How to Edit A Paper

So, you’ve overcome writer’s block, and you’ve reached your desired word count. Congratulations!

As you review your draft, however, you might find that it does not (yet) merit an A grade. Papers are rarely excellent in their first version. What your paper likely needs is a good edit. But as any student knows, editing your own work can be exceptionally difficult. Follow these five steps to improve your writing.

1. Walk away.

It may seem counterintuitive, but walking away is a crucial first step. After dedicating several hours to a paper, you become familiar with all of the words you’ve used. To combat this problem, simply walk away for a time. Brew some coffee or tea. Take a nap. Rejoice with friends that the heavy lifting is done. After you can’t recall any specific words or sentences in your paper, come back to it.

This distance will allow you to be more discerning when you critique the paper’s overall content, structure, and grammar. You can refer to the Purdue University Online Writing Center’s Finding Common Errors for further help with basic writing mistakes.

2. Read your paper out loud.

Reading out loud requires you to interpret your work with your ears instead of your eyes. By switching senses, you can better catch any thoughtless mistakes and awkward sentence constructions. If you find yourself running out of breath while reading, consider chopping your sentences into smaller ones. If you find yourself saying the same words over and over, rephrase or delete some of your text. If you get lost between paragraphs, consider adding better information to create clearer transitions.

3. Look at the structure of your content.

When you write first drafts, you may write in a haphazard fury to unleash your thoughts. Be sure to keep track of your paper’s logical progression as you revise. Do the paragraphs flow into each other? Do the thoughts build upon one another? What is your thesis statement? Does every paragraph align with your main argument? Could your paper be more effective if you moved around your supporting points? Could you delete any information without disrupting your thesis? Making sure you have a solid structure will allow you to more clearly articulate your ideas.

If you need help evaluating your structure, make a reverse outline — an outline based on the current text that you wrote. This will help you easily identify if your paper needs additional examples, clearer transitions, or structural changes.

4. Look at your word choice.

Challenge yourself to eliminate unnecessary words as you edit. One way to do this is to use active voice in your sentences. For example, instead of saying, “This concept was invented by John Doe in 1857,” say, “John Doe invented this concept in 1857.” The second sentence is clearer and more concise. Strengthen your word choice wherever you can to turn good sentences into eloquent arguments.

5. Remember whom you’re writing for.

It’s easy to become attached to a specific word, sentence, or paragraph when you’ve put a lot of thought into it. In the editing process, even the parts you love have to come under objective scrutiny. Just like you had to keep the reader in mind while you wrote the essay, continue to think about the audience while you edit the paper. Are your introduction and conclusion strong enough to attract that reader’s attention? Never be afraid to delete and rewrite what you have if you think it will help your reader. You can save your unneeded sentences in a separate document as you revise. Always write for the audience first, even if that sometimes contradicts what you want. As William Faulkner (among others) said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

For more tips on writing a great paper, check out: 7 Ways to Write a Better Essay.


Odegaard Writing & Research Center (n.d.) How to structure and organize your paper. Retrieved from University of Washington

Purdue Online Writing Lab (2010). Steps for revising your paper. Retrieved from Purdue Univeristy

Purdue Online Writing Lab (2010). Finding common errors. Retrieved from Purdue University

University of Minnesota (2011). Editing and proofreading strategies. Retrieved from University of Minnesota

The Writing Center at UNC Chapel Hill (2013). Editing and proofreading. Retrieved from UNC Chapel Hill

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