14 Revising Workplace Documents

Learning How to Revise Workplace Documents

Learning Objectives

Upon completing this chapter, you should be able to

  • describe the role of revision in the writing process;
  • describe the three stages, and their elements, of the revision process;
  • demonstrate the application of the revision process outlined in this module to a sample of your own writing;
  • demonstrate constructive and respectful revision feedback when given a sample of writing.


You may have heard the phrase “Writing is rewriting.” This is just as true for technical and business documents such as the ones often found in organizations. Even the best, most accomplished writers in the world almost never lead with their first draft. Instead, there is a constant process of revision, namely, “(to) examine and improve or amend (written or printed matter).”

In this chapter you will first learn to distinguish revision from rewriting. Then you will learn the three stages of editing for business documents that you can perform once you’ve selected your format and completed a first draft. These include the structural edit, the copy edit, and proofreading. Finally, you will learn about the common tools editors and communicators use to make revising easier and more consistent.

Revision vs. Rewriting

The definition of rewriting is to “write (something) again so as to alter or improve it.” In this module we focus on ways to alter and improve your writing, but we wish to make a distinction between revising and rewriting. For our purposes, rewriting would essentially mean throwing away your draft and starting again, whereas revising would mean making incremental improvements to your draft.

For example, you begin to draft a business letter to a supplier because you have a complaint about recent late deliveries. You address it to the client services department and include referencing numbers dates and times of the late deliveries. You use a formal tone, hoping it will be taken seriously by the client services department. Just then your boss gets back from a conference and she tells you that she wound up having lunch with the director of client services for that very supplier. She said the director was very interested in your experience and wanted something on paper sent directly to him. You now have to decide whether to simply revise the letter or start fresh with a rewrite.

You re-read your draft and realize (1) the audience has changed from a department to a specific person; (2) that specific person is already interested in building/maintaining a relationship; (3) the purpose is no longer to complain but to build a better future relationship by solving past problems, namely, late deliveries; and (4) the tone feels overly formal now, considering the new audience and new purpose. For these reasons you decide to start fresh with a re-write, give the draft to your boss for

review/comments, and then officially begin looking at your document through the lenses of the three stages of revision.

The Three Stages of Editing (Revision)

When you are editing, it can be tempting to try to do everything at once. This is usually a recipe for confusion, fatigue, and missed errors. Instead, go through your draft more strategically, moving from ensuring your big ideas make sense to ensuring you spelled your address correctly. These stages of editing do come in a sequence that can work well for most people, but if you’re already a master editor with a revision style that works for you, that’s fine too. You can still use the following stages in any sequence to ensure your finished document is as polished and professional as possible.

Substantive/Structural Edit

The structural edit aims to make sure that the ideas in the body of your document make sense. At this level you will ask yourself questions like does this paragraph make sense considering my audience and purpose? Is the information complete? This would be the stage that you might want to ensure you’ve covered the Five W’s and one H, as applicable (who, what, when, where, why, and how). You might discover that you need to reorganize some paragraphs to make your ideas clearer or get to the point sooner. But the purpose of the structural edit is to make sure that the substance of your message will be clear and logical.

There are some things to consider regarding structure and purpose. The classic structure for a story includes a beginning, a middle, and an end. The structure for a news report, known as the inverted pyramid, puts all the important information (five W’s and one H) within the first one or two paragraphs. Finally, the classic essay structure includes an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Most business documents use more of an essay style approach that facilitates a polite introduction, a body that includes the issue at hand, and a conclusion that sums up things in a courteous way. As your writing skills advance, you can use or incorporate other structures like story or news to make your writing more dynamic. The more practice you get, the better your writing should become over time.

Copy Edit

While structural editing looks at big ideas mostly at the paragraph level, copy editing usually aims to make corrections at the sentence level. Always keeping the audience in mind, a copy edit should also identify specific areas that may confuse or otherwise put off the audience. At this stage you will keep your eyes peeled for things like subject–verb agreement, sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and other grammatical issues. You will also scan for appropriate tone (formal, informal, positive, negative, polite, etc.) as well as style (active, passive, varied sentence lengths, flow, variety of word, and punctuation choices, etc). Finally, you will correct any misspelled words as well as any punctuation errors.

It is important to note that many places list copy editing as a code for all editing or revision to documents. Sometimes it includes stylistic editing, which is its own editing category according to the Editors’ Association of Canada. Sometimes people also include tasks that fall under proofreading as part of copy editing.


Proofreading assumes that the document is already as correct as can be. At this stage we look for errors within the body of the document, but we also look at the document as a whole for accuracy and correctness. For example, if we are mailing a letter using snail mail, we will want to ensure that the addresses are correct. The easiest way to do a proofread is from top to bottom of the document, ensuring that all the right formatting elements are in place as you go and that the information in the body is uninterrupted by errors or typos. Finally, if there are any enclosures or attachments, the proofreader should ensure that those things are actually enclosed or attached.

In some situations the proofreader may also double as a fact checker if the document happens to contain statistical information, charts, graphs, or other fact-rich information.

While editing or revising a document it is common to become really close to the document, especially if you are also the writer. At that point we tend to see what we think we wrote instead of what’s actually on the page. Though it may not always be possible, it’s very useful to have a fresh pair of eyes to help us revise our work. Peer review is one way to do this. Another useful technique is to put aside the document for a few hours or even a day if there’s time, so that the writer will have a fresh(er) pair of eyes to hopefully catch any mistakes previously missed.

Revisor’s Toolkit

Here is a list of some common and accessible tools that you might find useful as you revise your business documents.

Here is a list of some common and accessible tools that you might find useful as you revise your business documents.


A dictionary will give you definitions and proper spelling of words. Today there are a number of reputable online dictionaries that complement or substitute their hardcopy counterparts, such as Oxford Online Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Dictionary. A thesaurus is great for expanding your vocabulary by supplying synonyms (similar words), related words, and antonyms (opposite words). For example, a search for “everyone” lists “all” as a synonym, “anybody/anyone, somebody/someone” as related words, and “nobody/none/no one” as antonyms (Merriam-Webster online thesaurus).

Style guide/Style sheet

There are some writing conventions that are not necessarily about right or wrong but more about remaining consistent within and across documents. For example, if you want to show that something happened in the morning, would you write 8AM, 8am, 8 a.m., 8 am, or 8 A.M.? In order to keep a consistent style to documents, several popular style guides are available such as the Chicago Manual of Style, The Canadian Press Styleguide, or even the old classic Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Some organizations make their own style guides, known as house style, to keep things consistent with their brand. (Imagine trying to start a sentence with a capital letter at Apple, home of the iPad, iPod, and iPhone!) Similarly, individual writers can also put together a stylesheet to keep track of style decisions in order to keep a document consistent. Some style areas to beware of in business documents include conventions regarding

  • dates (year/month/day vs. day/month/year, etc.),
  • times (24-hour clock vs AM/PM or a.m./p.m.),
  • salutations (“Dear John,” vs. “Dear John:” vs. “Dear John”), and
  • British-based vs. US-based spelling conventions (e.g., colour/color, centre/center, programme/program).

Spell Check/Grammar Check

Most word processing software packages such as Microsoft Word and even newer online, cloud-based tools like Google Docs have spelling and grammar checking features. Normally these are found in the drop-down menu marked “Tools.” This is especially useful for either the copy edit or proofing phase of revision.

On-screen edits (e.g. Track Changes, find/replace)

It is commonly suggested that looking for errors on the printed page is easier than finding them on-screen. However, there is also a push for environmental sensitivity and moving toward “paperless” offices. To help with this process, in addition to spellcheck, consider using tools such as Track Changes in Microsoft Word. This is particularly useful if you are revising written work for your boss or for a colleague who needs to know what changes you’ve made. Also found under the “Tools” drop-down menu, Track Changes allows you to remove/replace words; delete or add words, sentences, or paragraphs; and make other revisions while showing and keeping track of all changes made.

Another useful tool is the find/replace function. Let’s say you want to be sure that you change all spellings of center to centre. You type “center” into the box that says “find,” then type “centre” into the box that says “replace.” You can then decide to “replace all” or replace them one by one as the system finds them throughout your document. This saves time and ensures more accuracy than trying to scan the document with your own eyes. The find/replace function is found under the “Edit” drop-down menu.

Off-screen/Hard-Copy Edits (e.g., Proofreader’s marks)

If you must revise for someone else on actual paper, you may find a guide for proofreader’s marks useful. These marks are fairly standard across all kinds of publishing and pretty easy to understand. They save space and time by using marked symbols to explain what changes need to be made and where. Here is a sample of proofreader’s marks.


In this chapter you learned that the distinction between rewriting and revising was the equivalent of starting from scratch to making improvements to an already existing draft. You reviewed the three stages of editing that are useful during the revision process, including structural editing, copy editing, and proofreading. You then learned about some tools, such as dictionaries, style guides, and onscreen/offscreen editing tools, that help writers and editors to revise workplace documents.

Learning Highlights

  • Rewriting is starting from scratch, whereas revising means making incremental changes.
  • The revision process includes three stages of editing: the structural edit, the copy edit, and proofreading.
  • Structural edit happens at the paragraph level and focuses on the flow of ideas and ensures logic.
  • Copy edit happens at the sentence level and focuses on correcting grammar, punctuation, and style.
  • Proofread assumes the document is done and ensures no further errors remain or were introduced in the editing process.
  • There are several useful tools that help writers to revise effectively, including dictionaries/thesaurus, style guides, on-screen and off-screen editing tools.

Check Your Understanding

Further Reading and Links

If you would like to read more about revision, rewriting, and editing see the following sites: Editors’ Association of Canada professional editorial standards.


Rewrite. (n.d.). In Oxford Dictionaries. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/rewrite

Attribution Statement (Revising Workplace Documents)

This chapter is a remix containing content from a variety of sources published under a variety of open licenses, including the following:

Chapter Content

  • Original content contributed by the Olds College OER Development Team, of Olds College to Professional Communications Open Curriculum under a CC-BY 4.0 license.

Check Your Understandings


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