Revise Polish your writing
Link & Learn
Rewriting is the essence of writing well—where the game is won or lost. —William Zinsser
While writing, you can easily get lost in your message. Each step in the writing process takes time and attention: articulating your purpose, analyzing your audience, and creating a SMART structure. After all that work, you want to be done with it.
But before you release your message to its intended audience, pause. Clear your head and (in some cases) calm your emotions. Then return to your message and revise it.
Section OneSee It Again
The ability to focus is crucial when you’re writing, but so is the ability to unfocus.
TAKE a BREAK
Intensive focus wears out your brain and compromises your judgment and creativity, writes Srini Pillay, M.D., in Harvard Business Review
Dr. Pillay’s insights are crucial to the writing process. When you finish a substantial first draft of an important document, get away from it. Get up from your computer, go outside, walk around, or take a power nap. Deliberately get your mind off the topic or issue you’ve been writing about.
During your break, your brain will continue to assemble and organize information you’ve been working on, so set an alarm or timer for at least 15 minutes before you start writing again. When you return from your break, you’ll see your writing with fresh eyes.
Make revising your emails standard operating procedure. Don’t fill in the TO field until after you’ve written and revised.
WHY WE DON’T NOTICE OUR OWN ERRORS
Read this sentence:
It deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod aapper; the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae.
Most likely, you easily understood the sentence even though the letters are jumbled. Your brain automatically corrected it as you read.
Your brain also corrects mistakes in your own writing. When you communicate, your intent is to convey meaning. Your brain focuses on that meaning and therefore tends to skim over the actual words and sentences you compose.
See the potential problem? Your brain already knows the meaning because you wrote it. You won’t notice your little (and sometimes big) blunders.
Avoid this problem by having someone else review your writing before you print, submit, or send it. Find a trusted colleague and develop a reciprocal proofreading relationship. You can especially benefit by having that friend read your work aloud to you.
If you don’t have time for an actual peer review, read your own work aloud. We often hear problems that our brain skips over when we read silently.
Technology can help, too. Your word processor and third-party software like Grammarly are increasingly adept at catching spelling and grammar goofs. Heed this warning, however: the software misses commonly misused or mistyped words. When you meant “manager” but typed “manger,” your spell checker probably won’t come to your rescue.
That’s why you need a step-by-step process for revising documents. We call this the FOCUS process.
Section TwoFOCUS Your Doc
In an ideal world, your audience would start with your first word and read carefully through your entire message. In the real world, however, audiences rarely do that. In fact, that’s not the way you typically read, is it?
Instead, you first notice the design and layout of a piece, glance at the title, scan the headings and visuals, and maybe read a line or two. Only then do you decide whether to commit the time and effort to read the full message.
This chapter aligns its revision process with reality. The process starts by checking how well your message connects with readers’ first language: visual. Revisions then get increasingly detailed, ending with a sentence-by-sentence check for grammar, style, and spelling.
Imagine yourself viewing the document first from a distance, then incrementally narrowing your focus at each successive phase of revision. The five phases are captured by the acronym FOCUS:
Headline | Whitespace | Fonts | Graphics
Imagine yourself about 10 feet away from a printout of your work—or zooming out your screen view to about 30% of full size. What do you see? Layout, spacing, headings—and not much else.
From this distance, you can’t read the document. Instead, you get a sense for its overall design: colors, fonts, alignment, white space, graphics, contrast, etc. Readers form their first impression based on the document’s design. More than ever, good design = professional credibility.
Ask yourself these questions about the document's FORMAT:
- Does the document look professional? More specifically, does it follow the rules discussed in Chapter 5?
- Does it have a clear and compelling headline or title?
- Would color add interest or draw attention to key points?
- Are the fonts easy to read? If more than one font is used, do they work well together?
- Is the document left justified?
- Does sufficient white space prevent the document from seeming crowded or claustrophobic?
- Are graphics clear, uncluttered, labeled, and anchored?
- If this will be viewed online, is it readable on a mobile device?
Story | Main Idea | Agenda
Once satisfied with the design, readers will look for quick evidence that the document is well organized. Use the first three elements of SMART documents to win readers over.
Story Does the document immediately capture readers’ attention? Does it provide the context of the message and tell readers why they should care?
In a report, the title and opening sentence are your most important attention-grabbing tools. In a letter, your opening sentence serves the same function. In an email, focus on the subject line: keep it short, descriptive, and interesting enough to stand out from the dozens (or hundreds) of other emails the reader receives daily.
Main Idea Does the document clearly state the main point or key idea in the first paragraph?
Agenda Can readers easily locate a clear agenda that previews the content of the message?
Your agenda is usually the last line of your opening paragraph. It previews the organization of your message and prepares readers’ minds for what’s coming.
Reasons | Task
Examine the substance of document’s message. Make sure it exactly matches the stated agenda. At this level of FOCUS, check the remaining two SMART document elements.
Reasons Does the document make a convincing argument? Do the “reasons” reflect solid reasoning? Use the following criteria to evaluate the document’s content:
- Complete. The document covers all agenda items and each agenda item is supported with evidence.
- Clear. The agenda items and supporting evidence are easy to understand.
- Concise. The information is succinctly stated and avoids redundancies. For online documents, hyperlinks provide easy access to additional (but nonessential) detail without cluttering up the document.
- Coherent. Each paragraph features a topic sentence and everything in the paragraph is guided by that sentence. Remember, busy readers skim documents by reading only the topic sentences. If someone did this to the document you’re reviewing, would they catch the main points of the argument? If not, rewrite.
- Convincing. The document supports assertions with examples, data, and illustrations tailored to the audience’s inclinations and knowledge.
- Credible. All evidence is from trusted sources, which are correctly cited. Writing is free from logical fallacies.
Task Does the conclusion include a call to action, reminding readers why they should care? Are next steps easy for readers to follow?
Make sure the document avoids the curse of knowledge. Ask yourself, “Would this message connect with an educated reader who’s not a narrow expert on this topic?”
Professional messages often reach audiences from a variety of nationalities. Check for idiomatic expressions, colloquialisms, and inside jokes. Make sure the document will appeal to its primary and any potential secondary audiences.
Grammar | Punctuation | Spelling | Style
Syntax refers to the construction of sentences. Scrutinize the document at the sentence level to catch grammar, punctuation, or spelling errors that interfere with the message. As mentioned earlier in this chapter, you’re likely to miss errors if you’re proofreading your own work. Try reading the document aloud to force yourself to slow down and hear the words. To catch spelling errors, read backwards so you see each word instead of its meaning.
Style refers to tone, word choice, sentence variety, word play, and the ability to turn a phrase. Everything you write has a style. As an analogy, think about what you decide to wear each day. Your wardrobe choices communicate something about you; they reflect your personal style or fashion sense (deliberate or not).
So it is with your writing. The way you use words, the rhythm of your sentences, even whether you use a semicolon or a dash—these subtle choices constitute your style.
Evaluate the document’s tone. Is it too stuffy if the message is a quick check-in on Slack? Too chatty for an update to the vice-president? If something in the document sounds clunky or off-key, a style problem needs to be fixed.
More generally, style refers to the ability to write with grace, which elevates the message from useful to delightful, from informative to compelling. The best way to develop good style is to read, read, read. Get the voice of great stylists in your head so you can imitate their cadence, nuance, wit, and flair. The recommendations for further reading at the end of this chapter include Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. That’s a great place to start.
When Should I Get Someone Else to Review My Work?
If your project is long, complicated, or mission critical, solicit feedback from trusted colleagues. Be reasonable in your time request to make the job easy for your editor/proofreader.
Make your request as easy as possible for your peer reviewer. Offer to grab them a drink while they review your document. To overcome the natural anxiety about putting your work in front of critical eyes, focus on the project rather than yourself. Remember that even in our digital age, some people prefer proofing printed copies. Above all, be grateful for and receptive to their feedback.
Revising your work can take a few minutes or a few weeks, depending on the document’s length and the stakes involved. Even a short but critical email might take days to get right.
Remember that thoroughly revising gives you a chance to look at your work with fresh eyes.
Follow the FOCUS process to start with an overall impression of the format and design. Then zoom in until you can see just the organization—the title, agenda, headings, and logical flow. Zoom in another level to check the main content, paragraph structure, and supporting details. Finally, zoom all the way in and get picky about usage and syntax.
To access the previous PDF version of the online textbook, click here. Note: The PDF version will not reflect any updates or changes.
Please let us know.
Bold citations are referenced in the chapter text.
“A General Guide to Understanding Written Plagarism.” EasyBib. Accessed July 2022.
Pillay, Srini "Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus." Harvard Business Review May 12, 2017. Acessed July 2022
Silverman, David. “That Written-By-Committee Flavor.” Harvard Business Review, December 21, 2009. Accessed July 2022.
Abell, Alicia. Business Grammar, Style, and Usage: The Desk Reference for Articulate and Polished Business Writing, Speaking, and Correspondence. Aspatore, 2003.
Cunningham, Helen, and Brenda Greene. The Business Style Handbook: An A-to-Z Guide for Effective Writing on the Job. McGraw Hill, 2013.
Einsohn, Amy. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications. University of California Press, 2006.
Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style. New York: Viking, 2014.
OWLPurdue. “Purdue OWL: Visual Rhetoric.” YouTube, published January 1, 2013. Accessed February 2017.