We are our own worst critics. This is a universal truth that applies to most of us. However, when it comes to editing our own essays, this universal truth often gets chucked out the window!
I see it all the time (as a teacher), and I do it all the time (as a student and a writer): we look at a paper we’ve written and don’t know how to begin editing. We think: It’s fine. I don’t know what else to do with it. We could stare at our paper for 17 hours and still miss an ugly typo or fail to see that we left out a critical point. Why is this?! Well to start, many students have just not been taught how to edit an essay!
I think it’s tough for us to critique and edit our own essays for several reasons. First, we’ve been staring at them for so long that we no longer really see what’s in front of us. Second, we’ve been working on them for so long that we lost track of the big picture of our argument and are instead just focusing too narrowly on the components of our essays. And third, some of us struggle to edit our own papers because we literally don’t know what to look for. Whatever the reason, here are a few hacks for how to edit an essay.
How to edit an essay (that you wrote!)
1. Drastically reformat the paper. If you’re typing your essay, change the font style, the font size and perhaps even the font color. Then print it out and edit the paper version. Making these small visual changes can have a huge impact on drawing attention to parts that need revision.
2. Read your paper aloud, to yourself and to someone else. When we read our essays aloud, we hear how they actually sound instead of how we imagine they sound. Huge difference! Also, hearing our papers read in another voice provides us with another opportunity to catch errors that we otherwise would have missed.
3. Use a checklist. A real checklist. On paper. Use this checklist to make sure you edit the paper for proper punctuation, capitalization, spelling, word usage, citations, pronouns, subject-verb agreement, and fragments/run-ons. If you’re unsure about any of these rules, look them up. Here’s a very basic editing checklist to get you started if you’re not comfortable making your own. Or here’s another one.
4. Put the paper away for 24 hours. I recommend editing your essay at least a day after you finish writing it. Giving your brain this time in between will allow you to see your work in a different, clearer light.
5. Stick your introduction paragraph above every body paragraph. To edit for flow, read each body paragraph as if it came directly after your introduction paragraph. This won’t work for long and complicated papers, but for a basic ELA essay, this strategy can really help you check if your body paragraphs align with your introduction and thesis. Don’t know how to write a thesis? Here’s some thesis tips.
6. Read from the bottom up. To edit each body paragraph for clarity and content, read the essay from the bottom up. Correct, doing this will make your essay make no sense. But it’s a super cool hack for helping you to focus on editing one paragraph at a time without getting side-tracked by how the paragraphs connect to one another.
Final notes on editing essays
Knowing how to edit an essay is a school habit that takes some tweaking for each individual. Some writers like to edit as they go, and others prefer to throw everything on paper and then edit it later. Whatever. You do you! But no matter your editing style, these hacks should help stop the careless errors from slipping right by you.
For what it’s worth, my favorite tips (because they’re effective and quirky) are numbers 1 and 6. I personally catch so many errors and “weird spots” when I do these two things. I challenge you to try at least those two editing hacks when revising your own papers.