Learning to be a better writer

William Germano’s (2021) book, “On revision: The only writing that counts” is a wonderful addition to an academic writer’s library. In seven chapters, Germano advises writers on how to think about “revision”—the process by which we all some of us many of us struggle to make our writing clearer and develop stronger arguments. For anyone working on a “revise and resubmit”, take heart! Germano’s book provides some inspiration for thinking through what to do during the revision process about how to revise our manuscripts. Targeted specifically toward academic writers, Germano begins by imploring readers to first reflect on what they have, what they know, and what they want to say better (p. 8). He then outlines numerous practical strategies to revise writing and to think about the arguments we develop. Germano’s writing is reader-friendly, and at under 200 pages, the book is a quick read.

Germano’s book focuses on revising and re-writing what we have already written, rather than how to write (for more on academic writing, see Germano, 2001). He argues that revising involves a process of “not merely re-understanding what you’re writing but also re-understanding, by extension, your relation to a set of ideas that are moving through what you have put down on paper” (p. 11). He stresses the importance of listening to our words: “not just the words themselves but their layers and origins, their gaps and pauses, the big and small shapes into which they form ideas” (p. 16). 

Chapter Two reminds us readers that revision is neither correcting nor proofreading (p. 26). Rather, Germano argues that “good writing is persuasive writing” (p. 28). Chapter Three shows writers how they can come to first know what they have. Germano provides some tips – those of Tips include analyzing what we’ve written, creating an inventory of relevant topics, and determining what keywords reflect the content of the writing. By searching for keywords, writers gain a good understanding of how they have organized arguments across larger sections—whether components of an article or chapter or a larger book project. Germano provides guidelines for how to “map” one’s writing through labels, markers, and titles. Chapters Four, Five, and Six present the central components of Germano’s approach to revising. He calls on writers to imagine their work as “located along three axes: argument, architecture, audience” (p. 80, italics in original). Germano asserts that there are three kinds of academic argument, those of presenting (1) what we don’t understand (i.e., figuring something out); (2) what we understand to be wrong (i.e., correcting errors); and (3) what we didn’t know was an it (i.e., inventing a problem to examine) (p. 87). In Chapter Four, Germano provides concrete strategies that writers can use to clarify and revise arguments. To effectively present an argument, Germano argues, one must present text in “the right shape for presenting the idea”—or what he refers to as “architecture” (p. 109). In Chapter Five, Germano provides questions to ask of one’s writing that will assist in finding the most effective way to present an argument (e.g., “Why does my text have the shape it does?”; “What happens on page 1 and why?”; “Where is the crucial thought most clearly expressed?” “Could someone other than me summarize what I wrote?”, pp. 116-121). Chapter Six reminds readers to attend to their audience. Germano suggests that readers want something to chew on, something to make them turn the page, the author’s attention, the dots connected, and smoothness in writing (pp. 152-157).

Germano concludes the book by contemplating how to start and finish. He quotes James Baldwin on knowing when to finish: “It’s very painful. You know it’s finished when you can’t do anything more to it, though it’s never exactly the way you want it” (Baldwin, cited by Germano, 2021, p. 187). He suggests making your writing the “best you can” and then letting it go (p. 187).

I have been reading this book in the midst of revising two manuscripts and found it really helpful to think about the process of revision. This book is one that I will use in my own writing practice, as well as in working with students. Perhaps it will be helpful to you too! So if you are not quite sure what to do with that “revise and resubmit,” or you are working on a manuscript that you can’t quite finish, Germano’s book “On revision” offers practical strategies for how to think about your writing, and what to do next.

All the best with revising your manuscripts.

Kathy Roulston


Germano, W. (2001). Getting it published: A guide for scholars and anyone else serious about serious books. The University of Chicago Press.

Germano, W. (2021). On revision: The only writing that counts. The University of Chicago Press.

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