Why revisions and editing are worth your time: they're where the real writing happens


Why is revision important?

Josh Bernoff's survey on the 2016 State of Business Writing found that writers spend limited time on rewrites. He surveyed 547 businesspeople who write at least two hours per week for work, excluding email. He discovered that while they spend 45% of their writing time on prep and research, they devote only 19% to rewrites.

That finding may help account for why his respondents also rate the overall effectiveness of the business writing they read at a mediocre 5.4 out of 10.

Revising is often where the real magic happens, where mediocre writing is rewritten, fine-tuned, and polished until it shines. As author Roald Dahl said, “Good writing is essentially rewriting.”

Studies also underscore the importance of revision. When researchers from the University of Albany surveyed revising practices in schools, they found distinct differences between skilled and ineffective revisers. Effective revisers were able to “improve the quality of the text they generate” by spending a “greater proportion of time” in revision. By contrast, ineffective revisers would devote “negligible time to revising.”

What is revision in writing?

Part of the University of Albany’s finding seems to stem from a lack of understanding around what revision is. Specifically, ineffective revisers would focus on surface-level changes that would not appreciably impact the quality of the writing; they focused on correcting spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc., whereas skilled revisers spent their time on deeper changes to content, structure, and meaning.

This is a common misperception, particularly among business writers. Proofreading, editing, and rewriting are different – and separate – forms of revising. Rewriting represents large, often wholesale changes to the first draft. Rewrites are very common for professional writers: Ernest Hemingway, for example, told The Paris Review that he rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms 39 times before he was satisfied.

Or, as bestselling children’s author Obert Skye says in his TED Talk, The Magic of Revisions, “If at first you don’t succeed, revise, revise again.”

The rewriting process can be brutal, which may explain why so many business writers shy away from it. Sometimes you have to “murder your darlings,” as Arthur Quiller-Couch advised in his 1913-14 Cambridge lectures “On the Art of Writing.”

In other words, sometimes you must change aspects of the work that you personally love if you want to strengthen the work as a whole.

Editing, in turn, focuses on prose and style and ensuring the basic architecture of the written piece works well. Changes can still be significant but tend to be more narrowly focused. Finally, proofreading catches the pesky little errors that slip into everyone’s writing, ranging from misspellings to transposed punctuation (like thi.s).

If revision is important, so is good feedback.

One reason that revisions bedevil so many writers – and why so few writers may attend to them – is that we need good feedback to make good revisions. It can be prohibitively difficult, even for good writers, to maintain an objective point of view about what works and what doesn’t. Helpful constructive criticism (with emphasis on “constructive”) can be invaluable during the revising writing process, but too few workplace writers receive such input. Only half of the business writers Bernoff surveyed said that they got the editorial feedback they needed, and even fewer – just one-third – thought their company had an effective feedback process.

How can business writers strengthen the revision process in line with its importance?

1: Individual writers should spend more time revising.

More practice develops stronger skills. Remember that revisions should be reader-focused. That means revisions should be designed to make the document more effective for and with its intended audience, as we describe in the video below.


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2: Organizations should strengthen the review and feedback process.

Not only should individual writers spend more time revising, but their organizations should also beef up their internal feedback process. We recommend looking at this process as a dialogue and provide guidance on how to approach feedback that way here.

3: Simply give the revision process its due.

Much of the problem is attitudinal: if organizational leaders can’t answer why revision is important, the people writing within the organization won’t be able to either. Recognizing its importance and encouraging employees to spend an appropriate amount of time and effort on this part of the writing process can pay dividends in improved writing quality.

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