It has recently been made apparent to me that many college students have no idea how to edit their papers. Many do not edit at all. Some seem to think that a quick glance over will do. However, the wisdom of many authors and a few special nodes will tell you: no one ever writes an excellent first draft. This is a simple guide. I hope it is helpful to some. To be able to follow this guide you will need at least a few days between finishing the first draft of the paper and turning it in for editing. Procrastination breeds bad papers!
Step 1: Put It Away
When you are done writing your paper, put it away. Go do something else: eat a sandwich, hang out with friends, go to bed. Spend at least a few hours in which you are not thinking about what you have written. If you have time, don't look at the paper until a day or two later.
Step 2: Re-Read SLOWLY
Now that your mind is rested, it is time to re-read your paper. Sit down somewhere quiet, and slowly read your paper out loud to yourself. By doing this you will be forced to notice things like spelling errors and the more obvious grammatical errors. Also, reading it out loud slowly will give you a good idea of how your paper flows. If it is hard or awkward to read a sentence, then it needs revision. This will help you identify things like sentence fragments, and run-on sentences. Make sure your thesis statement is clear and properly reflects your argument. This is also a good time to make sure you have citations in all the proper places and they are in the correct format. Some people suggest reading your paper backwards or using two blank sheets of paper to block off all but the part of the paper you are reading to help you focus on a single sentence at a time.
Step 3: Share it
After making your revisions, give your paper to at least two other people for revisions. Make sure they both have a copy they can mark up with their comments. I find it is helpful to give your paper to at least one person who has little or no former knowledge of your paper topic. Their input can help with the clarity of your paper. It is often easy to make assumptions about what your reader knows while writing. The second editor (or even both) should have a good handle on style and grammar. They should see things you have missed like sentence fragments, misused words, and other errors. They can also give you advice on organization and syntax in your paper. The more perspectives you get, the better.
Step 4: Edit it AGAIN
Consider the suggestions your chosen editors have made. Correct the errors they have pointed out. If you are unsure if their advice is correct, you can always look it up online. This is a time for more finely tuned editing. Make sure you do not switch between active voice and passive voice (ex: Active: A dog ate my paper. Passive: My paper was eaten by a dog). Also check for subject-verb agreement.
Helpful Editing Sources:
These are some helpful resources to have around when you are writing and editing your papers:
- A dictionary and thesaurus. This may seem obvious, but it is important enough to mention anyway.
- The Elements of Style: by Strunk and White. The timeless classic. This book is concise, well written, and infinitely useful.
- The guidebook of your chosen or assigned writing style. For most college papers this will be either APA or MLA. If you don't have a handbook, many of the APA and MLA style guides can be accessed through the internet.
- Libraries and professors often provide writing guides which can be very helpful. Check to see if these kind of resources are available.