In business writing, book authoring, and software coding, revision is how we get to our best work. But the act of revision challenges many writers. They either want to rush through it to get to the finished product, or they get mired in doubts whether the work is good enough. Having a well-defined process might be the answer.
If you have a hard time with revision, try thinking about it like a coder: as a recursive function.
It’s been many years since I studied programming, but recursive functions stick in my head because they caused me some grief in homework assignments.
Quickly, a recursive function is a segment of code that executes multiple times, each time working with the output of the previous pass. The code keeps cycling back through the loop until a condition has been met and the code continues.
Why do I remember this so clearly from programming? Because if you haven’t created a careful exit plan, your program can get stuck in an infinite loop. That’s generally best avoided.
Recursion and Revision
Using recursion as a metaphor for revision can be useful. To revise your own work, you want to cycle through it a number of times, each time working with the improved version from the last time. And you need to clearly delineate either the number of passes or what success looks like, so you know when to exit the process.
Where the metaphor falls apart, alas, is what happens during each pass through the manuscript. A program executes the same code. As the author/reviser, you want to do different things in each revision pass, working from the highest level to the most detailed, granular one.
I advise writers to define their revision process from the top down, or outside in. For a major blog post, for example, your revision process might look like this:
- Structural pass: Start with the big-picture analysis: Does this make sense for my objectives? Does it include what the reader wants or needs to know? Does the structure serve the reader’s needs?
- Reader’s flow: Approach it from start to finish, as your reader might. Do the sentences flow, or does the reader have to double back to make sense of them? Does the logic work? Are there too many details, or too few? Is it repetitive?
- Language: Make the text more beautiful or pithy by tightening the wording, choosing active verbs, eliminating repetition, and scrubbing out jargon and unnecessary abstractions.
- Proofreading: Look for typos, duplicate words, grammar glitches and punctuation problems.
Some writing won’t need four passes. You can often combine the first two and second two for short posts. And a book manuscript may require extra passes for things like fact-checking.
You decide what happens in your revision function.
How This Can Help You
If you’re not yet convinced, here are three reasons to try this out on your next piece of writing:
Like the programming technique, structuring an iterative revision process is efficient—if you work in the right order. Fix the structure first, so you don’t spend time proofreading and polishing a section you need to cut.
It provides a roadmap
Instead of asking, “Is this piece any good?” you can ask smaller questions as you improve your work:
- Does it have the right structure?
- Does the writing flow?
- Is it concise and clear?
It’s much easier to correct these issues than to assess whether the work is good enough (whatever that means).
You have an endpoint
If you’re working on something like a book manuscript, you can create a spreadsheet and track your process through the various passes. When you’ve done your passes, it’s time to move on to the next phase, whether that’s hitting the Publish button or sending it to a professional editor.
If this sounds like a lot of work, remember that great writing is born in revision. It’s worth the effort.
I cover this approach to revision, along with other revision exercises, in a short online course Revising Your Writing. Use the coupon code BLOG to get the course for $20. (Enter the coupon on the payment screen.)
Business writers can find more advice in The Workplace Writer’s Process.
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