10 – Revising and Editing

Revising vs. Editing

Suzan Last; Kalani Pattison; Matt McKinney; Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt; and Claire Carly-Miles

Since revision and editing often occur at the same point in the writing process, the two terms are frequently used interchangeably. However, revision and editing are different in scale and purpose from one another. It is important to understand these differences, since they will help you develop a more efficient process for refining your drafts.

refers to higher-order concerns (such as purpose, content, and structure) when making changes. For example, it is common for writers working on a first draft to arrive at their point most clearly at a paragraph’s end, since the act of writing helps us to organize our thoughts. However, it is much more helpful for the reader to see the point clearly at the very beginning, so the writer might revise this paragraph by putting the last sentence first and making adjustments. The writer might also find that they need to spend more time explaining a particular point, or that a paragraph should be taken out because it is either off-topic or too similar in content to another.

, by contrast, refers to lower-order concerns (such as grammar, word choice, and syntax) when making changes. The focus of editing is not to substantially alter a document but rather to make sure its presentation is more polished. Too many grammatical or syntactical errors, such as misspellings or sentence fragments, can make it harder for the reader to absorb content. They can even undermine the reader’s assessment of the writer’s expertise.

In addition to revision-based higher-order concerns and editing-based lower-order concerns, there are that exist between pure revision and pure editing. Isolating these concepts from the previous two categories emphasizes how choices at the sentence level accumulate to impact a document’s overall content and structure, such as paragraph length and tone.

As you may have guessed, higher-order revision concerns usually entail much more work than the others and should come first. This is because revision is essential to ensuring that a draft is composed and structured effectively, so that it fulfills its intended purpose and caters to audiences’ expectations. There is also little point in checking for comma placement in a paragraph that might be removed from or rearranged in the final draft.

Revising to Enhance Readability

Anything that you write is designed to be read. That is its first and foremost purpose. Thus, increasing means increasing the functionality of your document in terms of both content and document design, thereby making it “user friendly.” If your document is difficult to read because the vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraphing, organization, or formatting is unclear, your reader will likely stop reading.

The revision checklist in Table 10.1 offers a step-by-step process for revising your document to achieve a readable style. It incorporates key information from Chapter 2: Rhetorical Situation, Chapter 6: Organization, and Chapter 7: Design. Implementing this checklist means doing several “passes” or individual reviews  over your document, looking at different aspects each time. Typically, you will start with higher-order concerns and progress to smaller, more detail-oriented issues. For example, in your “first pass,” review the entire document for structural elements such as overall formatting, content requirements, organizational patterns, and coherent flow of information. Once you have addressed these concerns, your “second pass” might focus on your use of topic sentences and individual paragraph organization. The checklist below is intended as a brief overview of things to watch for, but the items in the list are not all of equal importance, and some items needing revision may become apparent during multiple steps in the process. The information in the later “Revision Techniques” section of this chapter will help you identify concepts across the spectrum of structure-level revision and sentence-level editing that you should keep in mind.

Table 10.1. Revision checklist.

Revision Checklist
First Pass: Document-level review (structural-level revision)
  • Review specifications to ensure that you have included all required content.
  • Make sure your title, headings, subheadings, and table/figure labels are clear and descriptive. Headings should clearly and efficiently indicate the content of that section; figure and table captions should clearly describe the content of the visual.
  • Make sure ideas flow in a logical order and explanations come in a timely manner.
  • Make sure each paragraph begins with a topic sentence that previews and/or summarizes the content to come.
  • Add/use coherent transitions to link one point logically to the next.
  • Review placement and purpose of any visuals such as tables, illustrations, or artistic elements
Second Pass: Paragraph-level review (mid-level revision and editing)
  • Cut unnecessary or irrelevant information for your intended audience.
  • Make sure you are using an appropriate tone (neutral, objective, constructive, formal).
  • Locate and define key terms relative to your audience: experts can tolerate complex information with a lot of terminology; general readers require simpler, less detailed descriptions/explanations.
  • Review and revise any overly long or short paragraphs (5–10 lines long is a reasonable guideline).
Third Pass: Sentence-level review (sentence-level editing, part 1)
  • Review sentence length. Consider revising sentences longer than 25 words. Vary the length and structure of sentences.
  • Examine ratio of verbs to number of words per sentence. Generally, the higher ratio of verbs to total words in the sentence, the stronger the sentence.
  • Identify and replace vague, passive verbs and forms of "to be" (is/are/was/were/being) where feasible.
  • Replace verbs such as “make,” “do,” ‘have,” and “get” that have multiple possible meanings with more precise wording.
  • Examine and clarify any vague Actor/Action (or Subject-Verb) relationships.
  • In general, keep the subject and the verb close together, and keep the verb near the beginning of the sentence.
Fourth Pass:
Word-level review (sentence-level editing, part 2)
  • Replace abstract, generalizing, and vague terms with concrete, specific, and precise words.
  • Remove filler phrases and unnecessary emphasizers.
  • Use a single word instead of a phrase whenever possible.
  • Remove and revise clichés, colloquial expressions, and slang.
  • Review second person (“you”) pronouns; remove unless you have a strong reason for keeping them.
  • Replace any “ad speak" with objective, measurable descriptors.

If your document incorporates sources, you will want to do an additional “pass” to make sure that all sources are cited properly and that they all appear in your list of References or Works Cited at the end of the document. You also should make sure all sources in your list of References or Works Cited are used and appropriately cited/referenced within the body text. See Chapter 12: Avoiding Plagiarism and Citing Sources Properly for details.

This text was derived from

Last, Suzan, with contributors Candice Neveu and Monika Smith. Technical Writing Essentials: Introduction to Professional Communications in Technical Fields. Victoria, BC: University of Victoria, 2019. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/technicalwriting/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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Revising vs. Editing by Suzan Last; Kalani Pattison; Matt McKinney; Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt; and Claire Carly-Miles is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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