A Step-By-Step Guide to Essay Editing

essay editingEditing an essay can be done in a systematic way, though most students unfortunately do not follow any specific procedure while editing their essays. Trying to perfect an essay through a step-by-step method is more effective than just glancing at it a few times before submitting it to your teacher. Below is a guide on how to edit essays in the most effective and efficient way.


Step 0: What, a step 0? Well, this is just a reminder about the essentials:

  • It is recommended to print out each draft of your paper that you work on to make editing a more visceral experience.
  • Read your writing out loud to involve more senses in the editing process. The more senses you involve, the easier it will be to spot mistakes.
  • Read slowly and deliberately instead of speeding through the process. Take in each word and punctuation mark.
  • Give yourself breaks between edits to refresh your mind and to be able to look at your new draft with new eyes.
  • Make sure you go through at least three drafts of your essay.

Now that we got that over with, here are the actual steps.

Step 1: Look over your instructions.

You won’t believe how many times, even after two or three edits, students will find out that they have missed whole sections to include. Even worse, this happens sometimes right before the deadline! So, it is ideal to look over your instructions and requirements for the essay before doing any real editing work. Make sure your essay complies with the requirements in all detail. Say your teacher wants you to have three topics mentioned in your thesis statement. If you include two or four, you are not meeting the requirements. There is no use in playing with or trying to work around your teacher’s instructions. Do your best to follow the criteria according to its exact details. If you notice something is missing or that you added something that is not mentioned in the criteria, then fix these issues.

Step 2: Check out the main ideas

The first time you edit, you should not be too worried about miniscule issues like comma placement and a repetition of a word. Instead, concentrate on whether or not your main ideas are clearly expressed through your organization and phrasing. An essay is a formal document written to communicate a message. The most important aspect of an essay is whether or not you have communicated your main ideas, as without achieving this, your essay is useless. At this point, you should adjust your thesis statement, check out if your paragraphs flow smoothly, if your paragraphs are arranged in the right order to convey your message, and that your conclusion is more than just a summary (it should be more of a synthesis of what has been discussed in the essay and what this information means to the reader). The introduction is often struggled with, as not only are they difficult to write, but they are also tough to edit. Though the thesis statement is the most important sentence in the introduction, the hook and background information should flow well with the help of transitions. All information you present should be seamless, in that there are no awkward jumps in topics.

Step 3: Work on the content

At this interval, you should look at the meat of your writing: the examples, the quotations, your main phrases of interest, and the topic sentences you included. Many times, when we look back at our essays, we find that we can get better examples, quotations, phrases, and topic sentences to replace our existing content. Try not to be lazy and settle for the minimum, or less than that, just because you have already included something. In writing an essay, it is a normal part of the process to cut things and add new information. This step is often an easy task, as writers commonly look at and record many examples to use, quotations to insert, and ideas that were thought of before. Sometimes, it is only a matter of copying and pasting such information into your essay from a document you made for research and/or outlining.

Step 4: Check the thesis statement and organization again

Before jumping to work on looking at the finer details, it is best to once again check your thesis statement and organization after changing it (possibly radically) from the first draft. Read through your essay as a reader and see if the ideas make complete sense and if you are impressed by the reasoning and flow of the organization of thoughts. If you are satisfied with it, make changes accordingly to the thesis statement, transitions, and how paragraphs are arranged.

Step 5: Work out the phrasing

Read each sentence and see if it flows well. The word order should sound natural, with no awkward syntax. In addition, you should not overuse a thesaurus and insert the most complex words possible. Do your best to be communicative. There is no need to try to show off your vocabulary, or try to drown meaning in verbiage. Reading your essay out loud will allow you to spot such mistakes easier.

Step 6: Take a look at your tone and writing voice

The tone for essay writing is commonly formal, so if you’re using contractions, slang, and texting language, there is a need to change this. Furthermore, your writing voice can vary depending on the essay. Say you are writing a persuasive essay—you cannot write this in the same way you would write an expository essay. You need to write in a convincing manner. Your writing voice should match the content and purpose of the essay. Once again, it is good to look back at your criteria to be entirely certain what tone and voice you should use. If you make tonal and vocal errors, readers can be easily thrown off, and your meaning will not be properly conveyed.

Step 7: Be a grammar technician

Now is your time to check tense, prepositions, articles, conjunctions, interjections, nouns, verbs, pronouns, and so on. Check if each word in your essay makes grammatical sense. If your essay does not create meaning through grammar, then your essay will not be meaningful. Once again, it is key to read slowly in order to take in each word.

Step 8: Examine your punctuation

Punctuation can make or break a sentence. Each punctuation mark conveys a meaning and a mood. If you use a semicolon where a comma should be, for example, not only will your readers be distracted from your message, but they might get confused about what you are trying to say. Make sure to check the punctuation you use and to consider its accuracy. Also, some people have a habit of leaving out punctuation. Also, check if you have left out commas, periods, and the like while writing your essay.

Step 9: Read it one last time

Now that you have gone through all the official steps, you should print it out one more time and give it one more read with a red pen in hand to mark mistakes or areas to improve. It is best to give yourself at least a 15-minute break between edits to complete this last step. Preferably, a day is given to rest the mind to look at it freshly.

Step 10: Give it to a trusted person to read over

This trusted person can either be a tutor, friend, or colleague you believe has an eagle eye for catching mistakes in writing. You should not give your essay to a person at random. Print out a copy for him or her to read and mark up with his or her comments. Ideally, you can receive comments from several trusted individuals. This way, the commentary would be more comprehensive and valued.

Step 11: Check over the commentary from your trusted person

After you get commentary back from your friend, tutor, or colleague, look at what they have to offer, and fix your essay accordingly. You should consider each remark, weighing whether you should agree or disagree with the statements. There is no room for bias or pride: try to weigh the correctness of the remarks based on logic, rules, and gut reaction. You can even speak with your reader(s) firsthand to get a direct impression from him or her. Remind your reader to be completely honest and to not hold any criticism back. Editing requires you to be hard on yourself and your writing. In a way, you should be detached about what you write, seeing it rather as a product people are going to read, rather than something treasured by you (even though this may be the case).

Step 12: One last check, and formatting

Print out your essay one more time and read it over with the criteria in mind. Double check if you have met all the requirements, and that the formatting is the way it is supposed to be. Look at your citations and references list to guarantee that it is following the correct style (MLA, APA, Chicago, or another one). Finally, after this step, you are now done with the perfect edit!