4 steps to expert essay editing

Revising, editing and proofreading your way to excellent essays

Apply Icon - Pencil and paperMany students think of editing their papers as a one-step process, but in order to hand in truly polished work, it’s important to effectively employ all three critical players of the 'Essay Cleanup Crew’: revising, editing and proofreading.

When it comes to cleaning up your next paper, Geneve Champoux, Writing and Learning Services consultant, offers the following tips to make sure you’re getting right down to the baseboards instead of just stuffing dirty socks under the bed.

Step 1: Revising

Think of this step as your chance to bag garbage and move furniture around. Look at your assignment guidelines again. Has your essay addressed all parts of the question? Does your thesis statement clearly answer all parts of the question? Does each paragraph clearly express one idea to support your thesis or argument? Are there gaps in your research? Are some of your paragraphs really long and others really short?

It’s best to revise your paper after you’ve set your first draft aside for at least a day or two. Otherwise, chances are good your mind won’t notice what needs work because you’ll still be thinking about what you meant to write, not what you actually wrote.

Revisions are also easier if you take a literal step back from your writing. Zoom out to 75 per cent or so or print your essay off and lay it out on a table to allow you to see the essay’s larger structure, not just a few paragraphs at a time. You want to get a feel for whether you need to move paragraphs around, cut out unnecessary or repetitive passages, or further explain others.

Step 2: Editing

Now you want to straighten the cushions, de-clutter surfaces, and vacuum up the grit. Have you cited all quotations and paraphrases? How are your transitions between paragraphs and between points within paragraphs? Are some of your sentences awkward or incomplete? Do you fully explain one point before moving on to the next?

Some writers can do this step right after revising their papers, but it’s still a good idea to leave at least a half day or so between revising and editing, especially if you made major revisions.

When editing, read your essay out loud. It’s easier to notice awkward sentences or a lack of transitions when you can hear them.

Step 3: Proofreading

Don’t kid yourself—your instructor will be inspecting for dust, so now’s the time to start wiping down the door frame and getting right into all the corners. Have you used correct grammar and punctuation? Are all your citations formatted properly?

Once again, leave yourself time between editing and proofreading. Also, be prepared to proofread several times over.

To catch more mistakes, you can try several techniques. First, change the font on your paper and print it. Your eyes and mind have gotten used to reading the same paper over and over again, so the aim here is to make your paper look different. (Just make sure to change the font back to whatever your instructor asked for before you submit the paper!) Second, try placing a ruler or blank piece of paper below each line as you read so you’re better able to focus on what’s actually on the page rather than what you think is on the page. Finally, try reading the last sentence first, then the second last sentence, then the third last sentence, and so on. By reading from the bottom up, you’ll be better able to examine each sentence by itself without getting caught up in the context.

Step 4: Still not passing inspection?

If you don’t know what you should be looking for when revising, editing and proofreading, or if your instructors are still saying your papers aren’t making the grade, check out some of the writers’ reference books available in the Library or schedule an appointment with a Writing and Learning Services consultant. We can help you make sure your essay cleaning cupboard stays well stocked.

Looking for more advice?

There are lots of great tips and ideas in our First-Year Student Primer series:

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