Revising or Editing?

by Shannon Naylor

Many students hear “revising and editing” and think of them as synonymous terms. This isn’t the case. While both are practices that improve pieces of writing, revising and editing are actually two different ways of approaching that goal.

  • Revising is intended to help you address the big picture: content, organization, the form and structure of a narrative or argument.
  • Editing, on the other hand, focuses on details like sentence structure, proper grammar, punctuation usage, and other mechanical aspects of writing.

These two activities have a shared purpose and often occur at the same time, but they are separate processes with their own merits.

To illustrate, let’s imagine that a student takes time to revise her paper, but spends no time editing it. She looks over her piece and notices that her introduction and conclusion contain completely different ideas. She re-reads her paper and discovers that her main ideas are better stated in her conclusion, so she rewrites her introduction so that her paper has a unified direction. She also repositions some paragraphs, changing their sequence, in order to strengthen her argument. However, misplaced or missing commas riddle her paper, and several of her citations are formatted incorrectly. She revised, but didn’t edit.

Another student, feeling rushed to finish before a deadline, only edits his paper. He notices and corrects several typos, and adds a citation for a quote he’d overlooked. He realizes that many of his sentences have a repeated structure (it “sounds” a bit monotone). These sentences are improved once he edits them. However, he fails to notice that some of his paragraphs have too many ideas in them. And while his thesis is a clearly written sentence, it doesn’t capture the essence of what he argues in the body of his paper. He has edited, but not revised.

Each paper needs BOTH processes.

I hope that the example of these imaginary students clarifies what revising and editing look like and how they can each improve a paper. Just remember that revising and editing work best when you make time to do them both.


Shannon Naylor is a former Principia writing tutor and the current post-graduate teaching intern in the Center for Teaching and Learning.

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