This happened a few months ago. I had completed my article on silent letters in English. It was ready for mailing and my mouse was perched on the “Send” button. Then I glanced at the hard copy of the article on my table. I saw the first sentence there and was taken aback. It went: “What is the L and the O doing in the word ‘colonel’?” It was bad grammar. The subject was plural, and the verb should have been ‘are’, not ‘is’. How did I miss it? I went to my previous draft. There the sentence was: “What is the L doing in the word ‘colonel’?” I had then added the words ‘and the O’, which made the subject plural. I should have matched the verb with the new subject. That was my lesson for the day: a change in one part of a document might entail consequential changes in other parts.
Anyone who has to write documents or reports as part of his or her job needs to be conscious of the importance of revision and editing. Both are aimed at improving your presentation, but revision deals with the total structure and content of your document, and editing is concerned with the appropriateness of words used, and the correctness of grammatical structures, spelling and punctuation.
The revision of a document is taken up when the writer has a complete draft which he is happy with in terms of content and organization. There are a few pieces of advice generally given to people who start their revision. First, before you start revising, let the document lie for 24 hours. After that you will come to it with a fresh mind, and will notice faults or omissions that you might otherwise miss. Second, read the document aloud. People who depend on eye movement across the line to read their document can miss much. They get engaged with the meaning of what they have written and move on without pause, missing wrong words and grammatical errors. Third, have a second person read the document. Points of fact or logic that the writer has missed will be caught by the second reader. If the document runs to several pages, it is better to work on a hard copy than on the computer. The total structure cannot be followed on text which appears one screen at a time.
In the course of revision, you ask yourself questions about the content and its organization. Is there a central idea that stands out? Is there a smooth flow of ideas, and are the paragraphs structured so as to highlight a topic sentence? Is there adequate sign-posting to make the transition from one paragraph or idea to the next, easy to follow?
At this stage, you are still free to remove sections that do not seem relevant to the main idea. There can be a restatement of an idea in a new light. Sometimes you find that a major revision and rearrangement is called for to make the copy readable. About such situations, Strunk and White say, “Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers” (The Elements of Style).
The final stage of revision is proofreading and copy-editing. The proofreader’s job is to make sure that the author’s text is truly reproduced in the printed copy. So the focus is on typographical errors. Copy editing is more advanced: You are called upon to correct, delete or replace faulty words, check for spelling errors, improve clumsy phrasing and use appropriate punctuation. A copy editor, unlike a proofreader, can improve the style of writing, by choosing better words, by altering sentence structure, and by reordering paragraphs.
Revision should not be seen as mere dissection and patching up. Professor Jacques Barzun compares rewriting to marble sculpture. “Unlike the sculptor,” he says, “the writer can start carving and enjoying himself only after he has dug the marble out of his own head.” Rewriting can be enjoyable and creative.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org