What does my teacher mean by “substantial revision?”

When writing studies scholars talk about revision, they often group the writer’s concerns into two categories—“local” issues and “global” issues. Local issues deal with smaller-scale topics, such as grammar usage and sentence structure. On the other hand, global issues apply to the ideas presented in the paper as a whole. A writer engages in substantial revision when working with the ideas in a draft and how those ideas are presented. Revising your draft substantially does not mean that you are a “bad” writer; all writers pass through this stage of the writing process. If you want to revise a draft substantially, try to focus first on global issues, leaving sentence-level revisions for later in the process. This does not necessarily mean that you need to make changes to your whole paper. Sometimes substantial revision can be as simple as reworking your introduction to better reflect the conclusion you came to over the course of writing. In other cases, substantial revision might entail introducing new evidence to better suit your target audience. You are most likely engaging in substantial revision if the changes you are making affect your paper as a whole rather than at the word or sentence level. The goal of substantial revision is to produce a draft that accomplishes your paper’s objectives in a way that is best suited to your audience.

How can I begin to substantially revise my draft?

The strategy you use for substantial revision will depend on your goals. We have listed a few here for you to consider. If you would like to develop a plan that more specifically addresses your individual goals, our consultants at the University Writing Center would love to help you!

Make a “reverse outline.” Read through your draft, focusing on the purpose of each section, and make an outline of your draft as it is. Then, determine how to organize the pieces that you have identified. Your reverse outline can help you look at each section as a whole and determine where to place it in your final paper.

Revisit the assignment sheet. Take a look at what the assignment’s goals are, and compare it to your draft. Determine how your draft meets these goals and how it falls short. This can help you locate where in your draft to focus your revision.

Look at your argument. Does it remain consistent throughout the draft? Is it well-supported with evidence? If your argument changes throughout the draft, decide on a unifying thesis and expand on your strongest sections. If your argument lacks support at this stage, think about the kind of evidence your audience expects and research ideas that could strengthen your points.

We have also developed a useful handout on Using Feedback When Revising.

What can the Writing Center do to help?

Sometimes it can be hard to see where revision is required in our own writing. For this reason, sharing your writing with a Writing Center consultant can be extremely helpful. Consultants can read your work and discuss places where your writing seems unclear or underdeveloped. These discussions can give you ideas about where to begin revising. You and the consultant can then discuss strategies for revision and develop a plan that meets your specific goals. If you want, you can even begin the revision process during the session.