals, font, page numbers) consistent across the document?

Action

  • Review the required citation format for the assignment.
  • Check for consistency and completeness of all citations and bibliographic entries.

Following accepted conventions of grammar, spelling, and punctuation may add to your credibility and professionalism. Paying attention to these areas makes your work more readable and your ideas more accessible.

Questions to ask

Do you have trouble with any of the following grammar issues?

  • Fragments
  • Run-ons
  • Parallelism
  • Plurals and possessives
  • Misplaced modifiers
  • Pronouns
  • Subject-Verb agreement
  • Verb tense
  • Articles

Do you have trouble with any of these common spelling errors?

  • Their/They’re/There
  • Your/You’re
  • Its/It’s
  • Effect/Affect
  • Whether/Weather
  • Then/Than
  • Whose/Who’s

Do you have trouble with any of these punctuation issues?

  • Capitalization
  • Commas
  • Colons
  • Dashes and hyphens
  • Parentheses
  • Periods (full stops)
  • Semicolons

Action

  1. Read about the issues you have the most difficulty with.
  2. Separate your sentences. Read your writing one sentence at a time, from the last sentence to the first.
  3. Focus on one kind of issue at a time, starting with errors you have a tendency to make.
  4. Use spell check, but don’t rely on it. Always read your work to identify spelling mistakes.
  5. Circle every punctuation mark and decide whether you’re using each correctly.

Why does feedback matter?

The key to good writing is understanding readers’ needs. When you get feedback from an instructor, colleague, or friend, think of it as a conversation between you and the reader about what they understood and had questions about in your text. You can use this insight to improve the text and to improve on future writing tasks.

Tips for making the most of feedback

Don’t take it personally

Receiving criticism is never easy. Writing can be an intensely personal process, and sometimes criticism of our writing—even if the feedback is well meant—can feel like criticism of ourselves. Instead of putting up defenses when you receive criticism, take a deep breath and try to see the comments from the reader’s point of view. Experiment with the idea that the reader might be right—how might following their advice help you improve your text?

Reflect on how feedback could affect your future writing tasks

By the time you’ve started a new assignment, the feedback on your last paper might feel like old news. But, in fact, much of the feedback you get on one assignment can be applied to the next. Making a conscious effort to review and truly consider feedback will help you improve with every assignment.

Remember: When someone takes the time to provide feedback, they’re usually doing so because they want to help you become a stronger, more successful writer. Be sure to take the comments in the spirit they were given—and always remember to thank those you’ve asked for feedback for their time and help.

5 Steps for Using Written Comments

  1. Read the comments from beginning to end. Then, go through the comments more slowly, one by one.
  2. Pay attention to the positive comments and make a note to continue these kinds of strategies.
  3. When you encounter a negative comment, reflect on what action you need to take as a writer to address it. For example, a comment about a confusing sentence could be turned into an action of “Rewrite sentence and break into two.” Write this where the feedback appears so that you remember it later, or create a “to-do” list of revisions, recording the page numbers.
  4. Keep track of patterns or themes in the comments. Do you need to focus your revisions more on global elements, like argument or organization, or on sentence-level elements, like sentence fragments or punctuation use? Patterns of comments can help you identify your strengths and areas for improvement.
  5. Want to take this analysis to the next level? Write yourself a note about the most important things you’ve learned from the feedback, and review this before you start your next assignment. Just the process of writing your thoughts down for a minute or two will help you solidify—and remember—what you learned.

Margin Comments: What They (Might) Mean

Below is a list of common margin marks and words that instructors and readers might use to comment on your paper. If you’re not sure what a comment means, be sure to ask! Don’t let the feedback go to waste.

SP Spelling error

DEL Delete

CAP Capitalize

TR Transpose (Reverse order)

Start new paragraph

# Insert space

Close up space

ITAL Italicize

^ Insert

? I don’t know what this means.

AWK Awkward, meaning I found this sentence hard to understand.

Explain? Could you tell me more about this or break this idea down in more detail?

Evidence? You should provide a source to support this idea.

Ref? You should provide a reference to the source where you found this idea.

Expand I need you to tell me more in order for me to fully understand what you mean. Consider adding more details, explanation, or evidence.

Decoding Written Comments: Sample Paper

Sometimes you have to do some interpreting to understand the reader’s comments. Below is a sample excerpt from a case study report that shows instructor comments in bold, with our “what they probably meant” version and a concrete action item the writer could take in response. You can do the same thing with your own comments.

Example: Annotated Case Study Report

Learn more about writing strategies for deciphering and integrating feedback from your paper.

Interactive Activity

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Key Takeaways

  • Take some time between the activities and writing and revising.
  • Take a moment to reflect and solidify what you learn from feedback so that you can apply it later.
  • If you don’t understand a comment, ask the instructor or reader to explain what it meant.
  • Revise and proofread in stages.

References

Books

Alley, M. (1998). The craft of scientific writing. (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Springer.

Cook, C. K. (1986). Line by line: How to edit your own writing. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Graff, G., Berkenstein, C. & Durst, R. (2008). They say, I say: The moves that matter in academic writing. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Hacker, D. & Summers, N. (2001). A Canadian writer’s reference. New York, NY: Bedford/St. Martins.

Hofmann, A. H. (2010). Scientific writing and communication: Papers, proposals, and presentations. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press.

Lunsford, A. A. (2005). The everyday writer. (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins.

Rubens, P. (Ed.). (2001). Science and technical writing: A manual of style. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Williams, J. & Nadel, I. B. (2004). Style: Ten lessons in clarity and grace. Toronto, ON: Pearson Canada.

Wyrick, J. (2008). Steps to writing well. (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Zinsser, W. (2006). On writing well. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Online Resources

Gopen, G. & Swan, J. (1990, Nov./Dec.). The science of scientific writing. American Scientist. Retrieved June 6, 2015 from http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/id.877,y.0,no.,
content.true,page.1,css.print/issue.aspx

Purdue University. (2015). Online writing lab. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/08/

Next Section Overview

In Section F: Resources, we will provide you with a comprehensive list of resources.

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