The Best Revision Tool Ever

I’ve come across and taught many revision procedures in my time, but this one towers above all the rest. It was first articulated by Peter Elbow, and I received it from Jamie Hutchinson. I give the lineage of this technique because it possesses that timeless quality of a teaching that operates on multiple levels simultaneously and regardless of specific context—similar to the practice of using “I” statements—and because, when employed properly, it opens up writing like only truth can. I have used this process successfully in several areas outside academic writing: creative writing, understanding and evaluating art, directing plays, and coaching clients.

This tool originated as a “Peer Response” procedure (generally in groups of 3–4 students) which I will summarize forthwith. If you practice it regularly and get it into your blood, you can become able to use it all on your own, as I often do.

Peer Response Process

Rules: “The writer is always right. The reader is always right.” Nevertheless, the writer is in charge of the proceedings. Thus, the following is all addressed to you, the author.

Read your piece aloud. Always aloud. Never distribute your writing for silent reading.

There is almost always a powerful impulse for everyone in the group to plunge themselves into uncommunicative isolation by reading the piece individually in silence. For those responding to your writing, taking in your language (words) through the sense of sight is a significantly different cognitive experience from taking in language through the sense of hearing. The sense of sight tends to objectify, divide and classify what it perceives, whereas the sense of hearing tends to be experienced inside our heads. For your purposes, you want sympathetic, understanding responses. Let divide-and-classify come after your writing is published. Without the hearing, the quality of your authorial voice will be easily overlooked and misread. Similarly, hearing yourself speak your own words is a substantially different experience from reading them silently.

Read your piece aloud at least twice. Never once. Always two times—or more.

Another temptation is to read the piece aloud once through, and then let the critiquing begin. This doesn’t work, because the sentences and paragraphs your listeners hear after they’re already familiar with what’s coming are completely different from the sentences and paragraphs they hear for the very first time. Similarly, for you, reading a piece aloud for the first time is almost always about performance and nerves, and little if anything in your own writing is actually heard by you; but the second time around is often quite fruitful; you begin to hear nuances you hadn’t noticed before. So, read your piece aloud at least twice. At any point in the stages that follow, anyone in your group may request additional readings of the whole or any part of the piece, and you may at any time spontaneously decide to read aloud again; the more readings, the merrier.

The first reading is just for the listeners to get an overall sense of what the piece is about. The second and subsequent readings are for them to pay attention to details of language, images, ideas, feelings, intentions. (Also, after the first reading, your listeners may take notes.) After the second reading, lead your group through the following steps.


  • Steps 1–3 are to be performed by all the listeners of the writer’s group.
  • Repeated responses are valuable and not to be withheld—i.e. “I was going to say what she said” is not a valid response. If a listener heard what she heard, that listener should repeat it! It’s crucially important for you, the writer, to hear it more than once if the same response arose in more than one person.
  • Precision is required: your listeners must use the language given below. Why? Because it’s magical and it works. Think of it as a magic spell: say “Abraca-DOH!-bra” and nothing happens.)

Step 1. Positive Pointing: “I noticed/liked…”

Each member of your group, in turn, quotes—verbatim—words and/or phrases from your piece to you: specific language from the writing that particularly struck or impressed or simply stayed with them. The reasons for their quoting back what they do are irrelevant and distracting; stay focused here: you need to hear what parts of your language resonated in them, regardless of why.

Most important: verbatim quotes. Listeners often want to paraphrase: “I liked the part about…” Paraphrases use their language, not yours, and this is about your language, not theirs. You need to know that your words were heard, and which words and phrases in your writing have sticking power—for good or ill. Again, the listeners’ reasons are irrelevant and will mostly introduce impurities into the process. (Reasons for listeners’ responses will become important once you begin asking your own questions—see step four, below.)

2. Center of Gravity: “I hear this saying…”

This is when your listeners “say back” to you what they hear as “the source of energy, the focal point, the seedbed, the generative center of the piece” (Elbow and Belanoff, Sharing and Responding). Surprise, surprise, often this is not your intended main idea, but a segment, image, or anecdote where your writing feels more impassioned, more personally charged—i.e. what’s really on your mind and in your heart concerning the subject—whether or not you were aware of it while writing.

The utility of emphasizing center of gravity over thesis is powerful: It is easy (especially when under pressure to write something for a good grade) to jump to a hasty, underdeveloped thesis with no center of gravity, whereas a substantial center of gravity—precisely because it is heavy with meaning for the author—has zero tolerance for a weak thesis.

The easiest clue for where your listeners (and you) should look for the center of gravity is the language they quoted in step one: those passages drew them in because those passages have the force of gravity.

3. Active Listening: “I’d like to hear more about…” and “Have you considered… ?”

(Author, please insist that all suggestions in this step begin with either the words “I’d like to hear more about…” or “Have you considered… ?” Those phrases keep the authority of the writing firmly with you without diluting it.)

This is your listeners’ opportunity to share two powerful things with you:

  1. “I’d like to hear more about…”: Having articulated what rumblings and nascent ideas and images they hear emerging in step two, your listeners now suggest, based on their genuine interest (genuine not feigned interest is critical!), what you could develop further—what they felt they wanted or needed that is already rumbling in the piece and might be given full voice.
  2. “Have you considered…”: Alternative choices—suggestions of changes—that could strengthen what the piece is trying to say.

If your listeners become too insistent, gently remind them that this piece is your creation, your baby, and you’re responsible for its growth and wellbeing.

4. Author’s Questions

Finally it’s your turn! Ask your group any questions you want about your piece and how to revise it. If you think of a yes-or-no question, first turn it around so the answer will be fuller than a simple “yes” or “no”: for example, instead of “Was my paper clear?” (“No.” Awkward silence.), ask “What parts were clearest?” and possibly add “Where could I be clearer?”

Here is a list of suggested author’s questions from Jamie Hutchinson:

  • What do you hear lurking in this piece (what’s just beneath the surface)?
  • What does it make you feel? Where [in your body] and why?
  • What do you want to hear more about?
  • What kinds of connections do you hear in it? What connections do I still need to make?
  • What don’t you understand? What seems unclear?
  • What holds this piece together?
  • Who does my audience appear to be? Friends? Teachers? Strangers?
  • What’s your favorite part? Least favorite part? Why?
  • What seems unnecessary to the piece?
  • Where do you lose interest as you listen to it?
  • What would you remember about it tomorrow?
  • Where could I use more detail, more examples?
  • What theme(s) do you hear in the piece?
  • Which sections need more development?
  • What tone of voice do you hear in it?

Further Questions to Consider

Again, from Jamie, questions for you, the writer to ponder:

  • What kind of response do you want from your reader?
  • What feels “risky” to you about writing this piece?
  • What do you most care about in what you’ve written?
  • What would you like someone to get out of reading this piece?
  • Where does your voice feel strongest to you in this piece?
  • How will you know when this piece is finished?
  • What was the color of the sky when you…?

As with all deep processes, this one deepens with practice. Enjoy!


How to Proofread

Proofreading appears far from foolproof. Even if we can proofread other people’s writing just fine, we tend to miss the simplest mistakes when proofreading our own work.

Well, here is a tried and true, foolproof proofreading1 technique:

  1. Proofread your paper backward. Not like this: “.drawkcab repap ruoy daerfoorP” (silly!)—but sentence by sentence, from the end of the conclusion back to the beginning of the introduction. Proofread the last sentence, then the penultimate (second-to-last) sentence, then the antepenultimate (third-to-last) sentence, and so on.
  2. Read each sentence twice, both times out loud:
    • The first time, read and listen to the whole sentence. Actually use your vocal chords when you move your lips. Read it the way you mean it; read it expressively. Does the sentence say what you want it to say? Does it sound good to you, or does something sound not quite right? Does the punctuation structure the rhythm and meaning the way you want them? (you know, commas for pauses, question marks for questions, etc.). If something sounds off, look away from the page and say, out loud to the air, what you mean. If you need to, rewrite the sentence completely on a separate piece of paper until you get it the way you want it, and only then revise it in your essay.
    • The second time, read the sentence out loud slowly, and point to every single word as you speak it. Many people find this incredibly hard to do. They read at a normal or impatient pace and glide their pencil across the words like a seagull, maybe hovering for a split second over every third or fifth word. That won’t work. At all. Read. every. word. as. if. it. were. its. own. complete. sentence,. and. point. rudely. at. each. word. If you do, you’ll discover all kinds of things you missed on the first pass, like words that you thought were there but aren’t, mismatching pronouns, misspellings, typos (sometimes mind of funny ones [kind of]), and more.

The above method of proofreading works, and it works for good reasons.

Proofreading is checking to make sure that the writing came out correctly on the page. Not surprisingly it only works when you see the words that actually are on the page. And, surprisingly, this is exactly what we do poorly when proofreading our own work. We—all of us.

When we read our own writing, we’re not entirely reading what’s on the page; we are involuntarily replaying in our minds what we were thinking when we wrote it. And we thought the page correctly (as far as we could tell, anyway). So when we read—or rather replay the thoughts of—our writing, the words seem just as correct as when we first thought them.

This is why we usually are able to proofread other people’s writing quite well. The writing came out of somebody else’s head, not ours, and so we actually see the words on the page in front of us.

One key to proofreading your own writing and actually finding and correcting errors is to separate what you wrote from your original thinking. That’s why you proofread from the last sentence to the first: reading backward completely disrupts that original thought process.

Another key to proofreading effectively is to compare the words on the page to what they ought to be. We can do this by using not only one but two of our senses, seeing and hearing. Proofread out loud and you can compare what you are seeing on the page to what you are hearing in your head. So speak up!—at least enough to hear yourself clearly.

Finally, we need to proofread on two levels, the macro and the micro, the forest and the trees. Each sentence is a complete thought. Reading the sentence aloud for sense, you can hear whether the thought is complete or incomplete, whether it is syntactically and structurally sound, whether its tenses and references are consistent, whether it communicates exactly what you mean. But while concentrating on meaning (i.e. grammar), it is easy to miss small mishaps on the level of individual words and even individual letters (i.e. mechanics). Pointing to each word focuses your attention on the small stuff. Pointing and reading aloud enables you to focus on small stuff and compare what you’re seeing with what you’re hearing. This is why you have to go slowly and point at each word, one at a time. Reading at a normal pace and gliding the pencil across the words has no effect; all you’re doing is creating a blurry comparison, and distracting yourself by waving your pencil, to boot.

This all might sound like an awful lot of trouble. It does take a long time to proofread thoroughly, and after you’ve spent hours writing, it can be excruciating to read the damn thing again—out loud—backward—twice. It’s one thing if you’ve been getting D’s or F’s on papers because of grammatical and mechanical errors; then you’ll want to beef up your proofreading efforts as much as you can. But what if you’re not losing grade points, or only losing what you can live with losing? What if your writing is clear enough for the professor to be able to work out what you meant to say by mentally correcting your grammar for you while reading your paper? Why put in the extra time doing something that—as far as I know—no one enjoys?

Self respect, and the respect of your reader, in that order. That’s why.

Your writing, all writing, has content and form. Broadly speaking (for the purposes of this argument), the information and ideas are the content, and the grammar and mechanics constitute the form that expresses that content. Presenting writing that has errors because you didn’t take the time to find and correct them is analogous to showing up at a party with your butt crack showing and a booger dangling from your nose like a lost participle. Does presenting yourself this way make you a bad person? No, but the presentation is slovenly. An unproofread paper shouts: “I don’t care enough about my own thoughts to care for them, to make them clean and presentable to others in the public sphere.” If you don’t think that professors really feel this way about papers that aren’t proofread—and often, at least while reading them, about their authors—then enjoy your stay in Fantasy Land. And I will go out on a limb and claim that many writers, especially students, feel similarly when they present sloppy writing. I know I do. When I dash something off and present it as a final draft to someone without taking the time to clean it up, I feel a kind of shame. Honestly. (God, I hope after saying all this I’ve found and corrected all the errors in this post. It’s the good-faith effort that counts.)

It may be easiest to discern your own feelings about your writing after you’ve presented a final draft that you truly tried your hardest to make pristine; writing that articulates information and expresses ideas precisely as you meant it to do, writing that speaks what you had in mind, felt in your heart, and intended to communicate. Expect feelings like satisfaction, pride, and authority.


  1. This assumes you have already revised and read the paper through for sense. All you’re doing here is catching and fixing errors. 


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