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What to do with a First Draft

OK: one way or another—whether by working along steadily day by day or by pulling an all-nighter—you’ve managed to write that paper that’s due in a couple of days.  Whew!  What an effort! Glad that’s over!  Time to move on to another assignment, right?


Sorry, but it’s not quite that simple.  The paper you’ve produced is not the final, finished product; it never is, even for experienced writers.  It’s what is referred to in writing classes as a first draft, which certainly requires a lot of work, but which is only the first version of what will gradually become a better, more polished, more effective piece of writing.


This is not intended to minimize your work so far.  Now that you’ve got a first draft, you have taken a big step in your writing assignment—once upon a time this draft was just a blank screen (or piece of paper) and you didn’t know what was going to fill it up.  But you’ve succeeded in producing this draft, and you deserve congratulations for filling up that blank space.  Good job!


Now, though, you’re ready to read over this draft with an eye toward revising it before submitting it to your instructor.  And what is revising?  Many students believe that revising is the rewriting that their instructors permit them to do after a paper is submitted and graded, in order to receive a better grade.  This is indeed one form of revising, and maybe it’s the one you’re most familiar with.  However, the type of revising we’re discussing here takes place before you turn a paper in—it’s the revising you perform on your first draft.


In the jargon of the writing trade, there are three essential elements to revising: revising content, editing, and proofreading.  Here are some checklists from Lynn Quitman Troyka and Douglas Hesse’s Quick Access/Reference for Writers (6th edition)–the edition you probably already own—to help you with your revision strategies.


  1. Revising Content [rechecking all the basics of the paper's content]

1     Is your essay topic suitable and sufficiently narrow?

2     Does your thesis statement communicate your topic, focus, and purpose?

3     Does your essay show that you are aware of your audience?

4     Are there places where your reader would be confused or need more information?

5     Are there places where a skeptical reader would object to your argument or not be convinced?

6     Is your essay arranged effectively?

7     Have you checked for material that strays off topic?

8     Does your introduction prepare your reader for the rest of the essay?

9     Do your body paragraphs express main ideas in topic sentences as needed?  Are your main ideas clearly related to your thesis statement?

10  Do you provide specific, concrete support for each main idea?

11  Do you use transitions and other techniques to connect ideas within and between paragraphs?

12  Does you conclusion give your essay a sense of completion?



  1. Editing [correcting issues with grammar, spelling, punctuation, conciseness, documentation, etc.]

1     Are your sentences concise (see our previous January 2012 blog for information on conciseness)

2     Are your sentences interesting?  Do you use parallelism, variety, and emphasis to increase the impact of your writing?

3     Have you used exact words?

4     Is your usage correct and your language appropriate?

5     Have you avoided sexist or stereotypical language?

6     Is your grammar correct?

7     Is your spelling correct?

8     Have you used commas correctly?

9     Have you used all other punctuation correctly?

10  Have you used capital letters, italics, abbreviations, and numbers correctly?

11  Have you used the appropriate citation and documentation formats?


  1. Proofreading [line-by-line review of final draft for any overlooked errors]

1     Proofread with a ruler held just under the line you are reading so that you can focus on one line at a time.

2     Start at the end of a paragraph or the end of your essay and read each sentence in reverse order or word by word, to avoid being distracted by the content.

3     Read your final draft aloud so that you see and hear errors; look carefully for omitted letters and words as well as for repeated words.

4     Keep lists of spelling, punctuation, or grammar errors that you often make.  (For example, you may know you have trouble keeping to, too, and two straight.) Consult those lists before you revise, edit, and proofread so that you look specifically for those troublemakers.


The checklists above are pretty complete, and if you follow them diligently you’ll likely have done a good job of revising.  Reading Section 10 of Troyka and Hesse (6th edition) will give you more in-depth suggestions and explanations about revising—as we’ve mentioned in other blogs, this is an excellent text for writers, and you probably already own it for your English courses here at Keuka.  So why not use it?


The process of revising a paper before turning it in is, as you can doubtless tell from these lists, somewhat complicated and time consuming.  It requires that you look honestly and objectively at your first draft to see its shortcomings as well as its strengths.  It further requires that you understand the purposes of your paper and can critique them meaningfully.  Finally, it requires that you know (or know how to look up) correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other elements of proper standard English usage.  But when you’ve accomplished these revising tasks, you can submit your paper with pride and with the assurance that you’ve done your best—and that you’ve turned in your best the first time around.  And turning in your best the first time around is good practice for the remainder of your collegiate career, and especially for the working world, where you’ll probably never be given the opportunity to revise a piece of writing after you’ve submitted it.



Do you have a first draft but you’re not quite sure how to revise it?  Do you need some assistance in writing that first draft to begin with?  Academic Success at Keuka (ASK) is here to help you with your writing—from prewriting tips to review of your final draft.  And we can also help you develop more effective time management and study skills.  Come visit us at 301 Hegeman Hall, or call us at 279-5636, to set up an appointment with one of our professional staff or student tutors.  We’ll help you to succeed!

 Submitted by: Jeff Carter, Academic Skill Counsoler, Writing Tutor, ASK Office

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